The First Surfing Champs

“Why contests in such an individual sport as surfing? The association was established with an aim to improving ability and knowledge of the sea.” – John Whitmore, explaining the motivation behind forming the Western Province Surfing Association.

By late 1964 many of South Africa’s most talented surfers had not ventured far from their home towns or nearby coastlines to surf. Very few of them had actually seen their counterparts from other areas of the country ride a wave, let alone encountered them in a competition vest. The country’s first interprovincial surfing competition quickly changed that.

Predictably, opinions as to who were the best surfers in the country – based mostly on a few personal accounts and rumours as there were no local magazines or movies back then – varied drastically. With the largest surfing populations, by then a couple of hundred at least in each city, surfers from both Cape Town and Durban believed they were tops – both as individuals and as a collective (depending of course which one you hailed from).

As the inaugural interprovincial surfing competition in South Africa, the 1964 Western Province Surfing Championships at Long Beach presented the first real opportunity for the ‘Banana Boys’ and ‘Capeys’ (and a few others) to compete against one another up until that point – and to prove which city could in fact boast that they were the best.

The presence of a couple of surfers from other surfing cities, such as Port Elizabeth and East London, meant that this contest would be the first true gathering of the tribes from all four surfing corners of the country – and as such it has been labelled by many as the inaugural South African national championships, if only unofficially.

A few other local contests had been held in South Africa before then – three to be precise, two in Durban and one in Hermanus just outside Cape Town, all in late ’64. But the WP Champs was the first time surfers from all over the country would have the opportunity to really measure their skills against their compatriots.

A Magical Booklet

The 1964 WP Surfing Champs was put together and hosted by John Whitmore in his capacity as the recently elected chairman of the newly-formed Western Province Surfing Association (WPSA). “Why contests in such an individual sport as surfing? The association was established with an aim to improving ability and knowledge of the sea,” John wrote in the contest programme. “The competitive spirit stimulates this more than anything else.”

Earlier that year leading Durban surfer Max Wetteland had attended the first International Surfing Federation (ISF) World Championships in Sydney, Australia and returned with their newly printed rule book, which contained detailed guidelines on how to run and judge a surfing competition.

Printed with the aim of growing the surfing as a competitive sport around the world, this magical booklet was in fact a major catalyst for the genesis of competitive surfing in South Africa. Using it as a template, Wetteland and other Durbanites, including the likes of Harry Bold and Baron Stander, put on two contests in Durban.

The first was held at Kon Tiki beach and was won by the wiry, agile Ant Van Den Heuvel, with young emerging power surfer George Thomopoulos in second and another rising junior surfer, Robbie MacWade, in third. Shortly after being sent a copy of the ISF rule book by Harry Bold, John Whitmore and his newly-minted WP association set about putting on their first contest.

While holding the first WPSA Champs had always been the plan, shortly after the Kon Tiki event, the publicity association of Hermanus approached the WPSA to hold a surfing event at Grotto Beach in conjunction with their annual Spring Festival. The event presented the ideal opportunity for John and the WPSA to conduct a test run of the ISF rules before the main contest in December.

The Hermanus contest was won by Cape Town’s Peter Basford, with Durban transplant Cleo Marangos in second, and David Meneses in third. The stage was now set for an epic clash at Long Beach in the Cape Peninsula for the first ever Western Province Surfing Champs, scheduled for December 19, 1964.

Sonny Naidoo’s Fruit Truck

Right up until the last minute, though, the contest it seemed would be dominated by Cape Town surfers, with the only challenge to their inevitable victory in every division coming from a couple of surfers from the Eastern Cape and Natal. Fortunately, a group of Durban schoolboys decided they were going to get to this event whatever it took. But they faced an enormous challenge: how to get to Cape Town.

Unable to afford the high price of a plane ticket and without cars of their own, Andrew Ogilvey, George Thomopolous and his older brother Demetrious aka ‘Jimmy’, who all lived in the same block of flats on Addington Beach, came up with a novel idea for transportation and approached a local Indian fruit and vegetable hawker, Sonny Naidoo, with their proposition.

