“It was a fantastic spectacle of these three guys riding this monstrous wave on surfboards, and that’s when it clicked: bing bang, I had to get into it.” – John Whitmore, on seeing a photograph of surfing for the first time in an American diving magazine in the early 1950s.
So, who was John Whitmore anyway?
John ‘The Oom’ Whitmore is a South African watersports icon. Also known as the ‘Doyen’ – and the godfather of South African surfing – throughout his eventful and adventurous life, John had an enormous influence on skin diving, surfing, Hobie Catting and bodyboarding across much of the country. Overall, he helped to create several industries and had a huge impact on South Africa’s international sporting prowess and reputation – making an indelible contribution that still resounds decades later.
As Cape Town’s first hardcore surfer, John discovered scores of new surf spots along the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts and introduced the sport to hordes of eager ‘stokies’ through the late 1950s and into the 1960s. As one of South Africa’s first full time surfboard manufacturers – indeed, as a supreme craftsman of surfboards who set incredibly high standards for all to follow – he also helped to rapidly grow a then-marginal pastime into a thriving sport and industry.
John founded the first national surfing competitions, formed the first provincial and national surfing associations and through his government connections obtained the first Springbok colours for surfers. He also managed several South African surfing teams, including the first full contingent, which attended the ISF World Surfing Championships in San Diego in 1966.
Thanks his gift as a savvy marketer and sports promoter – and through his roles as the leader of both Western Province and the South African Surfriders’ Association – John steered the sport and industry towards national and global respect and recognition.
It is undoubtedly in a large part thanks to John’s vision and efforts that South African surfing grew from its humble origins to the global powerhouse of the sport it remains today – still churning out far more world champions than any country of similar proportions.
Thanks to his close involvement in the top echelons of global surf administration, including the governing body of the sport at the time, the International Surfing Federation (ISF), John’s recognition and influence also grew internationally. This was further bolstered by his his small but pivotal role in the classic surfing documentary, first released in 1965, The Endless Summer.
Back home, John’s fame increased further via his daily surf report on the radio, and over the years his influence and stature grew as he continued to supply most of the surf industry with Clark Foam blanks, and later established both Hobie Catting and bodyboarding in South Africa. He retired from active business in the 1980s to focus on creating exquisite handmade knives, now much sought after collector’s items.
Sea Point Origins
Ironically perhaps, John was born far from the sea – in Johannesburg in 1929 (see The Origins of John Whitmore, here). But when his parents separated and his mother moved back home, John was lucky enough to spend his childhood and teens on the beaches of Sea Point, Cape Town in the 1930s and 1940s. He spent his youth foraging and fishing on its rocky coastline and with his friends built wooden bellyboards and tin canoes to play in its seas.
It was in the latter that he and his contemporaries rode their first waves, standing in their small skiffs, clutching makeshift paddles in their hands as they surged ecstatically towards the shore – experiencing the stoke of surfing, long before John knew that surfing or surfboards even existed.
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In the years shortly after World War II, in his late teens, John began to venture beneath and beyond the Sea Point waves, along with the likes of pioneering Cape diving legends Roy McGregor, Bernie Wrankmore and Dick Perring. Using self-engineered spear guns, and home made goggles and flippers, they became the vanguard of skin diving and spearfishing across the Western Cape, toughing it out for years without any wetsuits, in the freezing Atlantic waters.
Instrumental in founding Cape Town’s first diving and spearfishing clubs, John and his fellow ‘frogmen’ eventually became commercial divers, and were among the first to dive professionally for perlemoen in South Africa. They were also involved in several salvage operations, in fact becoming the first civilian divers to assist the South African military, in an arduous and dangerous attempt to recover an aircraft that crashed into Table Bay in the early ’50s.
Surfing and Surfboards
In the early 1950s, John’s path shifted completely when he discovered surfing while paging through in an American diving magazine. The photograph, of three surfers riding a huge wave in Hawaii, opened his eyes to the potential the sport presented. With scant information, and relying mostly on his own ingrained ingenuity to get the job done, John set about building both his first wood and polystyrene surfboards.
On one his rudimentary prototypes, John was the first to surf a wave at Glen Beach on the Atlantic coastline of South Africa – and likely the entire Western coast of Africa – and from that day he and his small band of followers became ‘stokies’ – completely hooked on the thrill of surfing.
Throughout the mid to late ‘50s, John refined his surfboard shapes and at his bungalow in Bakoven, began to make surfboards for a handful of friends and family in the Camps Bay and Sea Point areas. Drawing on his knowledge of the coast from his diving and fishing days, John and his acolytes also began to surf across the Cape Peninsula. They explored every inch of the West and East coasts of South Africa in his trusty VW Kombi, one the first vehicles of its kind in South Africa.
