The Rise of the Shortboard

Bob McTavish describes the evolution of the shortboard in late 60s Australia

| posted on December 18, 2010

Bob McTavish was one of the key figures to usher in the shortboard era.

The Northern Rivers district is Australia’s richest pointbreak zone: Angourie, Spooky’s, Lennox, Broken Head, and Byron Bay are strung out just below the Gold Coast, which has it’s own string of perfect points. The mostly clear and warm waters pump with clean groundswell through autumn and winter, while spring and summer offer hidden goodies for those who know how to find them.

It was in this fertile wave-zone that Australian surfer/shapers of the late ’60s prodded the nation’s surf populace to have a fresh look at itself. Since the first balsa 10-footers arrived under the arms of Californian lifeguards Greg Noll, Mike Bright, and Tommy Zahn in 1956, the bulk of surf culture had trickled from California and Hawaii. The board shapes were copied and the surfing styles were copied. Even the music, the clothes, the verbal expressions were largely copied from “the Yanks.” But why did Aussies depend so much on the States?

Because us young ’60s surf punks were rebels without a culture. We had severed our ties with the all-dominating and long-established hierarchy of Australian surfing: the lifeguard-like “Surf Life Saving Club” movement. We rejected its strictly disciplined regime of volunteer beach patrols, of competition in and out of the surf, and the near army-like formality of a club structure. We just wanted to go surfing, chase waves, and not be tied down to a schedule. We were the new breed—mobile, rebellious, and wave-hungry.

In 1967, it started in Sydney. A powerfully influential group of surfers: Bob McTavish, Ted Spencer, Russell Hughes, Wayne Lynch, Nat Young, Baddy Treloar, Keith Paul, the Witzig Brothers, and even Midget Farrelly were into something new, fresh, different. Purely local, nothing imported, a burning desire to ride much shorter boards, and start using the vertical element of the wave. In doing so, it meant saying goodbye to the over-riding influence from California. No more Miki Dora, Nuuhiwa, or Phil. The surfing population had to wake up and see it did have something to offer, something to be proud of, something the rest of the surfing world desired. It was the Shortboard Revolution.

After a brief flash of its potential in Hawaii and California over the Winter of ’67, the Shortboard Revolution shifted out of Sydney and relocated to the Northern Rivers in ’68. The crude 8-foot Plastic Machines rapidly morphed into sleek 6-foot mini-guns, pocket-rockets, and Trackers. The high-class waves at Lennox and Angourie in particular were the proving grounds, the racetrack, the fun parlor for the ongoing Shortboard Revolution. Templates, rockers, fins, flex, and rails all went through extremes, then were whittled down to the practical, the functional.

The same was now happening in Hawaii and California, and regular trans-Pacific trips kept the information flow strong. A new order developed over the next couple of years. A global brotherhood of surf design, of shape-sharing, of pure stoke. National identity slipped away, replaced by the united quest for the better surfboard. The culture of contests faded. Most of the grand old labels faded and died, struggling to keep up with the changes. It was all new, all experimental, and no one knew just where it would stop.

But this story is about awaking the giant, Australian surfing. The late-’60s jab in the butt that was the Shortboard Revolution had various spill-over effects, and a major one was the emergence of the next young generation of Aussie rippers who were confident to take on the world of competitive surfing. No more of the ’60s hippy brotherhood rubbish. P.T., Rabbit, and M.R. quickly earned World Champion status through the ’70s, followed by Simon Anderson, Tom Carroll, and Damien Hardman as ’80s dominators. Australia has continued to hold its head high as one of the world’s leading surf nations ever since.

Today, the increased crowds are on every kind of surfboard. Shorter-than-short snub-nosed quads, standard 6’1″ by 18.5″ thrusters, mid-length multi-fins, fish, modern longboards, tankers, original ’60s lead-weights, and SUPs. The Revolution is complete, but the old boards are back as well. The ability of the hot surfers has risen, pumped on steroids of surf-star DVDs. The learner schools are out there too, pushing new lemmings over the edge. Yet, among it all, those original guys who rejuvenated the surf world over 40 years ago are still out there among it, generally scoring better waves than their younger peers, finding quality amid the mayhem—a testimony to the power of the elements, the addictiveness of the wonderful creation of the ocean, and the peeling waves that spin along the Northern Rivers points.

–Bob McTavish

Check out the new film Going Vertical for the full story of the shortboard revolution.

  • Grant Newby

    Bob is one of the most positive energized guys you could ever spend time with. Let alone the fact that he is the age he is. The guy is a legend and an all round good guy. Surfs everyday and has a head full of stories to tell and ideas yet to be explored.We owe a lot to guys like him.

  • jeff


  • slim

    Only thing you didn’t mention was kneeboards!

  • Whamo

    This guy puts down Dora and Nuuiwha and Edwards? F’ing kuk if you ask me, famous for spin outs at Sunset Beach, and his boards breaking at H’Bay as Brewer (the hippie)’s boards shined. I used to respect this guy, no more. RB invented the mini-gun, the true shortboard, this guy is just another Aussie egoist.

  • http://N/A Lacky

    Yo Whamo, I don’t think Bob puts down Dora, Nuuiwha or Edwards in any way. He was just stating that him and the crew he was hanging with were no longer following their path and they were headed in a different direction! The shortboard direction, which changed the sport of surfing for good. This isn’t a bad thing. Bob is a good person and was one of the first to shape shortboards and stood behind it till this day. Hands down to McTavish! He was a big lead in the charge of the shortboard evolution. Cheers…

  • Paul

    Bob’s always kept the progression going, he has to with all that energy he packs. Back when Pat Ryan still shaped for him over in the states, he stayed at my house for a few weeks while in a contest down at scripps. I was a little grommet then– eight years old– and just beginning to find my own in the water. When he arrived at the house it was like 1am and him, jason blewit and ray all wanted to try out the slide in my pool. I get woken up by this splash then look out my window to see this old bald headed man going head first down my slide. Needless to say, during his stay he became good friends with my family. Bob may be old, but has the heart of a child, and during those critical years of my experience in the water, he had a huge impact on my development in surfing.

  • Chris

    Bob is a living legend and a genius. Over the years I have been privileged to discuss design with him and have had him make me a number of boards. I am awed by the perfomance built into his designs and wish that I had the ability to extract the full performanceout of them. He is incredibly modest and one of the truly nice guys in the world. His total enthusiasm for surfing is inspirational and his love of the environment and life in general are infectious. We are lucky to have such a gifted person among us and I hope he goes on designing and shaping, and of course, riding the waves he loves so much, for many years to come