RIP WILLY SILLS – THE LION OF ADDINGTON.
On the twenty first of December 2018, Willy Sills passed through the veil. His sudden passing was a shock to the Durban surfing community like few others. A strong man with strong convictions and a stronger testimony, who will be sorely missed by his wife Heather, son Matthew, his daughter Jessica and the Sills clan who are so entwined in the history of surfing in Durban.
I feel ill equipped to speak adequately about one of South Africa’s true surfing legends. My knowledge of his later life is sparse, but I spent a few summers in the sixties and early seventies surfing with the guy when he was at his peak and who at that time, totally owned the Pumphouse and Addington breaks. Here goes.
The final of the very first pro contest in South Africa, the Durban 500 took place in July 1969. The late Willy Sills place second to Gavin Rudolph.
The summer of 66/67. The Pumphouse in front of Addington Hospital was a hot bed of progressive wave riding in Durban. The Bay of Plenty era was still to come, still developing. The Tomson cousins were still groms. The short board was a thing of the future.
Because the harbour piers were much shorter and the dropping of sand at Limestone reef hadn’t started, Addington, the Pumphouse, Tramps, the Lido and the Wedge, broke consistently summer after summer. Oily, hot days full of great waves. Waves that brought out the best in an ever growing surf population. Sometimes the Addington’s 101 bank peak feathered at least a hundred and fifty yards from the sand at low tide.
The line up was solid. From Addington – the home team:
George Thomopoulos – one of SA’s greatest ever surfers and a local though and though.
Tony Cerff – inventor of the ‘F’ type, shaper, pro lifesaver and original Safari man. A strong quiet guy to whom us groms showed a lot of respect.
Loopy Cerff, Tony’s brother, a goofy footer who you would have sworn was an Hawaiian with the swarthy looks that reminded you of Jimi Hendrix.
Spider Murphy grew up surfing at Addington. He would go on to become SA’s most celebrated shaper.
Bernard Warddell, a stylish blond goofy footer.
Dennis Brunton – Goofy footer with a devil may care attitude. Maybe Durban’s first extreme sportsman.
The younger guys:
Martin Heunis – detached and untethered natural footer with blood in the eye, literally and figuratively.
Paddy O’Burn, another skinny blond goofy footer, wave thief and like so many Addington locals, a wizard with a soccer ball at his feet.
Olly Holmes – transparent eyed style master. A guy with little need for words but whose immaculate body language spoke volumes.
Colin Doveton lived in Tenberry overlooking the break. Wide stance high energy, a future pioneer of Ansteys and the Rock wave riding.
His best buddy John Elridge, another goofy footer of note.
Duncan Carmichael – as good as anyone you’ve ever seen on the nose anywhere.
Espo, still in percolation mode, a grom with a future who spent more time on the nose than anyone.
The crew from beaches further north often paid the Pumphouse a visit, attracted to the consistency and the solid predictable bank.
Robert McWade, Max, Mike Ginsberg, Rory Pheonix, Bevis Parsons – even Ant and Errol Hickman would wax up further south when it was on.
There were others but the standout at almost every session was local Willy Sills.
The line-up was as tough a school as you could get. Many live in Alwyn Court on Point Road, an apartment building for mainly working class heroes, many of whom sweated it out on the docks in Durban. Feral surfers lived in the backstreet blocks in groups, working nights as stacker drivers and cargo checkers so they could surf during the day. A big number of these guys went to Mansfield, not known for its etiquette, so getting a wave was never going to be easy. Even early was a problem and especially when Willy was in the water, which was almost always.
Boards were in the 9’3” to 9’6” range. Max Wetteland had a number of models. Safari had the Performer model, a pretty basic but very sorted round nose square tail that sported an ax like fin. Willy rode one.
There were hot chicks and big nights, but mainly our time was spent on the beach. Every day from dawn to late unless it was a 25 knot NE puff.
Out in the line-up, Willy Sills, still a junior, uncompromising when it came to sharing around the waves, would do these expansive left go right tuns that took up a lot of space. Then in a flash he would be on the nose of his Safari Performer before backpedaling to execute a perfectly functional and poised cutback. His fitness was as legendary as his wave dance. Energy, style, balance.
