Before there were surfers: The Discovery of surf at Cape St Francis

“I wanted to explore. I could see that every point on the east coast is a right as a result of the swell direction and the way it travelled up the coast.” – John Thornton Whitmore

All surfers would love to discover a new spot and christen it – preferably after ourselves. But, in the age of Google Earth, few will ever get the chance.

It was not always so. 

Enter John ‘The Oom’ Whitmore, the first person to surf on the West Coast of South Africa – at Glen Beach, Camps Bay in 1954. John was also the first to manufacture modern fibreglass surfboards in the country and founded Springbok surfing. 

A sales manager for Volkswagen before he moved to full time board making and founded and became president of the South African Surfrider’s Association (SASA) in the 1960s, John had the perfect vehicle for surf discovery – a VW Kombi, reputed to be the first off the production line from the new Volkswagen assembly factory in Port Elizabeth in the early 1950s. 

Bruce’s Beauties in St Francis is now one of the most iconic waves in all of surfdom.

Possessing an insatiable wanderlust, throughout the mid 1950s, in his Kombi, John found dozens of waves in the Western Cape, including Kommetjie and Elands Bay. As car sales manager, part of John’s work responsibilities also included travelling regularly to the VW headquarters in PE, which enabled him to look for new surf spots in the Eastern Cape on his trips. 

“I wanted to explore,” he said. “I could see that every point on the east coast is a right as a result of the swell direction and the way it travelled up the coast.” 

John eventually broke in scores of new surf spots in the Southern Cape, including Jongensfontien, Mossel Bay and Buffalo Bay. While at the time lifeguards were riding wooden surfboards in East London, there is no doubt that John was the first to surf in the region, at least as far as the Sundays River. 

This was most likely at Plett, where he used to stay with an aunt and later camped over long weekends with his faithful disciples from Bakoven. “We explored the whole coast,” said John. “You never had to worry about anybody else, because there was nobody.”

But John was still convinced he could find even better surf. Acting on a tip from a friend, Bert Niemeyer, whose father had a fishing shack at the mouth of the Kromme River, in 1958 John set out for Cape St. Francis. “Bert said that at St. Francis there were beautiful waves,” he recalled, “so I had to go and take a look.” 

Bruce’s in all its empty glory, 1966. Photographer unknown.

Inching his Kombi along the dirt road from Humansdorp, sand drifts eventually rendered the route impassable and John was forced to carry his board, emerging over the dunes onto the edge of a large bay, where he paddled out toward some waves he saw breaking in the corner of the beach. 

“It was about 6-8 foot that day, overcast, westerly,” said John. “I went to what I call ‘Whitmore’s’, you know that reef out there that comes off the left. That’s what I went and rode, all by myself. That was an amazing feeling. And then old Leighton came down and said, ‘Oh good lord, what is all this about’?” 

Leighton Hulett invited John to stay the night and told him that next time he would collect him in his tractor where the road ended and the two men struck up a longstanding friendship.

“I used to go back continuously and camp there,” said John. “On the PE side there was a little dip and a stream. Dave Meneses and I used to paddle out there on our boards with a hand line and go and catch supper off that reef, which had fantastic fish in those days.”

Over the next few years – either travelling solo or filling his Kombi with Cape surfers for weekend tours to the East Coast – John would spend at least one night in St Francis and always surfed at the reef out front. 

It would also be at this exact same spot that an American, Mike Hynson, first paddled out for a dawnie in December 1963. Sent by John to stay with Leighton, Mike and co had travelled up the coast in the infamous International Harvester van, with John’s good friend Terence Bullen, alongside filmmaker Bruce Brown and fellow California surfer Robert August.

Mike Hynson, Bruce’s Beauties. Frame grab by Bruce Brown, The Endless Summer.

Mike was joined in the water a little later by Robert, with Bruce filming on the beach for a surf movie he was making. But, as we all now know, they soon noticed a few waves peeling down the sandbar on the point and went across to investigate – and found what soon became known worldwide as “that perfect wave”. 

Bruce only just caught Mike on his epic first ride, one that would soon be seen by millions around the world in The Endless Summer. “BOOM! And that was it, baby,” said Mike. “We all knew what had happened – we’d just made the movie.”

John returned to St Francis many times in his life, including as a key member of The Endless Summer 2 crew. The name Whitmore’s however never stuck to the break he discovered in the late 1950s and is now known as Hulett’s or simply ‘The Reef’. Image Courtesy Gary Haselau.

Bruce Brown will of course forever remain synonymous with the wave they discovered and was subsequently named after him – Bruce’s Beauties. But to John Whitmore’s chagrin, while he visited St Francis often for the rest of his life, his own name never stuck at the wave he first surfed, now known as Hulett’s or The Reef. 

Though he was ribbed many years later about this by Bruce – in the same location, on the set of The Endless Summer 2 in the early 1990s – Whitmore took it with good grace.

After all, he had been there first.

“We surfed before there were surfers,” said John. “And the waves were beautiful.”

By Miles Masterson

This article first appeared in ‘The West Wind’, the online magazine for the St. Francis area:

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