Tim Baker: Centurion of Surf!

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Stu Nettle (stunet)
Talking Heads

baker_tim.jpgTim Baker needs no introduction to a surfing audience but courtesy dictates that we should give him one anyway. So being the courteous folk that we are here goes...

Tim has been writing about surfing for over 25 years, first as the editor of Tracks, then Australia's Surfing Life, and more recently a work-from-home freelancer who pens the odd article between writing books. He's up to nine now. The most recent, Australia's Century Of Surf, having hit the shelves a month or so back.

Swellnet spoke to Tim about the role of recording history which, fortunately for you readers, is not nearly as dull as it sounds.

Swellnet: Australia's Century Of Surf is a history of Australian surfing, or as it's been called, an alternative history of Australian surfing. Are you comfortable with the term alternative history?
Tim Baker: Yeah, I guess I gave it that tag. It was probably for a couple of reasons. It was partly in response to the discovery I made halfway through my book that Phil Jarratt was doing his book [Surfing Australia: The Complete History of Surfboard Riding in Australia]. Which initially was a bit disconcerting.

When I took on the project I figured there hadn't been a comprehensive history of Australian surfing written since Nat did his back in the mid-80s and it was well overdue. My publishers actually came to me with the concept, with the centenary of Dukes visit coming up. I was really enthusiastic and then I heard about Phil's book. I thought it was a history of Surfing Australia and I wasn't that concerned and then when I saw it...like I say, alternative history is probably the tack I would've taken anyway but seeing Phil's book made it clearly defined for me that I just wanted to tell previously untold stories. To fill in the gaps.

Were you surprised by how much untold, alternative history there is out there?
Yeah, as I say in the introduction, if things hadn't have been documented in films or magazines, then as far as our collective cultural memories go then they never happened. With things like that Sports Illustrated article about Ian Cairns winning the Smirnoff Pro in 1973 on a tri fin, and a mainstream magazine like Sports Illustrated feeling compelled to write a major feature about it. I thought I knew my surf history pretty well so how come I didn't know about this?!

Kanga is a pretty, um, brusque sort of character so didn't ingratiate himself with the surf media of the day. And it made me reflect on the degree to which that may have swayed our impression of history. There are things that get repeated over and over, partly because there are really compelling images and footage of them. The Witzig's films and photos are a great example; they're such strong images that they become all pervasive.

It's interesting you raise the name Witzig because they've been charged, most often by Midget Farrelly, of shaping history to suit themselves and their friends. Shining the media spotlight on some surfers while ignoring others.
Yeah, indeed.

It's also interesting because you have been the editor of two of Australia's pre-eminent surf magazines – Surfing Life and Tracks. When you were in the role as editor did it ever occur to you the duty or responsibility you had?
Yeah, I'm not sure. I think I thought of it as a responsibility but I didn't think I thought of it as documenting history. You're putting out a monthly magazine, you're pretty much in the moment. I don't think I often stopped and reflected if we're giving a really kind of balanced and comprehensive overview of the state of Australian surfing that would stand up as a historical record.

Lots of people in the surf media have been guilty of focussing on their mates. It's something John Witzig was completely up front about. He said, “I photographed people I liked. I didn't like Peter Drouyn so I didn't photograph him.” So I don't think he was thinking in terms of the historical record either. But we've all got our biases and blindspots, and it takes a pretty careful examination of all the available resources to come to any kind of objective truth. And I don't know if that is even possible ultimately.

But I really strongly got the impression that Midget and Peter Drouyn were two surfers who'd been done a disservice by the popular version of history. And to an extent almost driven mad by it. I think Midget takes it to a real extreme, he just tries to completely dismiss the contribution of people like Bob McTavish. For me that's a bridge too far, I do think Bob's made a significant contribution. The voice that I thought sounded most convincing was Wayne Lynch. I felt that Wayne was almost my Switzerland, you know?


