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High on a Cool Wave (1968)


As Australia moves into cooler temperatures in March 1966, the waves pick up along the east coast. A huge swell hits Fairy Bower near Manly, providing dramatic scenes as surfers and a lone surfboat brave the conditions. At Noosa Heads in Queensland, a small group of surfers are taking longboards to their highest level on smaller waves. American George Greenough is the theorist, shaper Bob McTavish the design innovator, and Nat Young the stylist, pushing the new designs to the maximum. They are developing new boards and new styles of riding, moving away from the American preoccupation with nose riding and ‘trimming’ of the board, popularised by Phil Edwards.

McTavish wants to develop more power and flexibility, to get up into the top of the wave. Young Queensland surfer Peter Drouyn heads off to Hawaii for the northern winter to experience the best waves and meet the best riders, at the annual competitions. He does well in the challenging winter swells in early 1968. Back in Australia, a new generation of surfers comes together for the annual NSW competitions at the end of 1967. Wayne Lynch, a 16-year-old Victorian, stakes his claim as the best of the new generation.

Curator’s notes

High on a Cool Wave is a significant film in the history of Australian surf movies. Shot mostly in 1966 and 1967, it gives us a good sense of the state of things, both in Australia and Hawaii, at that period. The longboard has reached its maturity in this movie and the shortboard has yet to be invented, but you can see it coming in the scenes at Noosa Heads, in Queensland. This was the engine room of Australian surfing at the time, and quite possibly the engine room of world surfing – although that claim is endlessly disputed, especially from Hawaii and the West Coast of the USA, where others were also thinking about changes.

It is certainly true that the three surfers we see here at Noosa Heads were at a restless and creative point in their careers. The footage was shot before Nat Young went to the US, to compete at the world championships in San Diego in 1966. Winning that contest established his reputation, both in the US and Australia. In 1965, McTavish had won the Queensland championships, but he was much more interested in design concepts. In the middle of 1967, he began to shorten his boards, eventually coming up with the board known as the Fantastic Plastic Machine in Sydney in mid-‘67. That board would have enormous influence around the world. These scenes at Noosa are effectively from the laboratory in which those ideas were developing. McTavish has said that this film captures a very specific moment in surfing history. ‘That footage at Noosa Heads is fantastic. That was as good as longboarding was going to get.’

Bob Evans had been making surf movies since the late 1950s. He was a Sydney surfer who saw the future in 1956, when the American surf team visited for the Melbourne Olympics. They brought along American surf movies and that inspired Bob Evans to start making Australian surf films. Initially, he maintained his job as a lingerie salesman while developing his interest in surf movies. He was an entrepreneurial thinker and an energetic seeker of sponsorships. The car we see in some of this movie was sponsored, and he names an airline as one of the stars in the film’s meagre credits (which don’t mention who made the music).

Evans made the films for little money. Each year, he would ask the best young surfers he could find in Australia to go on road trips up and down the coast, looking for great waves. He would shoot the sequences on a 16mm Bolex camera, without direct sound, and without much wastage. McTavish recollects that most of what he shot got used in the final film. McTavish was not paid, although he remembers getting the occasional restaurant meal. As a young shaper, McTavish was happy with a trade-off. The movie showcased his designs and made him a star.

Evans showcased the films himself up and down the coast and had partners in other states who took them on the road when he finished; he also sent them to friends in the US who did the same thing, showing the film to surfing audiences on both the West and East Coast. This exchange of information was important: before that, most American surfers were rarely exposed to what people in other countries were doing, unless they travelled.

In 1967, the style of the surf movie was about to change. Evans had been heavily influenced by the American surf pioneers, Bud Browne and Bruce Brown, who developed the ‘surfari’ genre. This would involve a bunch of surfers travelling in a beaten-up old car from break to break, with the filmmaker providing a comical narration, in between long sequences of endless surfing, preferably in good waves. In the earliest days, the narration was done live, with the soundtrack played on a reel-to-reel tape recorder in the auditorium. By 1967, the technique was much more sophisticated, but the formula was still largely the same.

That would soon change in films like Evolution, made by Australian surfer and filmmaker Paul Witzig in 1969. Witzig did away with the narration, adopting a much more filmic approach, using only footage and music. As surfing entered its psychedelic phase, fuelled by harder drugs and harder music, the surf film followed suit, leading eventually to films like Crystal Voyager (1973) and Morning of the Earth (1972). There is a hint of that culture in the title of this film – high as in marijuana and high as in ‘stoked’, the popular surfing term for anything that made you happy – but there is still a fair bit of innocence in these images. The ‘stoke’ still comes largely from the water.