The first in a series of profiles of people who were influenced or mentored by The Oom.
From day one, John Whitmore always wanted a South African to win a world surfing event. Since the early 1960s his ambition as the manager of the Springbok surfing team and president of the South African Surfrider’s Association (SASA) had been for one of the Springbok surfing team to at least win the ISF World Surfing Championships and for them to bring home the world title. Sadly, by 1970 despite four attempts, the closest they had ever come was a semi-final finish.
Though they had been the standout performers at in the pre-event warm ups and early rounds in big waves at Bells Beach in Australia in 1970, for the fifth consecutive time South Africa had failed to get a surfer into the finals. Indeed, only a few Springbok surfers had even reached the semis in four of the five previous ISF world contests – Max Wetteland in Australia in ‘64, Ant Van Den Heuvel in Peru in ‘65, George Thomopoulos in Puerto Rico ’68, and Mike and Shaun Tomson in Australia in ’70.
While all commendable results for a country with such a small surfing population, the South Africans all knew they could do better. Despite a growing reputation as a highly talented surfing nation and perennial outside contenders at every world contest, it must have been a disappointment to them that no South African had even come close to winning an international event so far. However, that would change in late 1971, when an 18-year-old Springbok, Gavin Rudolph, unexpectedly won the Smirnoff Pro-Am in massive waves in Hawaii.
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The first Smirnoff contest had first been held in San Diego, California in 1969 and then moved to Makaha, Hawaii in 1970. By then, winning this event equalled the ISF world championship in prestige. Run by 1968 ISF world champion and surf promoter Fred Hemmings, who was one of the earliest and most influential advocates of a worldwide professional surfing tour, it was also one of the sport’s most publicised contests.
Featuring surfing’s largest sponsorship purse to date, the 1971 Smirnoff was scheduled for Sunset Beach on the North Shore of Oahu. Keen to ensure it was a global event, Hemmings invited several international surfers to compete, including a contingent of South African surfers. As the top finishers in the 1971 South African Surfing Championships, held earlier that year in Jeffreys Bay, Gavin Rudolph flew out to Hawaii alongside fellow South African invitees. These included Errol Hickman, Shaun and Mike Tomson and Antony Brodowicz, who were all under the age of 20. “They invited the top seeds from each country in the world and those who could make it to get there, were in the contest,” said Gavin.
Just scraping together enough money for their airfares, the teenaged South Africans bunked in a rickety old caravan at the surf break Haleiwa, and charged the huge surf of the North Shore with hungry abandon, earning them kudos, respect and admiration from the locals. Building on the affinity fostered with the Hawaiian team while sharing a hotel at the 1970s ISF event in Australia, Gavin, Shaun and Mike had already formed friendships with some well-known North Shore surfers. These included George Downing and Gerry Lopez, who introduced the South African youngsters to breaks such as Haleiwa, Pipeline and Sunset, and shielded them from the local heavies.
“They couldn’t believe that we had white skin and we were from Africa,” said Gavin. “Gerry Lopez would come and pick me up and take me to Pipe and… tell every everyone to steer clear of me and then he’d paddle me into waves.” Also impressed by Gavin’s ability in heavy surf, respected North Shore surfboard shaper, big wave surfer and contest administrator Randy Rarick, who had competed in the Gunston 500 earlier that year, then offered to shape a new 7’10” board for Gavin, specifically for the Smirnoff contest venue.
Gavin charged at Sunset on his new stick from his very first wave. Coming out of the South African summer he felt slightly unfit but was nonetheless brimming with quiet confidence, just a few months out from an epic season of all time huge surf at in Jeffreys Bay that year. Indeed, now the veteran of half a dozen winters at J-bay, he had been the first South African to surf the speeding walls of Supertubes – once deemed to fast and dangerous to ride – and he was now one of its absolute standouts, which stood him at good stead at the notoriously tricky North Shore big wave spot.
“We started surfing J-Bay, the Point, you know and then we graduated to Tubes and our folks used to just dump us out there with our tents and our food and we used to stay out there on the beach in our little tent in the bush the whole school holidays,” said Gavin. “Keith Paull and I, we paddled up together in September 1968… just him and I were surfing Tubes, and we decided to try those ones running off further up.”
That same year, another three Australians, John Batcheldor, Gordon Merchant and Tony Wright also spent the winter in Jeffreys Bay, bringing with them new, shorter surfboard shapes and with them a revolutionary, far more radical approach to carving the open face and riding deep in the tube. This was also immensely helpful to Gavin, as he recalled: “I was on the cusp of the longboard era come shortboard… that was just as the boards were going into a transition, they were about 7’2” by then,” he said. “Those three guys brought out the most incredible latest vee-bottom surfboards from Oz and they just blew our minds the way they surfed… and that’s when my surfing went through the roof…. Just with the influence from the travelling surfers.”
Though Gavin only made the quarterfinals at Bells in 1970, he’d already won several local contests, including the 1969 Durban 500 (which was open only to South Africans that year), the SA Surfing Championships, the Springbok trials, and had made the South African surfing team for Puerto Rico in 1968 and again for Australia two years later.