Midget Farrelly, Long Reef, November 1967, banking an 8 foot egg off the bottom a month before Bob and Nat's purported paradigm shifting session at Honolua Bay (Photo Dick Graham)

I'd talk to Midget and I'd get swept up in Midget's version of events, and from a writers point of view, trying to say a fresh word, it would've really suited me running with Midget's line: “Everything you've ever read about in surf history is complete garbage! Bob McTavish never did anything!” You know, it's controversial and it'd get people talking. Then I'd talk to someone like Wayne and he'd say it was Bob's boards that completely turned him on. He saw all the potential in surfing vertically and putting the board up on a rail.

Just little insights like that turned a light on for me. You've really got to take in a broad range of views because everyones perspective is coloured so hopefully come up with something that's a reasonably representative mosaic.

Speaking personally, I'm always wary when anyone or anything proclaims to be the definitive account of something. I think we have to acknowledge that all history telling is coloured by the tellers account.
Totally, and that was something I tried to own up to up front. At the same time, I was being as objective as I could be, I don't have any particular barrow to push. You know, Midget's got this view that every person in the surf media falls into one of two camps: you're a Nat guy or a Midget guy. And if there was one person who I felt I tried to champion a bit it was Midget yet ultimately he was still unhappy with the account I gave 'cause it acknowledges McTavish. You know, they're mentioned in the same paragraph.

Has Midget said anything to you personally?
Yeah, we sort of had a few email exchanges. On the one hand he's passed on lots of positive feedback that he's had from other people, while at the same time he's said it shows how brainwashed our generation were by the snake oil salesman who were spruiking the Nat, Bob, George line. I mean, I've got great regard for Midget and I do think he's been really ill-served by the popular version of history and I did have a little bit of a mission to restore him to his rightful place.

When you think of this 18-year-old kid going to Hawaii and winning Makaha. On a balsa board too which is something I hadn't appreciated. In '62, long after fibreglass had come in he made himself a balsa board 'cause he watched all the old Bud Browne movies of Makaha and they were all riding balsa board so he thought he needed a balsa board. And it was 9 foot long! Nat was supposed to have started the shortboard revolution by riding a 9'4' in '66 in San Diego. I remember as a kid reading that and it not quite ringing true. “9'4”? That's not a shortboard?!”

Moving beyond the media context, let's talk about the story of Harry Wicke. It's an extraordinary story and until your book came out largely unknown. How did you come across Harry's story?
Midget was the first one who mentioned Harry. He told me there's this guy who was the Australian champion and he was interned during World War 2. He didn't know much more but then I was speaking to Geoff Cater who runs surfresearch. He said to me he appeared on an episode of Foreign Correspondent on the ABC recently. He's still alive and he's living up your way in Queensland somewhere. I Googled Harry Wicke and found a photo of him celebrating his 98th birthday at the Tranquil Waters Retirement Village at Victoria Point. I rang them and asked if they had a Harry Wicke there. They said yeah. I said, is that the Harry Wicke who used to be the Australian surfing champion? And they said proudly, yes it certainly is!

That to me was the greatest find of my research, finding Harry. I visited him half a dozen times, had long conversations with him. I never imagined that I was going to hear someone talk about surfing in the 30s who actually lived through it..

img_6821.jpegIt's an incredible tale, isn't it?
Oh, it's extraordinary, it's the best story I've come across in my writing career. And even just apart from the extraordinary events of his life is his descriptions of surfing which are a complete revelation. You think about surfing in the 30s and you imagine sort of teetering towards the beach in the whitewater on a 16 footer and he describes broaching on solid Hawaiian timber boards. He realised it's easier to stop 2 foot of width from nose diving than 9 foot of length so he'd take off sideways holding the rail. In that way he could take off on any wave. He also describes getting barrelled. So taking off sideways, getting barrelled...I never imagined that was going on in the 30s.

We started off talking about the different versions of history. Century Of Surf probably wont be the last account, but do you think Harry Wicke's story will make it into all the subsequent accounts of Australian history?
Yeah, I'm not sure. I think for every writer there's a particular thrill in finding out stuff for yourself. Hopefully he'll now have his place in Australian history recorded. To be honest I hadn't even considered that.

