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Turn On, Tune Out, Drop In

by on Thursday 18th December, 2008   15536 Views

By Michael Fordham

It’s December 1967, somewhere in the Hawaiian Islands. Last year Australian surfer Robert ‘Nat’ Young won the world surf championships in Oceanside, California, and knocked the surfing world on its head. Preternaturally fleet-footed guru of the nose ride David Nuuhiwa had been expected to take the title hands down. Nevertheless, paddling out on a self-shaped, shorter, thinner, blade-railed surfboard with a dynamically swept back fin that had been designed by hydrodynamic savant George Greenough, Nat etched the writing on the wall for the future of wave-riding. Rather than stalling and cross-stepping to the nose in perfect trim, he dropped to the bottom of the wave, carving a g-force inducing bottom turn, before rising to the top of the wave again and cutting back to the power source with both feet firmly planted across the board. Nat’s riding that day was totally involved and engaged in the dynamic of the curl, where the school of Californian nose-riding that reached its apogee with David Huuhiwa had been all about feigned nonchalance in the surf’s critical mass on relatively heavy, voluminous boards around ten feet in length. Nat’s victory was the first salvo of what would become known as the ‘shortboard revolution.’

The victorious champion returned to OZ and hooked up with shaper Bob McTavish, who had begun to experiment with eight foot long, square tailed boards with deeply convex v-bottoms and the type of ‘high-aspect ratio’ fins that Greenough had pioneered on his kneeboards. The following winter, Nat and McTavish along with filmmakers Paul Witzig and his stills photographer brother John, took a quiver of these revolutionary designs to Hawaii, with the mission to document the dialectic. They experimented with the v bottoms with mixed success on the North Shore of Oahu, but it took an epic swell and a frantic scramble to hit Maui’s Honolua Bay to prove to the Hawaiians once and for all that the new short boards really did herald the future of wave-riding.

“The board Nat is carrying in this picture is the V-bottom that he rode in the epic session at Honolua Bay in Maui,” says John Witzig. “The picture must have been taken before Honolua, because Nat broke the nose off during the session and had to repair it.” That session, probably one of the most influential in the history of surfing, was documented in the finale of Paul Witzig’s 1968 film //Hot Generation//, and sent echoes through surf culture. “The session at Honolua was important. The experimental v-bottoms had spun out at Sunset, but at Honolua they truly worked.”  Over the next months and years surfers all over the planet were hacking their longboards to bits. The length, volume and rail profile of board design went through a series of quantum leaps that reflected the seismic shifts in the wider culture. Surfers were tuning in, turning on and dropping in to the new dynamic aesthetic of the ridden wave, and becoming increasingly vocal in championing the counterculture. Nat Young was at the forefront of the new breed. “Just by going surfing,” he told Tracks magazine in 1970, “We’re supporting the revolution…”

Michael Fordham is author of //The Book of Surfing: the killer guide to surf culture//
Published by Bantam Press www.bookofsurfing.com

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