Before Pro Surfing

For the last fifty years, KwaZulu-Natal has been home to the longest standing professional surfing event in South Africa and, with the possible exception of Bells Beach in Victoria Australia, the longest in the history of the sport world wide. Nowadays known as the Ballito Billabong Pro, the event has evolved through the Mr. Price Pro and the Gunston 500. But where and when did this magnificent folly of surfing first start?

You have to go back a long way. Way more than a thousand years, probably four or five.

First there was body surfing, and, feeling the magical propulsion of waves, enlightened tribes in West Africa, Peru and in the South Pacific, probably with some boating experience, fashioned a piece of driftwood or long strands of grass tied together, into a planing hull and the sport of surfing was born.

The first recorded history of surfing was in the 18th century by British Royal Navy captain James Cook who landed in Hawaii in the 1778.

The islanders there had taken surfing from a rudimentary activity to a widely enjoyed sport, complete with boards of all shapes and sizes. The size of your board was determined by your social status. Royalty surfed longer boards (up to 16 ft long) while the man in the street had to make do with shorter stubbier boards.
A decade or so later, shocked by this free spirited culture that had no problems with nudity, Calvinists who had recently arrived and enforced their puritan values on the islanders, forbad the activity completely and by the late 1880’s less than 150 surfers were left to surf the magnificent waves of Hawaii.

Three of these one hundred and fifty Hawaiians, the Freeth brothers attending a military college in Northern California and informally introduced the sport to mainland USA and a little later to England and Ireland, doing surfing exhibitions in all three countries. George Freeth, part Hawaiian, part Irishman, a lifeguard and surfer is widely regarded as one of the most innovative lifesaver in history.
He invented the paddle board and the rescue ‘can’ and thus the century old relationship between surfing and lifesaving was established.

Legend has it that in Durban, swimming or bathing, as it was then called, took place in a half circle enclosure that stretch out into the Indian Ocean, roughly opposite where the Edward Hotel is today. Surfing happened outside the wooden structure. Often bathers would be washed through the barnacle encrusted pylons and surfers would come to their rescue. It seems that in these parts surfers inadvertently started lifesaving.
The Cape Peninsula Publicity Association put out a brochure in 1918 that stated “In the Pacific, the Islanders have made
it an art. at the Cape it has become a cult. The wild exhilaration is infectious. It steadies the nerves, exercises the muscles and makes the enthusiast clear headed and clear eyed.” Not much has changed in a hundred years.

Fast forward to 1914. Waikiki Beach Boy and the undisputed father of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku, with an Olympic Gold medal for swimming under his belt, introduced surfing to Australia at Freshwater Beach while on a lifesaving trip down-under. The game was on. Surfing was to become a global sport. Few will dispute that the Duke was the greatest surfer of the 20th Century.

Back in South Africa in Muizenberg, Cape Town, surfing had become so popular that the municipality hired out vast numbers of boards, costumes (as swimwear was quaintly known then), bathing caps, towels and deck chairs for the frothing, surf crazy public.

The famous writers Agatha Christie and Jack London both gave surfing a try. London was mesmerized and wrote about it profusely. In California, people working in a now burgeoning film industry in Hollywood also embraced surfing, a relationship that exists still today.

Surfboards were evolving and by the 1930’s Californian. Tom Blake invented the fin and thereby changed the game completely. Now surfers could go along a wave and not have to ride it straight to the beach.
Another Californian, Bob Simmons, know to some as the gnarly genius, took it a stage further. During active duty in the Second World War, he had seen the benefits of the newly acquired technology of resin and fibre glass. Soon after, the modern surfboard was being ridden around the world.

Back in Durban, Springbok lifesaver and master surfer Max Wetteland had embraced these newly acquired technologies and before long was making and selling boards to a growing number of Durban surfers. John Whitmore was doing much the same thing in Cape Town, where he basically ‘owned’ surfing. Both these master craftsmen made the most exquisite boards, easily as good as any produced in California and Australia where surfing had gone huge.

The first professional event, the Durban 500 was his brainchild. Along with partner Ian McDonald and a young Peter Burness they set about organising the contest. Max had met the 1964 World surfing champion, Midget Farrelly in Australia that year and struck up what was to become a lifelong friendship. To make the Durban 500 legit, Max invited Midget to do an exhibition at the event. The night before the event, rain was predicted for the big day and the Wettelands, who had sunk virtually everything into staging the contest were stressing. They’d sold grandstand tickets
and if it was to be a washout, they’d loose a bundle.

Luckily the rain stayed away, the event was a major success and pro surfing was born in South Africa.
A grom by the name of Gavin Rudolph from Port Elizabeth won the R500. The rest is history. Inside of ten years with the vision and work of Peter Burness, Shaun Tomson, Aussies Peter Townend, Wayne Bartholomew, Ian Cairns and Hawaiians Randy Rarick and Fred Hemmings the World tour was established and still runs strong through the veins of surfing globally.


Illustration of Max Wetteland Caza Wood.

Historic pic of Waikiki and Dimond Head. 

Gunston Finalists picture courtesy George and Lorna Thomopoulos.