John discovered and surfed dozens of new surf spots, from Kommetjie to Elands Bay in the west, and from False Bay to Cape St Francis in the east. In the early 1960s John and co. also made contact with the small but thriving surfing scene at Muizenberg in False Bay and the sport soon began to grow rapidly in popularity across Cape Town, with most surfers riding – or at least aspiring to ride – a sleek handcrafted Whitmore surfboard.
Dick and Bruce
Then, thanks to a chance meeting on the Cape Atlantic shores with a travelling American surfer from Laguna Beach, Dick Metz, John became exposed to the epicentre of surf culture and the surfboard industry in California. In the early 1960s he began to import polyurethane surfboard cores from Metz’s close friend Gordon ‘Grubby’ Clark. This enabled John to build a far superior and stronger surfboard design, now laminated with fibreglass and polyester resin, which he sold to scores of eager customers all the way from Cape Town to Durban.
Surfing entered the mainstream globally in the early 1960s, thanks to pop culture influences such as Gidget and other Hollywood teen surf movies and the music of The Beach Boys. As a result, John became convinced that it could thrive equally in South Africa, despite the country’s isolation and its relatively smaller followings in Cape Town and Durban and a smattering of surfers along the coastline between.
Fortuitously, the arrival of Bruce Brown, another contemporary and close friend of Dick Metz (who had convinced Bruce to come to stay with John in Cape Town and to sample its waves), proved to be the catalyst for the real explosion in popularity of the sport both locally and internationally. Their meeting also proved to be a life changing moment for John Whitmore and had a massive effect on his fortunes from that day onward.
This was due to the explosive effect on 60s pop-culture zeitgeist of The Endless Summer, a quasi-surf documentary produced by Brown in 1964. The film followed the adventures of two American surfers, Mike Hynson and Robert August, as they circumnavigated the globe.
Originally the idea had been to visit only Cape Town, but upon discovering that an around-the-world ticket would be cheaper than a return flight to South Africa, Brown came up with the idea for The Endless Summer. The plan was to follow the Southern Hemisphere summer and to travel from California to surf and film in West and South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii.
In South Africa, following John’s recommendation, The Endless Summer crew – transported by his childhood friend Terence Bullen (see Who was ‘Terence of Africa’? here) – visited Cape St. Francis and discovered ‘that perfect wave’ at what is now known as Bruce’s Beauties. Footage of their discovery electrified the surfing world and became the highlight of the film.
Coupled with stunning imagery, Brown’s acerbic commentary and the dulcet tunes of California surf band The Sandals, through the 1960s The Endless Summer became a global smash hit. An enduring surf culture phenomenon, it was the first bona fide surf movie to break through to the mainstream, earning millions of dollars at the box office following its full cinematic release in 1968. Eventually it became one of the highest grossing documentaries of all time, seen by an estimated 200 million people to date.
John Whitmore and a handful of the Cape Town and Durban surfers featured for several minutes of screen time in The Endless Summer and attained instant global recognition and fame. The attraction of South Africa as a surf and travel destination was also revealed to the world and in turn, it grew a phenomenal rate within the country – with John Whitmore at its helm.
John screened the first cut of The Endless Summer to sell out audiences for several weeks across South Africa in 1965, and as surfing began to expand, John quit his day job as a highly successful motor car salesman for Volkswagen and broke out on his own to form Whitmore Pty Ltd. Finally, he could focus solely on making surfboards, selling blanks and promoting surfing, which included hosting his enormously popular daily surf report, broadcast as far as Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.
Springboks, Hobie Cats and Bodyboards
As a surfing promoter and administrator, John Whitmore is arguably first among equals in South Africa. He was instrumental in the founding South Africa’s first surfing organisation, the Western Province Surfing Association. He also drove the formation of its national body, the South African Surfriders’ Association and functioned as its first president, a position he held for almost a decade.
John put together South Africa’s first national surfing competition in Cape Town in 1964 (see The First Champs, here), made many of the early trophies by hand, and was pivotal in convincing the national sports bodies of the apartheid era to award surfers their Springbok colours. He also obtained funding or often paid out of his own pocket for the surfers to travel and compete internationally at several international surfing championships, and accompanied most of the era’s Springbok teams to the ISF World Championships as an organiser, manager and team judge.
At one such event in Australia in 1970, John saw the massive potential of another watersport, one that would again alter his future and affected the lives of scores of South Africans to follow: Hobie Catting. A long time builder of small boats for diving and fishing, John had often dabbled in making his own twin hulls, and thanks to various existing models such as the P-Cat, the sport already had a small following worldwide, including in South Africa and Australia.
