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1964 World Contest: Max goes Down Under

In the early 1960s, though the concept of surfing competitions had not yet made it to South Africa and to date no local surfer had competed in an international surfing contest. This would change when Durban’s Max Wetteland travelled to Australia for the inaugural International Surfing Federation (ISF) World Championships, held at Manly Beach near Sydney in early 1964.

By then international surfing competitions were long overdue for a shake up. An annual contest at Makaha in Oahu, Hawaii, had always been the main event where the world’s best surfers gathered to compare skills once a year. Usually dominated by Hawaiians, and with an archaic format rooted in the 1950s wooden surfboard era, the Makaha contest was considered old-fashioned by the new generation of post-1960 surfers, who had been weaned on polyurethane boards and small wave ‘hot dogging’.

And so, in late 1963, representatives from several countries joined forces to try to form an international body for surfing and usher in a new, more relevant competitive paradigm for the sport – and to spread it worldwide. Australian surfing pioneer Bob Evans, the country’s first surf magazine publisher and filmmaker, formed the Australian Surfing Association (ASA) in early 1964, along with several prominent Aussie surfers, including Bernard ‘Midget’ Farrelly. Together with the Americans, Peruvians and a few others, they then began to plan the formation of the ISF, and to invite all surfing countries to their first world championship, to be held in Sydney in May of that year.

Max on the nose at a surf contest in Durban in the mid-1960s. Photo courtesy Harry Bold/South African Surfer magazine.

An unexpected invitation

Cognisant of the small surf scene in South Africa, the world contest organisers sent a note to Harry Bold in Durban inquiring whether the South Africans had any surfing organisations or national events, and whether they could please send their national champion surfer to represent the country at the ‘first fully representative amatuer World Surfboard Titles’. The selected surfer, they added, would be provided free passage to the event by sponsor Ampol and accommodation as a guest of the ASA.

Part of the letter sent to Harry Bold by the Australian Surfing Association in 1964, courtesy Harry Bold.

Harry had been sent the letter because he distributed Surfer magazine in Durban – its owner John Severson had provided the ASA’s Bob Evans with his postal address – the only one they had for a South African surfer. “Max Wetteland, Harry Bold and myself were building the first Safari surfboards in a back room when we received a letter asking us for the name of our South African surfing champion,” recalled Baron Stander, early Durban surfing pioneer, surfboard manufacturer and historian. “We wrote back and said we did not have any clubs or associations, nor had we staged any competitions.”

“I felt like a real country bumpkin. But what a thrill to be there. There were thousands of people. And then all the people we had been reading about in the magazines, like Phil Edwards, Corky Carroll, all those names and I was just in awe, shaking their hands and meeting them.”

Max Wetteland

In fact, the very concept seemed completely alien to the three Durbanites, revealed Max, and they resigned themselves that they would not be able to qualify for the event. “We never even thought of having a surf contest in those days,” Max said. “There was no such thing. We would never even entertain the idea of comparing each other in the surf. But we had noticed, in the American magazines, that there were national surfing championships… [so] when Harry responded, he told them South Africans have never had a surf contest, we thought no more of it.”

But the Australians would not take no for an answer. The ASA sent back a reply immediately, insisting the South Africans simply send whoever they thought would best represent the country. Sponsored by oil company Ampol to the tune of 30,000 Australian pounds, this contest was clearly a big deal – and was obviously an opportunity the South Africans could not afford to pass up. With little time to act, Harry and Baron agreed that somebody should go. In their minds, there were only two real contenders to attend the ISF contest, Durban surfers Max ‘Maxie’ Wetteland and Anthony ‘Ant’ Van Den Heuvel.

Of the two, Wetteland was their first choice. A few years older than Ant, Max was a seasoned competitive lifesaver and champion paddle racer, who had represented club and country at local and overseas competitions, including events in Cape Town and international lifesaving tournament in Jersey in the UK. “Max was a fantastic surfer with a Phil Edwards style,” said Harry, “and there was Ant Van Den Heuvel, who was probably a little bit better than Max, but who we thought was a bit wild.”