One mission I did have, I feel like Australian surfing's cultural continuum had been severed in '56 or just after, when the surfers left the surf clubs. Surfers just disowned their elders and their previous culture and I don't think thats healthy for any culture, to have such a rift. I think a lot of the drug casualties we've seen since have been as a result of that. As I say in the book, surfers post-the surfer/clubbie split were like a bunch of kids at home with no grown ups. They could play with the matches and get into the liquor cabinet! You see that on the toll it took on people such as Kevin Brennan and Keith Paull right through to the present day. Modern surf culture suffered from not having a continuous lineage. American and Hawaiians kinda know who all their forebears are right back to the beginnings of the century. Whereas we've got Duke Kahanomoku coming out in 1914 and the US lifeguards in '56 and not much discussion of what happened in between.

'Australia's Century of Surf: How a big island at the bottom of the world became the greatest surfing nation on earth' is published by Random House


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zenagain Wednesday, 29 Jan 2014 at 11:50pm

This was a great article and nice to see a bit behind the man I grew up reading as a young fella.

Bustin' down the Door and the Occy bio are great books that you can pick up and read from any page.

The bit about Harry Wicke was cool. Glad he's found his little alcove in history. Imagine Snapper or Burleigh in the 30's?

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ACB__ Thursday, 30 Jan 2014 at 8:33am

Don't forget MP's book... its a cracker.

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brutus Thursday, 30 Jan 2014 at 2:00am

Can't wait to read it..have a lot of respecr for Tim and being a mate of Waynes from the early 70's I think Tim is coming from a clearer perspective,and more balanced......

his initial comments about kanga and the 3 fin ring true as I stayed in the house with him that year..with PT,Wayne dean and John Pawson...so saw it all first hand,but the best surfer a BK that uear over there to the point Kanga bought some bds off him...

shit just realized what and ol feral Fossil I am.....ahhh......great stuff Tim...

and Zen bustin down the door was a good read but did a lot of damage to Aust/Hawaiin relations and was responsible for the term haole being used as a derogatory term........so hopefully Tim might have dealt with that ??

anyhow I wish Tim all the best!

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stunet Thursday, 30 Jan 2014 at 7:04am

Here's a short vid Tim made with Harry Wicke, from Australian surfboard champion to Long Bay Gaol because of his German heritage: "I didn't even know what Nazi's were."


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braithy Thursday, 30 Jan 2014 at 8:42am

One of my favourite writers ever! If he wasn't so into Hawthorn Football Club, he'd be a pretty good bloke too.

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bunker-spreckles Thursday, 30 Jan 2014 at 9:59am

Really enjoyed reading the book and it's always good to get a broader perspective. I have spent a lot of time with Wayne Lynch over the last few years - making the film about him - and one of the things he constantly talked about was the importance of Midget Farrelly and Peter Drouyn in Australian surfing history.

Before Makaha Australian surfers were generally treated as kooks and comic relief in American surf films & media - and Midget was the first to break through and gain credibility and respect. Likewise, Peter Drouyn was a massive influence with his 'power' surfing approach - something which later became characteristic of the top Australian surfers…

So well doneTim, and it's great to see some diversity of opinion rather than the views of a monoculture.

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Tim Baker Thursday, 30 Jan 2014 at 10:17am

Thanks for the interview Stu and all the comments. Brutus I'd hope BDTD didn't contribute to worsening Australian/Hawaiian relations. The episodes it documents definitely did but hopefully Rab's book helped explain his deep respect for Hawaiian culture and his Hawaiian surfing heroes, and maybe even helped heal a few old wounds. And Braithy leave HFC alone, we are still coping with the loss of Buddy and it's a difficult time for us!

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kneepete Thursday, 30 Jan 2014 at 11:34am

Great interview Tim and Stu. I've got a vision of a bespectacled historian, a Matt Warshaw lookalike, seated in front of shelves and shelves of surf magazines making a sombre assessment of surf culture. Something that could be submitted to Anthropology Monthly. He opens the parchment for evidence and it's an ASL circa 1993 with Tubequest roaring across the continent, Tim playing pranks on poor Stuart Bedford Brown, and a purple dildo with arms called ASL Man dishing out poetic advice.

