Butch Cooney (1951-2015)
Butch Cooney was one of an elite band of surfers who came of age in the 1960s and went on to have a major influence on the direction of modern Australian surfing. Following his recent death, Butch's younger brother Steve Cooney sat down with blindboy to share some memories.
So how did you both get into surfing?
My uncle Alan used to come and stay in the house we lived in at Long Reef, the old guesthouse, and he got Butch into surfing and took me down a couple of times. I was pretty young then, four or five, by the time I was nine Butch had got into it fully and built me my first board so it was really a family connection.
Being around Collaroy and Long Reef there were a lot of people around, there was Nat who was still a very good friend of Butch’s up to the end, and Chris his brother and Ted Spencer, all these people around Collaroy Boardriders that encouraged us.
The thing I remember about Butch’s surfing was an incredible fluidity. Where did that come from?
He did have a unique style, really smooth. He was also pretty progressive from what I remember. He showed me a lot about tube riding, which in those days was sitting outside the tube or sitting in front of the tube. Butch was the one who showed me the difference between being outside the tube and inside the tube.
So what sort of boards was that on?
He built me a cut down balsa board from some ten foot log, a 6’10” square tail single fin.
What year was that?
This was early to mid sixties probably 1964 but Butch had been surfing a number of years before I started.
So tube riding of any kind was pretty rare then?
Yeah it was outside the tube for sure, loosely called tube riding. Under the lip they called it. Boards were were big and heavy to handle then. Butch was very involved in the early days of short board reform. He knew McTavish, he knew Nat, he knew Ted Spencer, he knew all these people who were shaping down at Brookvale. He was shaping for Shane and a couple of other manufacturers. Eventually he shaped quite a few boards with Terry Fitzgerald at Hot Buttered.
He was very experimental with his surfboards. He really did try to break the barriers. I remember him trying to make a board that looked like a cuttlefish, with no fins and this was in the sixties we are talking about.
Do you have any particular memories of his surfing?
Butch used to drag me out to places like Car Park Rights when no-one surfed it at North Narrabeen. There would be no-one in the water and he would be dragging me out there on southerly swells. He would get away with stuff that I wouldn’t even have attempted in those days. He was really progressive in that way. Little Narrabeen! There were always good sessions there, surfed that a lot and of course Long Reef ‘cos we lived there, but you sort of outgrow those places and head towards better waves.
So did he compete much?
There’s a photo I can show you, taken by Jack Eden [Ed's note: see photo at top of page], which is a shot of him with a Union Jack on his boardshorts doing a nose stretch type thing at Newcastle, it has become a fairly well known shot, that was in the Australian Championships, in the Juniors. It was 1969 and that was the year that Kevin Brennan won both the Juniors and the Seniors, so Butch got a second. He wasn’t particularly fussed about competition, he did a bit of competition surfing and I’m sure he got some other results but neither of us were really into it…(laughs) I remember him not turning up to a lot of competitons!
Did you get much chance to surf together as time went on?
We surfed together a lot in the first 40 years of our lives. We spent a lot of time in the water together mainly around Sydney. Of course I visited him after he moved to Queensland as well. We also went to Indonesia together, G-Land, West Java, Bali and got some waves, that was only 2005 or something. He was a big fisherman too, he loved to fish, so I used to fish with him a bit as well.
So how would you describe the progression in his surfing?
Well he didn’t really try to conform too much to the modern style of surfing I don’t think he liked the tricks too much. He liked fluid surfing and he liked rail surfing. He really enjoyed the single fin era but one of the last boards he had made was a 6’2’ fish. He always liked surfing a variety of boards but his fond memories were of designing and surfing boards that were rail boards, his big era was when boards were 6’0” to 6’5” with big wide tails on them and big Vs down the centre. He shaped a lot of those types of boards.
Do you see his influence as a surfer and shaper continuing?
It’s interesting you ask that. I got a message from a guy called Tony Bear, who’s now in Costa Rica and he was involved in shaping a board for me with Butch that was 4’6” and it was a double-ended round tail. So I got a message from Tony Bear saying that he still gets requests for that model in Costa Rica. So if he had that sort of influence out of one surfboard, I’m sure that some of the stuff he did left a legacy.
I paddled out to scatter his ashes on a board that Milton Brown had him build in 1976 to surf Bali. It was a typical drawn tail semi-pin single fin, lots of thickness and Milton said he has had that board ever since. He surfed ten foot Nusa Dua on it and taught his kids to surf on it, so there are those sorts of legacies that he does have in the industry.
A Hot Buttered?
No, it had no branding. Milton got him to shape it in his place at Narrabeen then went and got it glassed……(laughs)
...as used to happen! Going back to the beginning though what were the main influences on you both?
Growing up with people around like Nat, Wayne Lynch, and Ted Spencer, they had the biggest influence on me other than Butch. We used to talk about it and analyse what we were doing, how we were surfing, we did that from when I was really young so he was really a great influence. Once he went to Queensland he withdrew a bit from the surfing industry. He wasn’t making boards but was still working with guys like Mike St John and a couple of others just to create his own boards, the boards he wanted to surf.
In terms of his influence I think he only had a couple of opportunities to have his own label, one was at Narrabeen and the other was at Urunga when he went there, so his output was fairly restricted.
Is there anything else you would like to add about him?
Butch was a unique character. Terry [Fitzgerald] posted about him on Hot Buttered International, he ran the Jack Eden shot of Butch. The flag came from when some of the board riding associations amalgamated as North Shore Boardriders. It was a big thing in those days and they all wore those patches on their legs, so Terry ran that shot and did a little piece on him and mentions Car Park Rights and that he used to surf it alone, that was nice!
I think the fact that he was one of those guys who didn’t look to trends, he was more inclined to create the trend and try to be part of the front end instead of catching up with it. He wanted to be in the very forefront of it. He also took his own direction, he was an individualist and that was something that got him a lot of respect in the surfing industry and in life in general.
So many people I know have told me of how highly they regarded him as a human being.
He was staunch, very staunch. If you were a friend of Butch’s, you were a friend for life! He brought up two lovely girls, the girls were there when we scattered the ashes, Kate and Tess. They both surf. The last board Butch had made, Kate had one made just the same and they used to surf together a lot.