“John was related in enough ways for me to call him uncle. Oom, Afrikaans for uncle.”Donald Paarman
The story is as old as surfing itself. Young grommets in the shorebreak stealing lost boards, picking up scraps of waves, before the older guys come wading them, retrieve their ride with a bellicose grunt, and bugger off to back line. So it was at Glen Beach in Camps Bay, Cape Town more than 60 years ago, where a thriving surf scene – the only one like it on the entire Atlantic coast – had been pioneered by a hardy few.
Initially it was only six surfers with enough balls to brave the freezing Cape Atlantic surf in the early 1950s, with no wetsuits and no leashes. Led by John Whitmore, Earl Krause, Brian ‘Pikki Higgo’, David Meneses, Gordon Verhoef and Tim Paarman first paddled out to surf Glen Beach in the summer of 1954 on two of John’s prototype wooden and polystyrene boards. Instantly, they were all hooked on the stoke of surfing.
Within a few years, several others followed and by the end of the decade a few dozen surfers from Camps Bay and surrounds were the proud owners of Whitmore surfboards and there was a thriving local surfing scene, which for decades was one of the strongest hotbeds of talent in the country. Whenever there was a bit of surf, these boards would wash ashore in the tight little cove, prompting a scramble among a pack of blond, tousled haired shorebreak urchins to pounce on them and fight each other off and catch a sneaky wave or two. Among these fearless youngsters were two boys from the Paarman family, who already counted older uncles as accomplished surfers among their ranks, Glen Beach original Tim, and his younger brother, Roger, who was emerging as a stylish and skilled wave rider in his own right.
But it would be their two eldest nephews whose surfing skills would eventually come to eclipse their uncles – and almost everyone else in South Africa – the coming decades. Born in 1952 and 1954 respectively, Donald and Jonathan Paarman were the eldest two of the eventual six sons of Kenny and Leone, the Whitmore’s Bakoven neighbours, family and friends. In one of the earliest photographs taken of the two siblings, they are captured roughhousing on one of the first wood and canvas Whitmore boards, which Donald captioned in his autobiography: “Destiny or what. Two future Springbok surfers getting the vibe early in life”. In another picture, Donald, Jonathan and their baby brothers, Sean and Lee, can be seen using the same Whitmore board as a backyard slide.
“My dad’s brother, Timothy, was one of the twenty pioneer surfers in Cape Town,” recalled Donald. “After him came my uncle Roger, who is the youngest of the ten original male Paarmans. The original wooden boards were slowly replaced with colourful, epoxy longboards. As children we were allowed to borrow Uncle Roger’s board while he was at work. There were so many kids without surfboards that when one of us fell off the board, another would grab it and paddle out while the loser was still swimming to shore.”
As soon as the Paarman siblings were old enough to walk the short distance down the coast from Bakoven to Glen Beach by themselves, the seaside bungalow of their grandparents Pearl and Fred became their second home. “Right from the beginning, surfboards were automatically left in their backyard,” recounted Donald. “Up to thirty boards could be seen on the racks Grandma had insisted be built.”
As he grew older, Donald then started waiting for his uncle John and the older surfers above Glen Beach, hoping to be invited on one of their surf trips to the South Peninsula or elsewhere. “I used to hang around at the car park kicking stones around until John would say ‘oh shit’ you know ‘get in’,” he said. “So I’d climb in the back of the Kombi and go surfing with all these 20- and 30-year-old guys and watch them. Eventually they’d lend me a surfboard once or twice and it was game on.”
Like his older brother Donald, Jonathan Paarman – forever known as either Johnny or ‘JP’ – was barely out of pre-school when he began surfing at Glen Beach on a Whitmore surfboard. “He was five years old, went down with his uncle Tim, who pushed him in a wave,” Tim’s cousin Earl Krause recalled the moment. “He was natural from day one.”
“I used to hang around at the car park kicking stones around until John would say ‘oh shit’ you know ‘get in’. So I’d climb in the back of the Kombi and go surfing with all these 20- and 30-year-old guys and watch them. Eventually they’d lend me a surfboard once or twice and it was game on.”Donald Paarman.
Before long, Johnny also started to tag along with his brother on surf trips around the Cape in his uncle John’s Kombi and by the age of twelve was winning surfing contests in 12 foot plus waves. “We grew up on the beach bodysurfing in the shorebreak, playing in tin canoes and watching my uncles surf for hours. When they came in we would jump on their boards,” said Johnny. “It’s a whole family thing, we go back a long way. John and Earl babysat us as puppies. They would all phone each other and get together and go surfing [and] they used to take me with them.”
Though the younger Paarman initially whet his appetite for riding waves at Glen Beach, and occasionally on the fringes of Balie Bay when the swell was up, Johnny quickly revealed his potential as a big wave surfer when he began charging huge swells of Kommetjie, at first at the outside reefs at Long Beach – and then the notorious Outer Kom. “They would ride the big waves and I wasn’t going to sit on the beach, so I’d paddle out,” said Johnny.
Uncle Tim recalled the first time his little nephew Johnny ventured out into serious surf at an outer reef. “He must have been about 6 or 7 years old,” Tim said, “and then the next minute he stands up and is shaking and shouting and going mad, and that’s the first time Johnny ever stood up on a big wave.” Contrary to being dragged out there by the older surfers, Tim recounted with family pride how Johnny was almost maniacally obsessed in paddling out after them, despite their paternal concerns. “Johnny wanted to go out,” he said. “He had no qualms about that.”