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fraser-gordon Thursday, 30 Jan 2014 at 12:01pm

Great to read a different take on things.Australia's surfing history is so diverse and interesting and incredibly spread out across all the state's that it could fill 10 book's.Good work Tim.

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brutus Thursday, 30 Jan 2014 at 12:31pm

Hey Tim you can always commiserate with the Reverend Ted G........and the whole BDTD thing really would be nice if there was just an apology......as you know I lived through it and saw a very dark side...pardon the dark pun......really hurt the Aloha......but we move on..can't wait to read ya book!!

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Andrew W Thursday, 30 Jan 2014 at 12:59pm

Great article and a great book Tim. I received it as a christmas present from the kids and loved it. It now has pride of place on the coffee table.

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blindboy Thursday, 30 Jan 2014 at 1:57pm

"One mission I did have, I feel like Australian surfing's cultural continuum had been severed in '56 or just after, when the surfers left the surf clubs. Surfers just disowned their elders and their previous culture and I don't think that's healthy for any culture, to have such a rift. I think a lot of the drug casualties we've seen since have been as a result of that."

Not sure I could agree with that Tim. It may be that different areas had different surf club cultures but my memory of the mid-sixties is that the local clubbie culture was pretty toxic. Booze, porno, boorish and abusive behaviour, minds about as wide as a 9pt i, deliberate placement of the flags for the maximum inconvenience of the local surfing population, running the surfboat through the crowd for a laugh, there was simply nothing there that we could relate to in anyway at all. By comparison we were angels. We smoked a lot of pot and there was some anti-social behaviour but nowhere near what went on in the surf clubs and in my experience just as many clubbies ended up alcoholics as surfers did drug addicts.

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Tim Baker Thursday, 30 Jan 2014 at 3:59pm

Good points blindboy and i'm not really commenting on the relative merits of surf club culture versus boardriding club culture but just that we lost our lineage along the way. I wanted to learn about guys like Keith "Spaz" Hurst and Harold "Rastus" Evans and those that came before. There's plenty unhealthy about surf club culture but there were great ocean people amongst them that surfers became disconnected from. Like a forest with all the mature trees chopped down, it doesn't make for a healthy human ecosystem.

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mickj Thursday, 30 Jan 2014 at 4:22pm

And to continue your analogy Tim, those same young saplings of several decades ago are now themselves 'old growth' members of the surfing community, effectively putting us back to where surfing may have been in the 60's (i.e. 3 decades on from the movement's (re)genesis).

Having done all the research, do you think we're doing a better job today of connecting the surfing lineage across generations? My take is whilst we remain pretty youth focused generally, we're improving nonetheless.

And I haven't read the book yet mate but I likely will, collected every episode of ASL from about 91 or 92 (I turned 12 that year) to sometime in the early noughties so know your body of work pretty well! Always been a fan.



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ol55 Tuesday, 4 Feb 2014 at 12:54pm

The Link a picture half way down the page on Midgets surfboard site begs the truth??


Can you answer Please Tim?

Its been told to me by many who have waded through Bobs latest book that he has claimed inventing everything from Vegemite, butter and the bread its on…. What truly innovative design has been ever really been responsible for??

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brutus Tuesday, 4 Feb 2014 at 4:06pm

Interesting stuff ol55.........I am sure though that I invented the pintail in 66 as I had to ride my bike down to the surf dragging my 9 3 mc Donagh....until I wore off each side of the square tail and when I plugged up the worn out edges with Plasti-bond....the pintail as born.......

Midget has some very interesting takes though on the historics.....question though is what was the advancement in hull design with the Simon Anderson thrusters??

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blindboy Tuesday, 4 Feb 2014 at 5:00pm

Hi brutus if you are seriously interested I will ask him about it. Also if you are ever in Sydney The Powerhouse Museum have an original Thruster on display.

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Craig Tuesday, 4 Mar 2014 at 9:19am

Haha, wow, great little story, and 66 is before Midgets 68/69 claim. Amazing how some design breakthroughs happen through pure luck or accident.

