Long read: Soaring and exploring with Steve Cohen
The name Steve Cohen remains largely unknown in surfing circles. Steve was a leading surfer, shaper, and explorer yet he left scant evidence of his achievements despite discovering two of Australia’s most famous waves. One is the heaviest wave on the East Coast, the other its most perfect. Reasons for Steve Cohen's anonymity may lay in the fact that just three years after the last discovery, he quit surfing altogether, though his exit wasn’t quite so clear cut. As Steve says of it, “I put the board away and I went surfing in three dimensions”.
The Illawarra Escarpment is the only part of Australia’s Great Dividing Range that touches the sea. Starting just south of Cronulla, the escarpment rises as sheer coastal cliffs that run the length of the Royal National Park before turning inland at Bald Hill above Stanwell Park. From there, the eastern side of the escarpment falls sharply to the coast below, the reefs and points that dot the Illawarra coastline are a product of it’s ancient geology, while the western side slopes gently inland.
I had arranged to meet Steve Cohen over the top of the escarpment at an airstrip carved out of eucalypt forest. Hidden to all but planes passing overhead, the entrance is found by following exhaustive instructions and navigating a maze of back roads. Just when I thought I’d taken a wrong turn, that the thick bush surrounding me couldn’t possibly harbor a working runway, I came across a gate and a sign confirming my arrival. I called the number I’d been given.
Five minutes later a four wheel drive ute pulls up at the gate and I get waved onto the property. I stop to shake hands and introduce myself. Steve is stocky, he has a viking crown of grey hair - longer on the side, balding up top - and he’s pulling keenly on a tobacco rolly. “Just follow me and we’ll pull up behind my hangar.”
Just out of sight from the road the bush abruptly clears and we’re at the end of a tarmac runway perhaps a kilometre long. To the left are a series of aircraft hangars in various shades of Colorbond. Most are shaped like oversized sheds with large sliding doors at ground level, though some have second floor verandahs and viewing rooms that overlook the airstrip. My immediate impression is that of a country club. And it is a private club, the airstrip is funded by members, but any resemblance to a genteel golf club ends when Steve starts in on the stories.
After parking our cars, Steve joyfully recounts how his crazy neighbour once landed his plane in the short side street that runs perpendicular from the airstrip. And in the time it takes to walk from the car to his door he’s told me a few more airborne wild west stories. I interpret them less as braggadocio than as an icebreaker - who doesn’t enjoy some derring-do? - though I also get the impression that ‘fun’ for Steve always involves a transgression: maybe a rule or convention, maybe safety too.
Born in 1950, Steve Cohen grew up around Cronulla, and heading into his mid-teens he was one of the better surfers at Cronulla Point where a melange of surfcraft would gather in big southerly swells: surfboards, skis, paipo body boards, and the ever present bodysurfers. All held court at Second Reef.
“There were more bodysurfers out there than anything else. There were really only three of us board riders out on the big days because so very few people surfed it. There were no legropes of course, but the bodysurfers and bodyboarders would try to save our boards if we lost them.”
The three guys who surfed the point at size were Steve Cohen, Ray Ryan, and Steve Hague - affectionately known as Hag. “He was radical. Borderline insane,” says Steve with a chuckle. Slightly older than the other two, Hag was in possession of a short wheel base Land Rover and drove without any sense of self-preservation, for it or the occupants.
Cronulla wasn’t short of heavy reef breaks and crowds were yet to spoil the experience, but the exploratory pull was strong. “Hag and I were explorers. We’d always be heading out to find new spots, bashing that Land Rover down any track that led to the coast, and sometimes not even tracks.”
During a swell in 1965 they made their first discovery, though it’d be 35 years before the rest of the world caught up. Near the entrance to Botany Bay is Cape Solander, around which a demonic righthander breaks. I needn’t describe it further, everyone has seen footage of the wave which was reborn as Ours near the turn of the century. And despite its current infamy, Steve recalls being underwhelmed at the time.
“The first day we surfed it was probably this big,” he indicates a wave slightly larger than head high, “but it wasn’t all that exciting. It was just a novelty. Cronulla Point was a more favoured wave.” Yet the word got around and within a few swells other surfers, bodysurfers, and paipo riders were also lobbing themselves into the abyss, or they were pulling back. The wave became known as Pikers Hole, and of its many monikers the original remains the best.
That first day was an inconspicuous opening for a wave that Mark Mathews would later claim is “pound for pound the heaviest wave in the world.” When he sees modern footage of the wave, Steve can barely believe it. “I just didn’t think it was a very good spot.” Though they hadn’t discovered perfection, Steve, Ray, and Hag surfed Pikers a few more times before the old exploratory impulse kicked in again.
