The 1992 Coke Classic at North Narrabeen
As a general rule, surf contests are only memorable when the swell is big or perfect. Think the ‘74 Smirnoff, ‘81 Bells, or the Volcom Fiji Pro in 2012 when the comp was called off but the webcast continued and the best big wave surfers rode huge, perfect Cloudbreak. We need a spectacle for the memory to burn into our collective memories.
The ‘92 Coke Classic at North Narrabeen didn’t get good surf, it was neither big nor perfect, there was no lasting spectacle, but there’s reason to look back at it because few surfing contests have ever had as much backstory. And it wasn’t just one plotline, the ‘92 Coke had many, each of them intersecting on the Narrabeen sands 29 years ago.
In 1992, pro surfing was experiencing great upheaval and not everyone approved of the change, administrators and surfers bickered, with and against each other, as a younger crew of surfers sought to assert themselves over a stubborn old guard while popularising a design that still has relevance today.
As a metric for pro surfing’s health, counting the number of sponsors is a good place to start. In 1989, the men’s pro tour had a record 25 events deciding the world title. There was no pattern to the schedule, surfers visited Australia twice, Hawaii twice, Japan twice, the USA three times. If a sponsor was willing to stump up the bucks, the ASP pitched a tent and the surfers followed.
After ‘89, the labyrinthine tour slowed as a global recession put the brakes on spending thus bringing the ‘80s surf boom to a close. By ‘91 the tour was down to 18 events and a seasonal pattern was discernible: Australia, Africa, Europe, Japan, Brazil, Hawaii. It was during this year that ASP CEO Graham Cassidy and longtime stats man Al Hunt hatched the idea to split the tour into two: the Championship Tour would be made up of the top 44 surfers in the world, while the World Qualifying Series hosted aspirants building points towards advancement.
One of the goals, as Al Hunt told Swellnet, was to increase sponsorship potential. He’d seen the Bud Tour succeed in North America, and the APSA tour work (for a time) in Australia, and thought smaller tours could be incorporated into a global structure and create a pathway to the world title.
There was also the goal of minimising the load of trials events, which was the traditional way of leap-frogging into the main event for those outside the Top 16. The participant numbers at trials events had also swelled during the late-80s and whittling the hundreds of hopefuls down to 16 had become a cumbersome task.
Pro surfing was also branching out beyond its traditional roots in the US and Australia. Brazil was clearly on the rise, Europe too, and surfers worldwide needed a way to elevate themselves onto the pro surfing stage.
The plan, as it was unveiled in late-1991, was a two-tier world tour, however there were strong objections both from surfers and surfing administrators. During the closing Hawaiian leg, when the ASP was meeting to vote on the following year’s board structure, Triple Crown owner Randy Rarick sent a survey out to surfers asking their opinion on the current state of the ASP. Rarick had an agenda: the Hawaiian leg was healthy, it had an eager list of sponsors, and for ten years it’d been well organised, yet now he feared losing control of his interests.
Rarick wanted more independence to run his contests the way he wanted, however if pro surfing was going to take the next step into the mainstream, the ASP figured it’d need an umbrella sponsor and consistency across the tour, meaning the contest organisers would all have to fall into line.
Like Rarick, some surfers, particularly lower rated Australian surfers, took umbrage calling the QS a “learner’s tour” and second rate. Top-rated surfers, however, deferred to the Cassidy/Hunt model which guaranteed a $100K purse at every event and a defined schedule. More money, less travel.
Yet acceptance didn’t make the new system any easier to understand. Not only did the format of the tour change but the format of the contests did too. Hunt introduced a round robin system where all 48 surfers - the Top 44 plus 4 wildcards - would surf against themselves across three ‘no loser’ rounds. There’d be no priority either.
After 48 heats - 3 surfers a heat, 16 heats a round, 3 rounds - the points would be tallied and a percentage given to each surfer. The system is far too arcane to detail here but it effectively ranked the surfers, with the top 16 progressing into Round 4 and beyond.
Not only was it complex, it was also rife for manipulation. At the first contest of the season, the Rip Curl Pro at Bells, Damien Hardman engineered his last heat so rival Barton Lynch - surfing in a different heat - wouldn’t progress.
