“I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing the thing have developed to that extent and knowing I was there at the concept. You know, you don’t do it by yourself – everybody contributed to that, but it’s nice to know you were [there].” – John Whitmore, humbly remarking on his considerable legacy, shortly before he passed away in 2001.
John Whitmore. “The Oom”. “The Doyen”. Godfather of SA Surfing.
Through his ingenious mind, prodigious drive, hard work and relentless dedication to whatever he set his mind to, John Whitmore influenced the lives of tens of thousands of South Africans. He pioneered, created or played a vital role in the inception and growth of several watersports codes in the country and left an enormous mark on them all.
Thanks to his warm personality, savvy marketing instincts, role in The Endless Summer and his daily radio surf report, John achieved widespread fame in the 1960s and 70s and cemented his legacy as a South African sporting icon, one who played a massively influential part in bringing Hawaiian Aloha and California beach culture to African shores.
John lived a wild, adventurous and remarkable life, providing plenty of rich material to carve out a compelling, entertaining tale, which is of course at the heart of this biographical book.
Inevitably though, the narratives surrounding John also bear more than just a mention. Indeed, it would be impossible to chronicle his life without providing, as a backdrop, the bona fide histories of the many untouched places, groundbreaking events and colourful characters from the sports and industries he helped to pioneer.
The product of more than 120 interviews and years of extensive research, not only will this book will not only serve as an unique historical record, it will also reveal, corroborate or dispel the many myths and legends from the early days of diving, surfing, Hobie Catting, bodyboarding and beach culture in South Africa.
A book of this nature has never been published in this country. As a result many of the wild stories and incredible accomplishments of these sporting subcultures have never been accurately documented – and may never otherwise see the light of day.
This makes the John Whitmore Book Project unique. It is a long overdue and sorely needed account of what really happened back when. It will be a book that will save for posterity the origins and evolutions of this small slice of sporting South Africana.
The book will contain five sections, each dealing with an aspect of John’s life – warts and all as they say – and everyone he touched, including:
Smitten by the Sea
As a toddler John went to live with his mother at the home of conservative Afrikaans grandmother in Sea Point, Cape Town, following her estrangement from his British father in Johannesburg (see The Origins of John Whitmore, here). This part of the book describes John’s subsequent discovery of the ocean and his escapades as a young boy – bodysurfing, and building and riding tin canoes and bellyboards in the surf at beneath the promenade, and his early entrepreneurism in catching crayfish to sell to passersby.
This part of the book includes exciting and often dangerous accounts of his exploits as pioneering skin diver in Cape Town, such as being attacked by sea creatures and exploding masks, or his involvement one of the first salvage operations using private divers to recover a downed military aircraft in Table Bay.
It also covers how John raced – and often crashed – motorbikes with his childhood friend Terence Bullen at Killarney (see Who was ‘Terence of Africa’? here), as well as his adventures as a railway ‘stoker’ in Rhodesia, before he returned home to marry his teenage sweetheart Thelma Krause in 1954 and started full time work in a Cape winery.
Following his discovery of surfing in a US diving magazine advertisement in the early 1950s, John struggled to find more about this fascinating sport, which he was both blown away by and adamant to try. This part of the book documents his quest – with scant knowledge – to manufacture the first wood and canvas and polystyrene and epoxy surfboards in Cape Town.
It also covers his attempts, with a gang of young relatives and friends from Bakoven in Camps Bay, at surfing at Glen Beach on the Cape Atlantic seaboard. It documents John’s idyllic life in at his Bakoven bungalow, filled with wine, women and waves, and his adoption of his enduring nickname ‘The Oom’ (given to him by his surfing nephews Donald and Jonathan Paarman).
These chapters includes several personal challenges he had to overcome, including finding meaningful employment as a young father, which he eventually secured as a salesman for VW. This section also covers his adventures in his new Kombi with his acolytes, and their discovery of several now well-known surf spots across the Cape Peninsula, the West Coast and the Eastern Cape of South Africa – including at Cape St. Francis.
John’s chance meeting in 1959 with Dick Metz, a surfer from the Laguna/Dana Point area in California, who was hitchhiking around the world and by sheer happenstance ended up on Boat Bay beach in Sea Point while John was surfing there one day, completely changed his life.