‘Functional’ was a word used by Phil Edwards and Max Wetteland to describe serious surfing. It meant you stayed close to the curl and didn’t ‘show off’ too much. Willy epitomised the concept.
On the beach the whole Haight Ashbury thing had flooded the globe with ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’ and all the excesses that it promised. By that summer it had just about reached terminal velocity and Durban was not exempt. While most of us had succumbed to the heady combination of enticing music, bullshit rhetoric and the weed and pills that fueled it, Willy steered a different path. To us his way seemed more austere and less sexy. Willy, however saw the bigger picture. He stuck to his guns, got fitter and stronger and more deadly in the water. Like George Thompoulos, he was a machine.
While wearing a contest vest he dominated the junior ranks, winning almost at will.
In 1969 at the very first South African professional contest, the Durban 500, held at the Bay of Plenty, Willy placed second to wunderkind Gavin Rudolph in a field that included some big Aussie names.
As his peers started to fall by the wayside, Willy stuck to his guns. His steely eyes revealed a deeply spiritual man who spoke softly and never felt the need to add his opinion unnecessary, Willy remained understated and kept himself consciously under the radar. But believe me when I say that he was as good a surfer as Durban has ever produced.
His sudden passing in December 2018 has had a profound effect on me personally. It never dawned on me that Willy was anything but totally bullet proof. A lion. You start to examine mortality more closely.
His son Matthew rips. He surfed a lot with his dad in later years and the no nonsense, no frills approach has permeated and although he’s a goofy footer, you can see that distinctive Sills DNA. Just like his dad, he’s one of the good guys.
While Willy’s life had many chapters that I was not party to, those summers spent surfing at Addington and rubbing shoulders with the man was significant and memorable. RIP William Sills, your legacy will always be remembered.
© Patrick Flanagan
To the greatest man I will ever meet, words can’t describe how much of an amazing Dad you were. You literally gave life and love a whole new meaning, I love you so much now and forever and I’m counting the seconds till I get to see you again in heaven one day. I am truly blessed to have been able to call the greatest man my father. I miss you so much already it’s numbing but I stay strong in the fact of how truly blessed I am to have the time with you I did. I love you Dad.
TO THE LEADER OF THE PUMP HOUSE GANG
by Rory (Rudi) Phoenix
For us surfers in the early 60s, Addington, at the far end of the Durban South beach was considered left overs.
A place to surf when the other beaches were closed out or maybe during a summer wind swell. The potential Bay of Plenty had yet to be fully realized. Serious surfers hung out at the South Beach lifeguard tower or North Beach.
There was a hierarchy of “cool” to where you surfed and Addington was at the bottom of the list.
A group of young groms didn’t follow these rules. They made Addington their own. They were also very good surfers and we started to notice.They were the Pump House Gang way before Tom Wolfe’s version. Among the best of them was a kid named Willy Sills.
It was the last years of the long board era. Willy had a style and grace beyond his years that would develop into a powerful package. He moved up the beach and began to impress at all the main spots. Big waves, small waves, contests, he’d arrived.
I went to Europe for a few years in the early 70s. My first day back I remember Willy dropping in on me as he went on to rip an eight foot Bay of Plenty cruncher.
He was now a man to be reckoned with. A charger. And a genuinely nice guy. We all moved on in life but Willy personified a milestone in my surfing experience.
A major character in 70s surfing renaissance. He was primed for the short board era and along with Shaun and others, led the charge.
I left Durban 40 years ago so I was not part of his later life but the memory of Willy Sills deep in that Bay of Plenty pit is clear as yesterday.
He’ll always be with me.
Rory is an ex DHS and Prep goofy footer who lives in San Francisco and spends his summer holidays on Kauai. He worked in advertising for decades and wrote a song for BB King a few years back for one of his ad campaigns.
Willy’s paddle out on the 28th December 2018 at Ushaka Beach.
I know a lot of you guys out there will add to Willy’s story so please use the ‘comments’ facility below to pay tribute to an admirable life well lived.
All photos © Sills family archives unless otherwise stated.