Paarman Brother Photo Gallery – Click on any image to view on carousel.
Soon enough, the younger Paarman brother became a regular alongside his brother on every surf trip he could fandangle his way into, both usually dumped in the dogbox of his uncle John’s Kombi under all the Whitmore boards. “If the Mouille Point Pipe was going, then they were all handing the boards down the wall,” said Johnny. “I used to watch all this. For me as a young kid, they used to travel. I remember going out to one place, I think it was Kleinmond or somewhere, with one guy Arthur Holgate and all these guys, and I remember Uncle John used to say to me ‘ja ja, you used to ask me, ‘Uncle John are we out of South Africa yet?’ So you can work out how young I was.”
The family connection between the Krauses and Paarmans of Camps Bay would lead to John Whitmore being awarded the most enduring of his many nicknames: The Oom – also sometimes phrased as a mix of English and Afrikaans as Oom John or Oom Jan. These sobriquets, coined by his nephews, would remain with him for the rest of his days. Though not a blood relative, thanks to his marriage to Thelma, John was nonetheless an integral member and a patriarch of the broader clan and more than close enough to them to earn this affectionate and respectful title. It soon stuck and was used by almost everyone else to address him, family or not. “[He] was related in enough ways for me to call him uncle,” affirmed Donald. “Oom in Afrikaans.”
“I remember going out to one place, I think it was Kleinmond or somewhere, with one guy Arthur Holgate and all these guys, and I remember Uncle John used to say to me ‘ja ja, you used to ask me, ‘Uncle John are we out of South Africa yet?’ So you can work out how young I was.”Johnny Paarman.
John’s early influence on Donald and Johnny was immense. It was their uncle John who, as president of South African Surfriders Association, secured Springbok colours for South African surfers in 1966, ensuring that several Paarmans would earn their green and gold for the sport in the coming decade. As teenagers he took them to surfing competitions around the world, coached, trained them and rewarded their incredible surfing prowess with well deserved selection for the South African national surfing team, often paying out of his own pocket or helping to raise funds for their entry fees boards and flights to overseas contest venues.
The investment and hard work paid off and both Donald and Johnny became famous in the competitive surfing world for their incredible ability as hard charging, talented surfers who outsurfed and beat the best at several ISF world champs in the 60s and 70s. The more graceful and subliminally positioned, true point break style master, Donald was the foil to his younger brother. Johnny’s brutal squat legged manhandling of waves in the double overhead zone in Cape Town and Hawaii and his demolition of Supertubes in Jeffreys Bay remain legendary performances for a South African surfer.
But while Johnny enjoyed a long career as a contest surfer, his older brother Donald’s light burned bright and burned out early. Recognised by in world surfing as one of the most subtly stylish and technically gifted surfers to ever grace a stringerline, Donald had a stellar run as a junior and put the top overseas surfers on notice in several international contests, but never really fulfilled his potential in a contest vest. However, like his brother some of his sessions at Jeffreys Bay will go down as epochal, especially for a backside surfer. Always a stand out, Donald’s surfing at the time was indeed a thing of beauty to watch.
But he strayed from the path. Losing a signature Donald Paarman Whitmore surfboard – the first of its kind in South Africa – while at the world contest in San Diego in 1966, Donald became estranged from his uncle and ended up riding for a competing board label. A flamboyant hippie, his behaviour became erratic and he succumbed to the voices in his head and far too much marijuana, acid and who knows what else. By the mid-1970s Donald was sucked into the vortex of a whirlwind, psychedelic life and faded from the surf scene. He would later reemerge as a latter day middle-aged journeyman and score his share of waves in the Southern Cape while writing his memoirs before succumbing to cancer a few years back. Forever immortalised by his own hand in his 2009 rollercoaster, confessional autobiography – ‘Lunatic Surfer or Destiny Springbok……Whaaat!” – may Donald Paarman rip in peace.
On the other hand his brother, the quiet and reserved Johnny – known in competitive circles as ‘The Iceman’ – went right to the top level of the sport on the IPS tour. Turning pro in the 70s after finishing 7th at the ISF world event in San Diego in 1976 he placed highly in several pro events – including a career best second at the Gunston 500 and finished 15th in the world in 1977. Often referred to as the son John Whitmore (the father of three daughters) never had, Johnny Paarman stayed close to his uncle John his entire life, following his surfing career by working his uncle’s surfboard and boat building factories. Earning a reputation as a fearless big wave rider, yachtsman, Hobie Cat sailor, surfboard builder and fibreglass craftsman in his own right, Johnny also took over his uncle John’s radio surf report when he retired in the early 1980s.
Now in his late 60s and living with his wife Lynda and still occasionally surfing in St Francis, Johnny Paarmn runs the Nexus boat building factory, where he and several old Cape Whitmore Pty Ltd hands – including John’s right hand man Geoff Fish and younger brother Roger Paarman – puts together giant catamarans for wealthy clients.
It is here, in JP’s factory, that the spirit of this Uncle John Whitmore – The Oom – is as omnipresent as the sweet smell of resin and fibreglass ever hanging in the air.
By Miles Masterson
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