Five minutes with Shane Stedman
Crescent Head carpark doesn't have good phone reception. I can vouch for that as a recent conversation with Tony 'Shane' Stedman - he in Crescent, me in Thirroul - was patchy at best, interrupted by static, or periods of silence, none of which deterred Shane whose voice bellowed ever onwards. So the following is a best fit transcription of that intermittent recording.
The reason for the talk was the completion of Shane's autobiography, 'The Shane Gang'. A 300-page book split into three parts, two of which may surprise readers, namely his country upbringing at Crescent Head where surfboard riding played no part in his life until the moment he left town, and his Jekyll & Hyde years in Sydney where he alternated between diligent uni student and rock star on the rise, again with very little surfing.
The third part we all know about, the surfing entrepreneur, the "Summer Millionaire" as Mick Mock called him, inventor of Ugh boots, purveyor of popouts, but it's a treat to read it in Shane's playful patter, which jumps between present thoughts, historical fact, and direct quotes without ever losing the thread of the story. Thumbs up to the editor.
Swellnet: So what's the surf like up there today, Shane?
Shane: Looks really good, head high, clean. Gonna be a good day.
Excellent. So your book, I read it last night.
You read all of it?
Yep. Late night.
You did well.
The thing about it that struck me were the moments of serendipity…
What’s serendipity mean, mate?
It means good fortune, strokes of luck, you’ve had more than a few. Do you look back upon your life that way?
Oh absolutely. My daughter said, “Dad, you’re not smart enough to have come up with all these things, you’ve had a guardian angel.”
Yeah, between the idyllic place you were raised, the people you were introduced to or become friends with, and also the changing times, it reads like a movie script.
Oh there’s absolutely no doubt about that. I’m well aware of….the serendipity.
Thanks. I’m well aware, of course I am, that I was in the right place at the right time. But that’s only two out of the three things you need, you also need the right bloke. You need to work hard, and I always worked really hard.
My life in Crescent Head taught me a lot of things, like mixing with people from all walks of life, like Ced Button and all the rest of the black kids, and the white kids too. And really, it was pretty wild back then. You read the story about my old mate Lenny Bull shooting a bloke’s leg off.
Incredible. In the Country Club.
Yeah, and he didn’t do any time because the judge went, “Oh fair enough mate, he deserved it.”
You launched into each new chapter of your life with gusto. From a country kid, to conscientious university student, to rock and roll star, to the biggest surfboard manufacturer in Australia. All in the space of a few years.
Sometimes I’ve gotta pinch myself to believe it all happened.
They may seem like separate chapters but I could always see how one thing led to another. For instance, I went to university and learnt how to be a production engineer, I learned all about motion economy and time study, and I learnt about production control and production planning, and all those things helped me run a surfboard factory.
Plus I learned how to mix with other people, I learnt that at Crescent Head because you had to mix with other people. My mother, she was the last of the Victorian generation. She suffers from what they used to call ‘The Stain’, which was the recognition of having convict heritage.
Then along comes my generation and we’re proud of that! I was proud that those fellas, my ancestors, came here as convicts and made good. It’s a little like my life. I started off with very little in Crescent Head, which in those days was a tiny fishing village with no electricity, and I was able to drag myself up from those rough beginnings and made good in life - like my convict ancestors did. You would've read about them in the book.
Some of it was through timing - which I had nothing to do with of course - but I worked pretty bloody hard at it too. I’ve always worked hard. I’m still working hard! I’m building a house and writing a book. I’m promoting it! Doing all sorts of things. I’m dreading the time it all stops.
About this working hard. When Shane Surfboards was hitting its stride in the late-60s, the counterculture was also hitting its stride, and some of your sponsored surfers were anti-commercial while you were expanding your operation. How did you deal with that conflict?
It was something that I had to balance very carefully. I had to be careful with their feelings of anti-commercialism and say to each of them individually, “Look fellas, I know you’re not keen on this commercialism but you're living a good lifestyle and you’re making good money, and you’re doing all of that because of commercialism.”
I had to gently tell them to swallow their pride a little bit and work out if they wanted the money and the lifestyle, or did they want to walk around with the arse out of their pants. Some were harder than others, but it worked. Some of our top surfers were getting paid just to surf, and if they did some work, shaping or whatever, then they got paid on top of that. It was a very good living, but I had to explain to them, “For me to pay you just to surf, you have to put up with having stories about you in magazines. If you don’t want that, that’s fine, I’ll just stop paying you”.
Well, guess what happened…?
It’s ironic that many of the surfers came from the city and adopted country soul, yet you came from the country and made good in the city by being commercial. You moved the opposite way.
Yes, but I think I had a mix of both, you know what I mean? I had the country soul. I lived it, barefoot doing it rough, you know. My life at Crescent Head was amazing, we were always on the beach, fishing and surfing, though as I wrote in the book no-one surfed the point when we were young. It was until I finished school and I was leaving to go to Sydney and start university when three older blokes bought malibu boards and paddled out the point.
So what year was that? 1957..?
Exactly right. The summer of 1957, 1958. I was in Melbourne in 1956 for the Olympic Games staying with my Godmother when the shortboards first came to Australia. They were shorter but they had that single fin, and that fin allowed surfers to ride the point. They weren’t just going sideways, they were also going up and down the wave. I mean they werent doing re-entries and floaters and things, but they were doing something that no-one else had seen.
It was a revelation and it stuck with me right through my university years. I reckon seeing that before I left Crescent lent me towards what I did later in life. I think I might’ve known even if I didn’t fully realise it at the time. I knew I wanted to run my own business, I’d been doing that all my life, you know collecting the cow dung off the reserve and selling it to the old ladies for six pence a barrel load, and getting the pippies off the beach for tuppence a dozen - two cents per dozen!
Can you believe that?
Ha ha...but I’d get eight bob by the end of the day. That’s almost a dollar! I only had to do that 30 or 40 times and I’d paid for my guitar.
That was another thing that surprised me; there’s very little surfing in the early part of the book, but lots of country life and also lots of music. A lot of people may not know about your country upbringing or your musical background.
No…that’s why I wrote a book!
Where can people buy it Shane?
At this point people can only buy it from surf shops. From good shops.
POSTSCRIPT: Shane may go on a speaking tour, and he may also sell books online (if he can figure out the online thing), if either of these things happen we'll announce it on Swellnet.