Things hadn’t improved by the Coke Classic. The same system was in place when the tour visited Narrabeen in late April, 1992, and with the free-for-all, no-priority nature things were getting ugly. It wasn’t quite Peter Drouyn’s mantra of ‘kill or be killed’ but heavy hassling and fighting for the inside became the only way to win heats.
On Day Two, then-World Champion Tom Curren made a silent protest, refusing to engage Rob Page in a priority battle, while that night Rob Bain made a more forthright objection, openly criticising the system in the mainstream media who turned it into a low heat sports scandal. Some surfers, such as Brad Gerlach, refused to hassle and found they couldn’t advance against a hard-marking opponent. Gerlach kept his integrity intact but bowed out of both Bells and Narrabeen without jockeying to survive.
The next day Curren upped the ante, writing a letter of protest to Al Hunt then forfeited the rest of the contest, grabbing a cab to the airport. For his dissent, Curren copped a $2,000 fine. Yet it was obvious Al Hunt and his new system - at least the round robin part of it - were against the ropes. An emergency meeting was held where Hunt proposed just one three-man round, the winner of which progressed to Round 3 while the losers moved to sudden death in Round 2. Though hastily organised, a similar version of the system exists to this day.
While the rules were getting refined down in the arena, surfers were also beginning to get their heads around the overarching CT format. With only 48 surfers at the contest, warm up sessions were far less crowded than what they were used to, giving a sense of exclusivity to the new tour. But with that came fear of relegation back to the “learner’s tour”. No longer was the tour a travelling circus where surfers could simply put their entries in and party around the world. They now had to make the grade, and this, coupled with a fresh injection of youth and cutting edge board design, caused a sharp leap in talent on tour. It also led to a swathe of retirements.
Three months prior to the Coke Classic, Kelly Slater won the Hot Buttered Pro Junior, also held at North Narrabeen. Up against Shane Dorian in the Final, each surfer took off on their first wave switchfoot. What was goofy camaraderie between friends was viewed as insouciance by contest director Terry Fitzgerald. A lack of respect for an Australian institution.
Despite Curren’s three titles, Australia still considered itself the natural home of pro surfing, and the quintessential Australian style - back foot heavy, rail engaged - still the vanguard of great surfing. Likewise, Australian businesses ruled the surfing landscape, and homegrown conventions were considered global. Yet If the titans of Oz surfing hadn’t yet realised it, they would soon: everything was about to change.
Feted since he was a junior, it was hard to distinguish what was hype with Kelly Slater, but by ‘91 it was clear he was unlike David Eggers, Bud Llamas, Matt Archbold or any other of the Next Big Things from the US. 1991 was the last year of the single tour, with the 44 top-ranked surfers invited onto the new CT. Slater came 43rd, having surfed just 10 events out of 18, the least amount of all the invited surfers.
Though he won none of those 10 contests, Slater’s future was being gauged by other criteria. There were the obvious factors such as his speed and flexibility, his willingness to unweight the rail - typically frowned upon in Aussie surfing - and slide the tail, or to experiment above the lip, visiting parts of the wave his predecessors ignored and make it functional.
It wasn’t just youthful energy that had him earmarked for greatness, it was his confidence in being cast as the face of a new generation. “Slater is the electricity of the new world order,” said Derek Hynd in a 1992 issue of Surfer mag. Sensing they were being put out to pasture, 80s power surfers stepped up their game, some beating their chests before a heat - as Pottz did, ostentatiously revving himself up for an encounter with Slater in France - or Kong who showed alpha primate form during one infamous heat at St Leu.
Slater may have had the target on his back, yet he also had running mates who gave credibility to the new way of surfing, and collectively pushed it further when they met in heats. From the States, Shane Dorian and Ross Williams were about to join the CT - in ‘93 and ‘94 respectively - while here in Australia Shane Powell and Shane Herring - who were already in the top 48 by the end of 1991 - each had their own version of the new school style.
A Slater, Herring matchup at Narrabeen was indisputable proof that the door was closing on a generation of surfers, making redundant their style, and even other cultural baggage. Paraphrasing Trainspotting, “the world was changing, music was changing, drugs were changing”. Of the latter, there were none, a big change in itself.