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brutus Tuesday, 4 Mar 2014 at 9:25am
Craig wrote:

Haha, wow, great little story, and 66 is before Midgets 68/69 claim. Amazing how some design breakthroughs happen through pure luck or accident.

like the EEV......bit of rocker bending in a container from Oz to france......a dose of wanting to try something aesthetically different.......a happy mistake turns into a quantum leap in performance.......and the next??

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Craig Tuesday, 4 Mar 2014 at 9:38am

Another interesting tidbit!

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blindboy Tuesday, 4 Feb 2014 at 4:57pm

Going back to the Midget, McTavish issue. Being the first is important but so is inspiration. As a teenager at the time, McTavish's writing was a huge influence on the way I surfed and Witzig's images of Honolua Bay inspired a whole generation. As Midget said, he only ever made one V bottom and it was for small Sydney surf. Keyo must have pumped out hundreds that summer. The vast majority were used in small east coast waves and sparked a period of intense design innovation for several years after as every shaper in Brookvale modified and improved the design to produce an incredible variety of craft.
There are very few people in surfing for whom I have greater admiration than Midget. As well as being a great surfer/shaper, he has been a model of integrity and consistency. That said, self promotion was never his strength so the times required characters like Nat and McTavish. If Midget kicked the process off, the others gave it an impetus that he never could have done. All great characters, all great surfers and contributors to our history. So by all means correct the detail of the history but not by denigrating any of them.

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ol55 Tuesday, 4 Feb 2014 at 5:42pm

Thanks blindboy
I was interested because of Bob's rave on the century of surf site ....Lovely pics of Midget with his nice V bottom...

Bob might have made hundreds @ Keyo but in this instance we are talking about where he saw it??
Is that design innovation or capitalising in on someones else's ??

So my original questions remains unanswered as to the innovators own inventions??

Can we get a list?

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mehollywood Tuesday, 4 Feb 2014 at 8:19pm

Re; Midgets website link .
Oh yeah Col Smith was so good . Way ahead of his time . I watched him in a Coke heat out at the Bower and he just ripped the bag out of it. It was solid and he took short board lines while most of the other guys were taking a more big wave line.
I dont know why he didnt win every contest he went in . Must have been that inconsistency that was alluded to on the Midget page .

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brutus Wednesday, 5 Feb 2014 at 2:10am

Hmm there was a guy named Wayne Lynch who in the 70's world title was actually going verticle up under the lip ,doing back hand re-entrys while all the others like rolf Arness ,Dru Harrison..were doing long speed line....

I was actually there and was blown away by what I saw......as wayne would usually fall on his last reo....and would be penalised for not making the wave....

So Col Smith was a little after WL....

As or the Simon A hull designs,WL was the first to order some,and we made different Hull shapes like our twin fins and went and made Storm Riders at the Bluff and Gnaraloo for a couple of months....I am not sure there were any great advances in the Hull design.....but the thruster set up was insane.....

On another note I was at Patagonia Ventura about 6-7 years ago and a guy showed me photos of thruster type set ups he did in Hawaii in 1973......

I guess there is a fine line between who popularized and who actually was the first....??

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ol55 Wednesday, 5 Feb 2014 at 11:41am

Who popularised and who was first?? a great question brutus....

Saw an interesting film about the guy who actually invented the intermittent wiper for cars... Ford took the design used it in all there cars and it took 25 years before he was legally recognised as the innovator and inventor....Ford sweared blind all that time they did rip it off.

So thats why I wanted an explanation on the picture in the Midget link from the Tim who used the picture in his book?
By its coverage in this article( over 1000 words) its clearly important to the writer ,reader and interviewer.
Further to that in Surfsearch we find the first advertisement for Keyo's plastic machine in Dec 1967 http://www.surfresearch.com.au/mkeyo.html ...
If they made hundreds before then as stated by Bob (century of Surf Facebook)why didn't they advertise them...?

Just because you popularised it does not mean you designed it..

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blindboy Wednesday, 5 Feb 2014 at 1:00pm

I think the evidence presented on the link established that Midget came up with the design. My point is that McTavish, Nat and Wayne Lynch were important precisely because they popularised it. I remember an image of McTavish "flypapering" on a steep wall that completey changed the way I thought about surfing. He also wrote a number of articles that had a clearer vision of where surfing was heading than anyone else was able to articulate. The images of Honolua Bay were incredibly important and inspiring to a whole generation of surfers. So by all means credit Midget for the basic design work but don't under-estimate the roles of Nat , McTavish and perhaps most of all, Wayne Lynch, in taking that and opening our minds to what was now possible.