In late 1965 and early 1966 they began making trips down south, typically bypassing known places for the gaps in the map. The coastline between Ulladulla and Jervis Bay became a happy hunting ground. On one trip they were trying to get to Steamers Beach when Hag’s Land Rover first blew a diff then ran out of petrol. Steve and another guy, Robert Griffiths, flagged a car, got petrol, and went back but Hag and his Landy were nowhere to be seen. There was nothing more to be done, the stranded duo walked and hitched home, arriving back in Cronulla at 3am bitterly cold and tired.
The very next weekend was Easter 1966 and the trio set off again, though this time the goal was Wreck Bay Aboriginal Settlement. In 1965, Aboriginal activists had taken the Freedom Ride but Australia’s first people were still on the very fringes of society. White Australia largely left them alone, which may explain why no surfers had yet stood in the village at Wreck Bay and looked across to the lefthander that peeled off the opposite headland.
During the day we spend together there are few instances when Steve Cohen cracks a smile. “He’s as dry as a Muslim wedding,” says one acquaintance I speak to beforehand. Yet he beams when he recalls that day at Wreck Bay. “It looked good from a distance, so we all paddled across. And from up close it was spectacular.” In the next five minutes that word gets repeated a number of times. “The tubes we had were spectacular. Just unbelievable.”
What was also unbelievable was the timing. Just two months later Bruce Brown’s ‘The Endless Summer’ was released, a movie that tuned surfers everywhere into the search for the perfect wave. Yet Steve, Hag, and Griffo had already found their version, and unlike Cape St Francis they didn’t have to fabricate its quality. Nor did they broadcast its location to the world - though they did tell some friends.
The first surfers in on the deal were Ray Ryan and Rolf ‘Rotten’ Meyer. Those five guys stayed tight-lipped about the find, if any new faces came along they had to ride in the floor of the Land Rover from Nowra onwards. In early 1967 some photos made their way to Jack Eden’s Surfabout for a story called ‘Point Pipeline’’ yet no locations were divulged. The article is attributed to Steve but he’s adamant he wasn’t the author. Most likely the article was the work of an editor using any means to lengthen his list of contributors. But these charades couldn’t last, not with a wave of this quality. The group surfed it for a year figuring out the best conditions for the wave, but their disappearing and reappearing act didn’t go unnoticed, not when they’d hop out of the Landy back in Cronulla grinning like Cheshire cats.
Steve believes the beans were spilled after they were followed all the way from Cronulla. From there a trickle of surfers would swing south whenever the wind blew nor-east, each of them no doubt swearing to keep Aussie Pipe a secret and yet the numbers inexorably grew.
In 1968 Steve was eighteen years old, he was surfing perfect waves and funding his missions with shaping and glassing work. Sometimes at Gordon and Smith and sometimes under his own label, Sybernaut. While Bob McTavish, Nat Young, and Midget Farrelly were revolutionising shortboards and incorporating bottom vee, Steve was running early experiments on bottom rocker and foil. Water could flow in unexpected ways and that was key. That same year Steve met a guy who’d be integral to the next phase of his life - though at the time neither of them would know it.
“I was surfing the left at Sandon Point and got talking to a guy who just came out and said, ‘You oughta come and make boards for me!’”. And Steve promptly did. The guy was Colin ‘Biggsy’ Ashford, a surfer from Stanwell Park who once had a shaping bay at Stanwell Tops, near Bald Hill, but had recently moved to Wollongong. They produced boards under Biggsy’s label, Collins, and because Steve had a bunch of rice paper decals they continued his Sybernauts too.
Surfboards, however, weren’t part of Steve Cohen’s second act. Work was slow during winter so Biggsy and Steve put their spare materials to use and got their kicks waterskiing behind a fibreglass boat they built. “It was called Wrinkle E. Dick - that’s how long we’d spend in the water.” Improbable as it sounds, it was behind a hand built boat called Wrinkle E. Dick that Steve Cohen became an aviating pioneer.
In the late-50s and early 60s, NASA experimented with a flexible wing as a recovery method for satellites returning from space. The idea was abandoned for traditional parachutes but the wing, called the Rogallo Wing, was adopted by water skiers as a way of gliding; they’d hold onto the wing in the manner hang gliders do now and lift off at a certain speed. Most people would hold onto the rope and follow the boat but Steve began to let go and take his own path gliding back down to earth.
“Steve was clearly excited by the possibilities,” recalls Biggsy. “And he was getting a name for himself. I remember once he went out and bought 1,500 feet of rope so he could get more height. We went right up the Shoalhaven River with Steve checking for trees and powerlines, then I got him up on the ski, he took off and up he went. He glided back down to the carpark of radio station 2ST who were reporting the stunt.” Steve also recalls that flight. “I landed right where the reporter was and I don’t know who was more surprised, him or me.”