Surfboard design was also changing. Most notable was a shift to thinner, narrower boards, but closer inspection revealed fundamental changes across each axis. Led by Al Merrick and Greg Webber, boards were getting more curve in the rocker.
“Longer, more curve nose to tail, narrower, flatter rail to rail, thinner,” said shaper Phil Byrne when asked by ASL what he saw as the main difference between his boards in 1992 and five years ago.
The same issue had an editorial titled ‘The Wafers Are Coming’ mocking American surfers and their sub-18 inch wide boards, yet the board Shane Herring took to the Coke Classic - shaped by Greg Webber in late-1991 - was only 17 ¾ wide. It was similarly diminutive in other dimensions, measuring just 2 inches thick and 5’10” long. By comparison, Slater’s board was 6’1” long, 17 ¾ wide and 2 ¼ thick.
While shrinking in size and curving at the ends, another key element was being added across the bottom. Concaves weren’t new on surfboards: Duke Kahanamoku’s 1915 Freshwater board has concave in it; a few of Bob Simmons 1950s boards have concave; and more modern shapers such as Mitchell Rae in Australia and Greg Loehr in America used concave.
Webber himself first dropped concave into a board in 1986, however a few other design elements had to change for surfers to feel the full effect of concaves. For one, modern concaves produce lift so it wasn’t until boards had been shorn of excess foam and fibreglass that the weight came down enough to feel it. By the 90s, rails were being thinned, decks rolled, and board makers were experimenting with lighter ‘pro model’ glassing techniques that reduced weight - and lifespan.
Also, many shaping techniques were borne out of vee bottoms so it wasn’t easy to mix concaves with other design staples, and when concaves don’t match the other curves of a board it can be near enough to unrideable. However, with leading surfers leaning towards them, Webber, Merrick, and other shapers such as Nev Hyman and Phil Byrne had to learn the art of shaping concaves, and fast.
The final element that fell into place was rocker. As mentioned, Slater and Herring were already moving towards heavily rockered boards. Their sub-18 inch boards had straight rails. Without planshape curve they needed to be turned off their rocker line, the theory also being that if the longitudinal curve matched the curve of the wave the surfer could turn tighter and deeper.
A byproduct of these experiments was a new understanding of the relationship of curves across and up the board, and also the relationship of the rail line to the stringer line. When all were correctly placed, the concave would create exceptional lift, creating bursts of speed when the surfer pumped the board, and amazing hold when it was put on rail. From 1991 to 1993, surfing got turbocharged with concaves under the hood.
The unveiling of concaves didn’t rock the foundations the way the Thruster did. Their introductions wasn’t as sudden, nor wholly attributed to one person, and from a distance they’re almost invisible, unlike the spectacle of three fins on the tail of Simon Anderson's board. Concaves did, however, alter surfboard design from that point forward, few pros continued with vee bottoms once Slater and Herring had shown the advantage of concave, and within a year the single to double concave would become the standard shortboard bottom curve. It still is.
Ironically, Herring, the surfer who helped introduce concaves, hopped off them later that year. After the Coke Classic he asked Greg Webber to shape him something extreme that would give him an edge over Kelly. The result was the infamous Banana Board, with Herring taking a fleet of them on tour. Yet despite solid results all year - he finished 4th at year’s end - the boards polarised judges and the media.
Displaying characteristic immoderation, Herring swung the pendulum all the way to the other side and by early-93 he was riding the ‘Baked Bean’, a 5’8” no nose, low-rockered, flat bottom. Such emotional swings manifested themselves in his results, slipping from 4th in ‘92, to 22nd in ‘93, then 44th in ‘94, when despite qualifying for the CT, albeit in last place, he quit pro surfing altogether.
In contrast, Slater slowly brought his extreme designs back to a happy medium. By the end of 1992 his standard width was back up to 18 inches, and he was also World Champion, the first of 11 titles. In fact, though he won’t be competing at Narrabeen, he’s still on tour now, 29 years later.
Similarly, 29 years later the 2021 Narrabeen Classic will use a seven round format almost identical to the one Al Hunt hastily rigged together at the Coke Classic, and the two-tier system - CT and QS - is still the pathway to the world title.