While John had seen some of Hobie’s prototypes in California in 1966, it was the first time he had sailed the finished product – the Hobie 14. The Hobie Cat 14, perfected by Dick Metz’s close friend and business partner, Hobie Alter, and surfing legend Phil Edwards, refined and improved the capabilities of the recreational catamaran immensely. The mass-produced Hobie Cat arguably became the vessel that defined weekend and competitive sailing in the 1970s and 1980s, delivering the sport from the clutches of the snooty yachting elite to every family who could afford one.
After first sailing a Hobie Cat in Sydney, John became enthralled and instantly realised the commercial potential for watersports crazy South Africans. Thanks to his already strong business associations and friendships through Dick Metz with the Laguna surfing and sailing fraternity – including Hobie Alter – in 1971 John became the African agent and manufacturer for Hobie Cats. As the sport boomed locally and internationally, he never looked back.
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Through the 1970s and early 1980s he built thousands of boats in his Cape Town factory – most of them in fact sold upcountry to Hobie Cat enthusiasts in Johannesburg and surrounds – and founded and administrated the South African Hobie Class sailing organisation that endures to this day.
This encompassed fielding and managing several South African teams to international races, arranging Springbok colours for Hobie Catters and playing a critical role in the sailors winning several world titles. This included the victory of Mick and Colin Whitehead in Texas in 1978 – South Africa’s first ever world sailing champions – with John in attendance as their ecstatic team manager.
Due to his involvement with Hobies, John rarely surfed or shaped surfboards during the ‘70s and ‘80s and lost touch with the shortboard scene. But he remained influential in the South African surfing industry through his daily radio report and the manufacture and supply of Clark Foam surfboard blanks to most of its surfboard makers countrywide for several years.
Then, thanks to another Metz/Laguna association, this one with Tom Morey, inventor of the Morey Boogie, John secured the rights to import and then manufacture his branded bodyboards in South Africa. This facilitated a boom in yet another water sport in the country, which echoed an explosion in bodyboarding worldwide, introducing yet thousands more newcomers to the joy of riding waves in the southern ocean.
Retirement and Legacy
John had always dabbled in artisanal and artistic pursuits such as woodworking, painting and sculpture throughout his life. Upon retirement from active business and his surf report in the mid 1980s, he turned his full focus and considerable skills as a craftsman to creating hand made knives. It was a vocation that earned him respect and kudos for his work in the highest echelons of knife making guilds and today a Whitmore blade is a cherished possession.
Throughout his John became a mentor and father figure to too many protégés to list or count. He was also instrumental in creating lifelong careers for scores of board and boat builders, and competitive watersports administrators and athletes. Among many others, these include his nephew Jonathan Paarman, 1977 world surfing champion Shaun Tomson and 1993 Hobie 16 world champion Shaun Ferry.
Along with tilling the earth, John filled the final days of his dotage in his workshop on his farm in Elands Bay, where he and his wife Thelma moved in the mid 1990s and experienced the happiest years of their lives. Following his death in 2001 after a short battle with lung cancer, John Whitmore remains a respected and iconic figure in at least four South African watersports and his direct impact and influence on each of them continues to resonate across the decades.
A surfer for life, who reconnected with the sport thanks to the 90s longboard revival (and still rode waves on his bodyboard into his 70s), throughout his intensely productive time one earth, John led tens of thousands more recreational watersports enthusiasts to the sheer joy of playing in the oceans and dams of Southern Africa.
His effect on South Africa’s enthusiastic embrace of California beach culture and his enormous influence as a South African diving, surfing, Hobie Catting and bodyboarding founder and pioneer will stand forever. Indeed, anyone connected to these lifestyles and sports in the country in any way today owes him a deep debt of gratitude.
John Whitmore’s life journey is a fascinating tale of rugged adventure, creativity, hard work, invention and innovation; exploration and discovery; tenacity and entrepreneurism; serendipity and compassion; love and friendship; loss and failure; legacy and lasting accomplishment. It is an epic tale of a highly influential and talented man – one of a kind, really – who helped to shape South African sporting history.
But apart from John’s life story, the origins and rise of South African surfing – as well Hobie Catting and bodyboarding – have never been fully documented. The John Whitmore Book Project aims to change that and will for the first time provide an accurate historical record of the narratives, untold stories and factual histories of these sports.
Find out how you can help it make it happen by clicking the link below.
Support – By contributing to the John Whitmore Book Project you will play a small but vital role in ensuring a fascinating slice of South African sporting history will be enjoyed by future generations. To find out how you can help support the cause, please click here: johnwhitmorebook/support/
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