While team manager John Whitmore felt a paternal pride in all his young surfing charges, especially his nephew Johnny Paarman, he had also grown immensely fond of the talented young Port Elizabethan surf star. Through the late ’60s and early ’70s John and Gavin had developed a close bond, much of it forged at the SA Champs and during the bi-annual Springbok trials, always held in the Eastern Cape, where the officials and trialists camped out together in the bush and surfed the gnarliest waves they could find.
“We always chased big swells. John would never send us out in small surf to pick a team. He would always find hairy places, unknown places, and send us out there,” said Gavin, who remembers John as a supportive mentor who never berated them for a poor heat performance. “John’s whole outlook was to make it fun for the guys, an adventure, and something to remember, and to get the best out of the guy’s surfing. There wasn’t too much pressure.”
While Gavin never achieved a major result in an ISF event, his international experience and domestic contest success ultimately paved the way for his remarkable Smirnoff win, a first for South Africa and a point of immense pride for all of the country’s surfers. As it was Gavin’s debut season on the North Shore, he entered the contest as an unknown rookie. Squeaking through each of his heats in the last qualifying position, the other competitors barely noticed him – until he came second in the semi-finals, and became the only South African to make an international surfing contest final to date, (besides Ant Van Den Heuvel, who had placed in an event in Peru in the mid-60s).
For Gavin, just making it to the contest had been an achievement. He had been in the last couple of months of his compulsory two-year national service in the South African navy in Simonstown when invited, but the young Springbok had managed to convince the brass to let him klaar out early attend to the event. But with no funds available from SASA to attend a professional competition or any serious sponsors, he eventually had to borrow the money from his father to get there. “My old man cashed in his only insurance policy that he had just to get me over there and he made me sign an IOU note that I would pay him back every cent,” he said.
By the time Gavin made the semi-finals, he started to believe that he might go all the way. “I said to myself now I have an outside chance of making the finals,” he wrote in South African surfing publication Moments. “By this time a few of the other South Africans that were touring, Mike Ginsberg, Robbie MacWade and Peter Daniels had joined the crew to give me support. After the semis Ginsy came up to me and said, ‘Gavin if you surf like you did in the semis, you’ll win. I took Ginsy’s advice… suddenly these world class professionals were asking who this skinny kid was from South Africa.”
Despite his confidence, the young PE surfer was understandably wary of the considerable abilities of his fellow finalists, who had barely registered his existence. “They didn’t even look at me because I was a non-entity, I wasn’t a threat,” Gavin recalled. “None of them worried about me because I was such a little skraal 18-year-old lightie… they all had long hair, I had this Navy haircut you know so I wasn’t really noticed until I made it into the final and then they thought ‘hey you know, who is this’?”
His opponents comprised a formidable line up of Hawaii’s surfing aristocracy and Sunset surfing masters: Jeff Hakman, Billy Hamilton, Clyde and Eddie Aukai, Barry Kanaiaupuni and Owl Chapman. During the final Gavin opted to avoid them altogether by taking off on the inside bowl – a strategy that ironically turned out to be the key to his victory and a $2,700 cheque.
Despite own reservations about professional surfing and his feeling that money sullied what he felt should always stay an amateur sport, John Whitmore was immensely proud of Gavin and offered him hearty congratulations upon his return to Cape Town from Hawaii in early 1972. Gavin would go on to win the Springbok trials that year, as well as make the Springbok team for next ISF world contest in San Diego, with John again accompanying them as team manager.
Unfortunately the 1972 ISF world contest would be the last event Gavin and John would attend together. Nearly cancelled, and then poorly run in dismal surf, the chaos surrounding that year’s event heralded the imminent demise of the ISF, which was battling to stay relevant as professional surfing rose to the fore. In fact, it would be the organisation’s last world contest and it dissolved shortly afterwards.
Sensing the inevitable, in 1973 John resigned as President of SASA and stepped away from surfing to focus on his rapidly growing business of manufacturing Hobie Cats. Thanks in part to an unfortunate incident that year involving Gavin, which resulted in him being banned by SASA from competing in surfing contests for three years, John would also not speak to the Springbok surfer again for several decades – but that is a story for another time.
In the mid-70s Gavin returned to surfing competitions with immediate aplomb. He joined the new IPS professional circuit and cracked the top 16, before retiring a few years later to focus on his business. But it is his inspiring display of power surfing at the 1971 Smirnoff Pro-Am that will forever cement his place as a South African surfing legend and ushered in a decade of stand out performances by South Africans in Hawaii that are still talked about today.
Gavin’s fearless approach and that of the likes of fellow protégé Johnny Paarman, as well as the Tomson cousins and several others, combined with impeccable grace and manners in the water, would leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that the country was a serious force to be reckoned in world surfing from that point onward. John Whitmore’s dream had also ultimately been realised. “I never expected to win,” said Gavin, who was able to pay back his father every cent he had loaned him from his winnings. “It was a good feeling for an unknown 18-year-old Springbok from South Africa.”
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