Metz, who eventually became John’s lifelong friend, evolved into a highly influential figure in the world surfing industry and was one of a small group of entrepreneurs who pioneered surfing businesses in the US, including his retail partner Hobie Alter, as well as his close friends Gordon Clark and Bruce Brown, collectively known as the ‘Dana Point Mafia’.
These chapters briefly document Dick’s travels around the world, up to his meeting with John, and the immense effect that he had on surfing in South Africa (at John’s behest, Dick also travelled to Durban, connecting the two surfing cities for the first time) and John’s life by exposing and connecting him to the epicentre of surf and beach culture: Southern California.
The Endless Summer
Upon his return to Laguna, Dick convinced surf filmmaker Bruce Brown to travel to South Africa to film some new footage for his next movie. This trip eventually evolved into The Endless Summer, a global smash hit surfing movie seen to date by more than 200 million people. After his stay in Cape Town, Brown and his crew were directed by John to Cape St. Francis, where they discovered ‘that perfect wave’. This resulted in most memorable sequence of The Endless Summer, which put South Africa firmly on the world surfing map. John also arranged with Bruce to show his previous movie Waterlogged in the country, which he did to capacity crowds for several months in 1964.
With the profits from this, John was able to save up enough money to quit his successful motor sales job and break out on his own as a surfboard manufacturer and industry entrepreneur. Thanks to Metz and his contacts in the US, John also imported the most up to date products and surfboard materials, manufactured Clark Foam surfboard cores and developed a reputation as a marketer and craftsman extraordinaire. This precipitated the formation of an entire industry and spurred a massive boom in the sport in the 1960s, which was further bolstered by his sell out screenings of The Endless Summer in 1965. These chapters document this fascinating and never fully told story in its entirety.
In the mid-60s period John set up the Western Province Surfing Association, held the inaugural provincial surfing event (see The First Champs, here) and was instrumental in the formation of the South African Surfriders Association – over which he presided for nearly a decade. Using his contacts in the government, he managed to obtain Springbok colours and financial support for surfing. John also managed three of the first Springbok surfing teams to travel overseas to various world championships, where he exerted considerable influence as a global surfing administrator within then world surfing body, the International Surfing Federation (ISF) and established relationships with the US industry’s most powerful individuals.
These chapters document, from John’s perspective, the evolution of surfing in South Africa through the 1960s and the early 1970s into a leading nation in the sport. This part of the book also includes his increasing renown as ‘The Doyen’ of surfing in South Africa, his personal quirks, tough character and business rivalries, and frustrations with the long-haired, pot-smoking stigma developing in surf culture during this time. It also takes a look at his challenges with apartheid sports boycotts, which thwarted many of John’s lofty ambitions for SA surfing and along with the dominance of hippies and rapid changes in surfboard design, ultimately pushed him away from the sport.
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Hobie and Boogie
John shifted his focus from surfing to Hobie Cats in the 1970s. Due to his strong friendship with Hobie Alter, John was able to secure the rights to Hobie Cats for the whole of Africa and began producing these boats from his Cape Town factory. John set up a domestic racing class for the sport that eventually produced dozens of Springboks and several world champions (still the most in the Hobie Cat world to date) and hosted several events in South Africa.
This included putting on the 1979 Hobie 14 Worlds in Plettenberg Bay, which Hobie himself attended and remarked that was the most organised event of its kind he had seen before then. In the mid-1980s John sold his Hobie Cat factory, but continued to make Clark Foam surfboard cores and introduced Morey Boogie bodyboards, spurring a boom in a third ocean sport and industry in South Africa that also produced several further world champions, all thanks to ‘The Oom’.
The Final Years
Later chapters will briefly delve into John’s life post-retirement, as the patriarch of a large family and as the widely respected godfather of SA surfing. They also cover his welcome return to the sport as the patron of the Cape longboard surfing association in the 1990s and his final years spent on his farm in Elands Bay growing garlic and crafting exquisite pocket knives, which are today regarded as collectors’ items. The narrative culminates with John’s short but ugly battle with lung cancer from a lifelong habit of chain smoking, before his death in 2001, and closes with his memorial ceremony at Glen Beach in early 2002, attended by several thousand people.
Well, that’s the bones of it. There is a lot more to the book, of course, but you will have to wait until it is published to find out the full story and learn what really happened!
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