The history of hang gliding is as complex as the history of surfing - every pioneer has their own version. As Steve puts it, the idea of gliding from a hill rather than a boat came to him from a mate called Phil Berg. "Phil told me I should build a bigger wing to fly off the Cronulla sand dunes.” It worked, he could steer his homemade wing and control the landing, so like any keen learner he sought bigger challenges. Steve bought a topographic map and again he looked for the gaps - except this time he desired cliffs, not empty coastline.
At 650 metres, Saddleback Mountain is one of the tallest peaks in the Illawarra Escarpment. It extends as a promontory from the main ridge toward the coastal towns of Kiama and Gerringong. Despite being heavily wooded the peak was accessible by road, the view looking down on the cleared dairy paddocks of the Jamberoo Valley. It became their new playground. “There was this guy, a local farmer, and when he’d see us up there he’d get out his table and chairs and have cups of tea ready for us when we landed at the bottom.”
Not that the farmer would have much time to boil the billy. Even at 650 metres the longest Steve or anyone in his group would’ve stayed aloft was ten minutes, and only then in a favourable wind. “It was more like five minutes down. Those old hang gliders weren’t very efficient, they flew like a cross between a brick and a crow bar.” Also, their pilots hadn’t yet discovered the updrafts.
In late 1971 Steve, Ray Ryan, and John Ravelle were driving home from Saddleback when they stopped in at Bald Hill - not far from Biggsy’s old Stanwell Tops shaping bay. Steve jumped first. “I just had a little glide down, nothing spectacular.” However, the second session yielded wildly different results. “The wind was quite strong. I’d flown in strong winds before, but never such clean air. I took off and just...stayed up.” Rather than falling with gravity, they each levitated on the wind pushed vertically by the rim of Bald Hill. The discovery of updrafts was a revelation.
“It was beautiful and smooth, and John Ravelle pushed me during that flight. Got me doing 360s, and in the end, instead of flying down to the bottom, we got to land on top of the hill.” Not only were they the first to launch off Bald Hill - they incorrectly thought box kite pioneer Lawrence Hargraves had already made the leap - but it was also the longest continuous flight any of them had made. The fledgling gliders realised that height wasn’t everything, that other factors, mostly unseen, were of equal importance. A big mountain without exposure to good wind was the equivalent of a big wave without any shape.
The early hang gliders made no pact for secrecy. What was the point? No amount of brown corduroy could hide the ten yards of coloured sail cloth that made them look like gliding peacocks. People were going to notice, but they assumed the inherent dangers of hang gliding would regulate the numbers. Yet danger be damned, the numbers came. The years 1973 to 1975 were hang gliding’s boom years when new spots were flown - including Warriewood and Long Reef on Sydney’s northern beaches, both pioneered by Steve - and the numbers swelled at the existing spots.
Gliding captured the public imagination, and the mix of youth and freedom made for paint-by-numbers marketing. Blue Stratos filmed an ad at Bald Hill, Levis and Lee jeans too, and you know that if Red Bull existed in 1973 they would’ve been neck deep in it. Steve motions me into an adjoining room in the back of his hangar, and there on the wall is a large picture of a hang glider flying into a shimmering red sunset, the colours and visuals faintly recognisable from my childhood. “It’s a Coke ad,” says Steve as he draws on another rolly. I can vaguely recall the campaign, however the picture has been doctored to remove any commercial association, though it’d be a mistake to retrofit Steve as a lofty anti-capitalist.
For three weeks Steve worked for Moyes Hang Gliders before starting up his own company, Ultra Light Flight Systems, which became Australia’s largest manufacturer of hang gliders. He was a prolific designer, inventing the keel pocket, the first great design breakthrough that placed him at the vanguard of innovation. He was also the go to guy for print editors seeking a ‘colour’ story so he was photographed, interviewed, or contributed an article every other week. The titles include everything from the daily papers, to Picture magazine, to the Women’s Weekly. Surfing World and Tracks also did stories on Steve, though at that stage they were unaware of his surfing backstory.
Steve’s media career peaked in 1975 with ‘Birdman’, an hour long special commissioned by Channel 9 that also ran at the Cannes Film Festival. Among other things it featured a hastily-thought out stunt that saw Steve get lifted 8,000 feet into the air by a hot air balloon before being released....in a stall position. “The glider pitched vertical,” says Steve imitating a white knuckle hold on the control bar, “and then whoom...it finally came good.” He splays his fingers in mock relief. “That one gave me a scare.”