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ol55 Wednesday, 5 Feb 2014 at 1:52pm

Thanks again Blindboy
Its funny how it works...IF the media had promoted Midget doing all those incredible maneuvers as he did do ( look at that bottom turn in this article) then where would our popular belief of history be?
Probably very different from today.....
That's why I really wanted Tim to reply to my questions as after all its his book and content and this article brought it to our attention..
And why I was so amazed (well not really)at McTavish's rant!!!! I couldn't help thinking a bit like Ford...once your on that slippery path its hard to turn back.

The roles of the others I'm not questioning as it not in relation to McTavish's Facebook claims....
I find it disappointing to say the least...

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ol55 Thursday, 6 Feb 2014 at 1:04pm

whats more disappointing is that I have had no comment from Tim..???
A comment not on personal perspective but perhaps on the timeline facts would be good.
I notice Tim you were happy to placate Bob when he ranted on Facebook???
Perhaps Midget was right about the media ...??? Keep thinking about the true story of that guy Ford ripped off.....
Watch it for some perspective and the principles behind it...
it's called 'Flash Of Genius'

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ol55 Monday, 10 Feb 2014 at 8:14am

Hello !! Tim???
Have you watch that movie yet?? Are you there???

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ol55 Tuesday, 4 Mar 2014 at 8:07am

Well Tim.....
Did some digging and I now wonder how many of the real facts you might have looked at before you put that McT V bottom picture in your book....mmm....must have been in a hurry to fill the content....


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Geoff Cater Wednesday, 16 Apr 2014 at 9:03am

Congratulations on your recent excellent publication.

Following an email from one of the major contributors to the vast changes in surfboard design in 1967 (yes, it was Midget), I have substantially revised my paper "a period of transition : 1967-1968 ."
I also uploaded all the relevant images, that were only previously cited.

Commenting of the local competitors at the Windansea Contest, Bob Evans makes it clear that the innovations in design were widely adopted, and not just the preserve of Midget or McT:

Following the "innovations (of) the last 12 months," the Australian boards varied:
"in length from 7ft. 6in. to 9ft. and in in­finite variety of spectac­ular bottom shapes ... Frank Latta, whose board achiev­ed a new all-time chunki-ness, 26in. wide, 11in. back, 7ft. 10in. long: in surf­board dimensions, that is, almost square."

-Evans, Bob: Oh, those boards!
The Sunday Telegraph, December 3 1967, page 121.

Unfortunately, it looks like I cannot paste images in Comments.
However, I particularly note:
Peter Drouyn, Honolula Bay, Maui, December 1967.- riding Wayne Parkes' 9ft 3in Atlas-Woods (NZ) "stubby."
Photograph: Bob Evans (digitally adjusted).
The Sunday Telegraph, January 21 1968, page 70.

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thermalben Wednesday, 16 Apr 2014 at 9:13am

Great to have you on the site Geoff. Re: uploading images - the best way is to use Imgur.com, as per these instructions

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Geoff Cater Wednesday, 16 Apr 2014 at 9:49am

Here is an attempt to upload the image:

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murphy Wednesday, 16 Apr 2014 at 8:42pm

Midget makes more than his fair share of outrageous claims and doesn't take kindly to those who point out the flaws in his arguments. In the extract on his webpage he claims that Nat Young was still riding Sam, the board he rode at the 66 World Titles...two things stand out in this claim...I'd be surprised if Nat was still riding the same board as he was over twelve months before...even I changed boards in those days more frequently than that and secondly...I was under the impression that Sam was stolen while Nat was in the US in 66. There's no doubt that Midget was shafted by the surf media, but its strange that he was still writing for Witzig's magazine Surf Int in the twelve months after the Windansea comp. Even so and, despite his contrariness, I would have to say that Midget's had more 'positive' influence over surfing's development than nearly all of his peers.