“It was a hell of an adventure,” recalled Andrew. “[We] struck a deal with him. We’d pay for petrol and whatever he would have made between Wednesday 16 December and Monday 21, as long as we got to the pre-contest function and registration on the Thursday evening at 6pm. Sonny would get to have a holiday, something he never seemed to take, and that clinched the deal. My mother was pretty relaxed about the undertaking, as long as I took a jersey and a clean handkerchief.”

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Their small group included George ‘The Greek’ Thomopoulos, Tony Cerff, Brian De Goede and Robert ‘Scales’ McWade. Enduring a journey of several days that included a puncture in Mossel Bay, that meant they nearly missed the opening function of the event at the Kommetjie Hotel, they arrived unexpectedly just before it started, much to the delight of John Whitmore.

Indeed, with of Ant Van Den Heuvel, who had travelled down on his own a week earlier, and with entries from fellow Durbanites Cleo Marangos and junior surfers Errol Hickman and Mike Ginsberg, the Natalians would add enormous value to his event and prove a very real threat to the Capetonians, sewing the seeds for a rivalry between the two that endures to this day.

Who’s Tops Now?

Though welcomed with open arms by John Whitmore, who invited them all to crash at his Bakoven home for the night, Andrew Ogilvey recalls that the local surfers themselves were less than happy to see them. “There was big animosity and chirping between the Cape Town and Durban guys,” he said.

The Capetonians were convinced that their boy Peter Basford, by then a star of The Endless Summer and a surfer of considerable skill in both big waves and small, would take out the coveted senior title. The Durbanites had other ideas, and were sure that one of their surfers would win the contest.

Along with the Natalians, more than 90 other surfers, and a judging panel of seven led by John Whitmore, gathered at Long Beach the following morning, which dawned chilly and overcast, with bright sunshine piercing through the clouds at times. The entrants and spectators were greeted by offshore winds and surf ranging from waist high to solid overhead, which would hold the entire day.

Cutting from one of John Whitmore’s scrapbooks.

Though the Durban surfers faced an opponent stronger than any of the local competitors – the freezing Cape water – they acquitted themselves with aplomb and from the early rounds it became clear they were a force to be reckoned with.

Nevertheless, when Basford beat the likes of George Thomopolous and Tony Cerff in the quarter and semi-finals, the Capetonians became confident that the title would remain at home – even more so when the winner of the other semi final, Ant VDH, pulled out of the final with 10 minutes to go (due to what he must have imagined to be borderline frostbite).

Indeed, Basford led for most of the final, but in the last minute dark horse Thomopolous caught one of the best waves of the contest and pulled into a thick Atlantic tube, disappearing almost completely before emerging to loud cheers on the beach and the accolade of winning the country’s first official surfing title.

Though there were the inevitable grumblings from some local surfers that Basford should have won, at the prizegiving on the beach afterwards, the crowd cheered and clapped enthusiastically as John Whitmore announced the winners via loudhailer. Proudly wearing his WP jacket, John presented George his trophy – a magnificent wood carving of the Cape Peninsula hand made by John himself.

“They were very pissed off about that, extremely pissed off,” recalled George with a slightly cruel chuckle of victory, still sweet even decades later. Though officially simply the Western Province Championships, many consider Thomopolous’ to be the first South African surfing champion – not that it matters much, as he went on to win many more open titles and captained the South African team several occasions in the coming Springbok era.

What is without doubt is that the 1964 Western Province Championships at Long Beach, which was attended by well over 1000 live spectators and was covered in several newspaper reports in Cape Town, Durban and further afield, had set the standard for all South African contests to follow.

Through this extensive media coverage the event would boost the positive profile of surfing as a legitimate competitive sport considerably. It would also bolster the reputation of its director, John Whitmore, as the leading administrator of the sport in the country.

This momentum he would soon put to good use in the formation of the sport’s first national body: the South African Surf Riders Association.

A Cape newspaper report on the event with the full results. Image Whitmore archive.

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