Max Wetteland profile in Durban newspaper circa late 1960s. Clipping courtesy Dave Lee.

Indeed, while 20-year-old Van Den Heuvel was a phenomenally talented surfer, he also had a rebellious streak and sometimes displayed erratic, unpredictable behaviour. So Harry and Baron ultimately felt Ant would not be the best choice to represent the country. With his competitive experience as a lifesaver, and as a more mature, reserved personality, Baron proposed that 25-year-old Max attend and Harry seconded the decision.

To mollify any potential controversy about the legitimacy of their choice, the trio cooked up a story about pulling straws to make their final call, though it seems Ant later found out and confronted Harry about the decision. “There was a bit of an argument and I don’t think Ant ever spoke to me again, because we took a vote and I voted for Max and Baron said, ‘ah okay, Max’,” he recalled.

The Durbanites had also been in contact with their Cape Town counterpart John Whitmore, who they phoned for input. While stoked on the invitation, John was nevertheless slightly disgruntled at their decision, however they arrived at it, because it had not involved an official selection event or ‘trial’, recounted Max. “John was very upset about that,” he said Max. “He would have liked us to have a surfing contest, but it was all too late.”

John had no choice but to agree, and Max Wetteland, South Africa’s first international surfing representative, packed his bag and – armed with a polystyrene and epoxy 10’4” Safari surfboard – nervously climbed aboard a Vickers Viscount turbo-prop bound for Sydney, Australia. “It took forever to get there,” said Max, “and it rattled the whole way.”

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Harry Bold and Max Wetteland horsing around on the Durban beachfront with a broken stringerless Whitmore polystyrene surfboard circa 1961. Photo courtesy Harry Bold/South African Surfer magazine.

The birth of all contests

Thanks to its generous corporate sponsorship, the inaugural ISF World Surfing Championships garnered major publicity in sporting mad Australia. Coverage of the event, held at Manly on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, included a nightly television news report and a live broadcast for the finals. Helicopters buzzed overhead, banners lined the beachfront promenade, long-lens cameras clicked incessantly. Contest brochures in hand, giddy spectators flocked to watch the contest, where they drank beer and danced on the sand to live bands.

Sitting shoulder to shoulder, the Aussies crammed every inch of the beach to cheer the surfers on – a carnivalesque spectacle that was until then unimaginable to the uninitiated young South African. Though Manly reminded him a little of Durban – a long, tree-lined crescent bay, lined with squat blocks of red-bricked flats, framed by green headlands – Max recalled feeling completely out of place as he prepared to paddle out for his first heat.

Having never donned a contest vest before, he experienced a strange mix of emotions – humility, anxiety and unbridled excitement. “I just stood there looking, gawping,” he said. “I felt like a real country bumpkin. But what a thrill to be there. There were thousands of people. And then all the people we had been reading about in the magazines, like Phil Edwards, Corky Carroll, all those names and I was just in awe, shaking their hands and meeting them.”

As one of the international invitees, Max was automatically seeded into the quarterfinals on the final day of competition. Here he joined the other ranked surfers from Hawaii, America and Australia, France, Peru, the Channel Islands and New Zealand. He competed against several of his surfing heroes, including the newly-crowned Australian champ Bernard ‘Midget’ Farrelly and 1963 Makaha event winner, Hawaiian style master Joey Cabell, and rising stars, such as Aussie Nat Young. While the surf on the last day of the competition was not incredible, the two to three foot waves were sufficient to showcase surfing adequately for its live televised debut. The competitors – which included a women’s division – wore coloured, numbered vests.