When I ask Steve about accidents he shakes his head and says he’s been lucky. I take that as declaration he’s never had any, yet Steve’s youngest brother Arnold - who first leapt off Bald Hill as a spry 13 year old - tells me of a test flight at Stanwell Park that went wrong. “Steve was flying a prototype of the SK-1, a design that would go on to revolutionise the sport because of its handling,” says Arnold. “It had a high aspect ratio wing and a long crossbar, and when he was bringing it around to land the frame broke under the force. He fell 80 feet into the lagoon at Stanwell Beach.” Steve survived and was largely unhurt, though just a week later he was knocked out cold while fooling around in his hangar.
Around 1976, Biggsy, who was the fourth or fifth person to jump off Bald Hill, gave up hang gliding to concentrate on other sports. “When the surf got crowded we went water skiing and that led us to hang gliding,” says Biggsy, ”and we never thought the skies would get crowded. How could they? Yet before long there’d be 40 or 50 people up there.”
A similar measure of discontent was welling in Steve - an old pattern re-emerging. Though he also maintains his changing feelings stemmed as much from the encroaching commercialisation of hang gliding as the crowds. Competition formats started being devised, lucrative prize money was offered and it heightened the risk in an already dangerous sport. “Hang gliders were getting pushed past what their operators were capable of.” It was a unique stance for a guy who always pushed the limits himself, the first guy to do a positive G loop in a hang glider, and whose gliders placed first and second in the first world championship. He could’ve benefitted if he stuck around, yet he didn’t. Restlessness struck again. In 1978 Steve unhitched himself from the hang gliding subculture that he founded and that in turn revered him. He took his last jump at Bald Hill and he's never been back.
Screenwriters usually split their stories into three acts. If we’re to overlay that template onto The Adventurous Life of Steve Cohen, then the third act - after surfing and hang gliding - involves engines. Small engines attached to glider-like wings - what’s known as ultralights now.
Though it sounds like a marketing slogan, when an engine is attached to a glider the pilot experiences another kind of freedom. Not only had Steve Cohen uncoupled himself from the dirt tracks of terra firma, but he was no longer reliant on updrafts either. He was now free to roam utterly uninhibited, and more freedom obviously meant more fun.
“I was out flying along the coast one day," says Steve, "and I saw a friend of mine, Trevor Stevens, surfing Headlands." Favoured by bodyboaders, Headlands is a radically jacking ledge that breaks below the crest of the escarpment near Coledale. “So I swung out real low then came in behind a wave so he couldn’t see me and gave him a real buzz. I heard the thwack as I went overhead and he lifted his bodyboard to hit my wheel.”
Just as he did with surfboards and hang gliders, Steve began designing ultralights with immediate success - a model of his first production design, the Stolaero, hangs in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. After the Stolaero, came the Condor, then the Avenger, then in 1982 the Thruster - and yes it was named after Simon Anderson’s invention. “It was just a perfect name, probably more so than the surfboard - lots of thrust in the engine.” Steve’s company occupied space out the back of Gordon & Smith surfboards at Taren Point, so while hydro Thruster’s sold out the front, aero Thruster’s sold out the back.
Steve Cohen was now ‘surfing in three dimensions’, yet the story I tell lacks that kind of scope. Parts of it, however, need to be further addressed. The first involves his business partner in the Thruster - “a very good businessman,” says Steve with a tight grin - who revealed his business acumen by sidelining Steve, cutting him adrift from the Thruster project and all future profits. Many thousands of Thrusters, equalling many millions of dollars, have been made and are still being made today. The second is a divorce that cost him his comeback project, the Skydart.
Though he’d given up surfing, the surf industry was never far away. Brother Arnold was running Emerald Surfboards and Steve helped on various projects, and later he worked at Manta designing and shaping bodyboards during the first bodyboard boom. The work held some interest - anything involving objects moving through a fluid would - but it simply wasn’t where he wanted to be. Five years passed in a heavy languor. Much changed in that time: the bottom fell out of hang gliding while ultra lights became a rich guys hobby.
We'd been talking for two hours straight before Steve asked if I wanted to see any of his planes. "Of course," I responded, and we pressed up and out of our chairs, walked through a door and into his vast hangar. A plane hangs from the ceiling and there are two more on the concrete floor half built with their innards spilling out, while dusty fibreglass moulds for wings and a fuselage are fixed to a wall, meanwhile every flat surface is occupied by a jambalaya of tools, salvaged materials, and unidentified miscellany. If George Greenough flew planes I imagine his garage would look like this.
We then cross over to one of his mates hangars. It's more orderly and it also houses a plane that Steve has built, a white Skydart that I admire from outside and also from within - taking up Steve's offer to sit in the tight cockpit. Up close it's an incredible piece of machinery, nothing exists without a clear function, not a curve in the wing nor instrument on the dash. I know zero about planes, but hey, it's fibreglass, it's smooth, it's performance is dictated by many blended curves. I ask how he feels when he looks at, what I consider, an impressive piece of design.
Expecting pride, I'm surprised by his answer. "All I can see is what can be improved."