Though a total newcomer to contest surfing, as a champion lifesaving paddler, Max had one advantage. At the event, each heat would commence with the crack of a starting gun. The surfers would then have to run to the water’s edge with their boards and race around a buoy, after which they could catch a wave. Max surged ahead of the rest of the six man pack and caught the first ride of the final day. Although he conceded that there may have been dozens of local surfers who were more talented than himself to warrant his quarterfinal spot, he acquitted himself well enough by making it through his first heat, before being eliminated in the semi-final.

In the grand final, 19-year-old Midget Farrelly came from behind to catch the best wave of the event in the dying minutes ahead of Americans Mike Doyle and Joey Cabell, sending the crowd of more than 10,000 Sydnesiders into a clamour of jingoistic pride. With his semi final finish, Max had nonetheless represented South Africa with aplomb, impressing his counterparts with this skill and showcasing its talent and potential as a credible competitive surfing nation.

“The meetings were held at the Manly Pacific Surf Club. We were all asked, everyone that attended, to try to follow this surfing contest as an annual event, somewhere in the world.”

Max Wetteland

Thanks to their shared interest in making surfboards, Max also started a long-lasting friendship with winner Midget. In the weeks after the contest he stayed on and learned everything he could from the Australian about the advanced techniques of shaping and surfboard manufacture in the country, which were on a par with those of the US. “It was a huge learning curve about boards, how they made them,” Max said. Wetteland’s future business association with Midget would also have an enormous impact on surfing in Durban, and would precipitate Max’s rise as the city’s kingpin of the sport and industry in the mid to late 1960s. 

Max learned a lot about surfboard shaping during his stay in Australia, pictured here in his shaping bay from a Wetteland Surfboards advert, circa 1965. Photo courtesy Harry Bold/South African Surfer magazine.

Eduardo’s rule book

Yet advanced knowledge of surfboard shaping and manufacture was of course not the only intelligence Max brought home from Australia. While in Sydney, he met Peruvian surfer Eduardo Arena, who was both a competitor in the event and alongside Evans and Farrelly, one of the driving forces behind the formation of the ISF. A few years earlier the Peruvian national champion had founded South America’s first surfing collective, the influential Waikiki Surf Club, in Lima.

Along with Bob Evans, Midget and several other Australians and Americans, while in Sydney, he then contributed massively to the foundation of the ISF, which was announced officially on the world contest’s final day. Elected as its inaugural chairman, Eduardo painstakingly set down the organisation’s rules and regulations in booklet form, and reached out to the representatives of all of the countries that did not yet have national surfing bodies, including South Africa.

Handing each a copy, Eduardo instructed them to form a national organisation under the ISF umbrella, with the ultimate aim of sending teams to their regular world championships, the next one scheduled for Peru in 1965. “The meetings were held at the Manly Pacific Surf Club,” recalled Max. “We were all asked, everyone that attended, to try to follow this surfing contest as an annual event, somewhere in the world.”

The booklet included the internationally accepted approach to competitive wave riding, known as the ‘functional’ style of surfing, as outlined in the ISF document. Returning to Durban, Max shared everything he had learned with Baron and Harry, who promptly made a copy of the booklet and sent it down to John Whitmore, who used it to found South Africa’s first surfing body, the Western Province Surfing Association, later that year. “When I got back from Australia, I brought the rules for surfing contests; we didn’t know anything about the rules or how to judge it,” said Max. “Then all the associations were formed and the game was on.”

As the Cape Town and Durban kingpins of the fledgling South African surf industry in the 1960s, John Whitmore and Max Wetteland – pictured here at Lllandudno beach circa 1968 – had a difficult relationship tempered by equal parts intense rivalry and grudging respect. Image courtesy Dick Metz/SHACC.

Max Wetteland’s visit Down Under would eventually spur a formidable future competitive rivalry between surfers from Durban and Cape Town and a difficult relationship with his Cape Town equivalent in surf administration and surfboard manufacture, John Whitmore. But those are stories for another time.

Read about South Africa’s first interprovincial surfing contest here.

Watch the 1964 ISF World Surfing Championships here.

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