Ian Cairns – Biography
Ian Cairns has proven to be one of the most energetic and prolific contributors to competitive surfing. An early proponent of “legitimizing” the sport, Cairns was at times a polarizing figure as surfing’s traditional expressionist ideals clashed with its burgeoning mainstream aspirations. Plodding through the sport’s infancy as an amateur performer and later as a pro power stylist, Cairns went on to work as a Hollywood stunt man and eventually as a contest organizer, coach, and promoter. Contributing to every conceivable facet of the sport, Cairns helped frame a more successful competitive and administrative structure for both amateur and professional surfing while creating new opportunities never before imagined for young athletes.
The youngest of three siblings, Walter Ian Cairns was born July, 24, 1952 in Kew Australia. He was raised in Melbourne and Sydney, where he began body surfing nearby Avalon Beach. Learning to surf at age 12 after his family moved to the rugged shores of Perth, Western Australia; Cairns received his first surfboard on Christmas, 1965 and began honing his powerful style in and among the powerful reef breaks around Margaret River.
Riding a board shaped by Midget Farrelly, Cairns won the state juniors division from 1967-1969. Upon graduating high school in 1969, he began shaping surfboards, eventually quitting his job working for his father making fireproof doors to dedicate his time to surfing and building boards full-time. Heavily influenced by the powerful approach of fellow Aussie Nat Young, Cairns progressed quickly, winning the state men’s division from 1970-1972. This earned him a slot on the Australian national team and trips to the 1970 and 1972 World Contests.
On his way back from the ’72 World Contest, Cairns landed in Hawaii and found the powerful waves a perfect match for his 6’2” 190 pound frame. As a result, at 21 years old, Cairns won the 1973 Smirnoff Pro. He took the final over Jeff Hakman at 6-10 foot Laniakea, riding a self-shaped bonzer. The bonzer seemed a radical choice in the meaty Hawaiian waves, but Lord James Blears would later tell Sports Illustrated about Cairns’ performance, “I’ve never seen a surfboard go that fast. Never.”
Winning the Smirnoff proved to be significant for Cairns. Not only did he snatch a cool $5,000 in prize money and priceless bragging rights for beating Hakman, the powerful Hawaiian stylist, but, more importantly, the win signaled his arrival on the world stage. The Smirnoff had quickly become recognized as the unofficial world contest and by proxy making its winner the unofficial world champion. To prove his Smirnoff win no fluke, he took third in the Hang Ten American Pro the same year and second in the Duke Kahanamoku in 1974 (eventually winning the same event the following year in macking 25 foot Waimea). In facing the challenge of Hawaii’s natural power, Cairns writes in Busting Down the Door, “…to rise to the very top, you have to be psycho and driven and bleed bravado, or you’ll die.”
In terms of surf contest success, the Hawaiian winter of 1975 was Cairns’ zenith. He and his fellow Aussies had pushed performance to a new level, but Cairns shrewdly understood that his own longevity depended upon the longevity of the sport. Pro surfing needed structure. So he set to task creating a place for Australians to compete for points, prestige and money. That year, he co-founded the Australian Professional Surfers Association with Peter “PT” Townend, basing its scoring system on Formula One racing. At the same time, Fred Hemmings and Randy Rarick were piecing together a similar series of contests in Hawaii and beyond, the International Professional Surfers association. Cairns finished first in the ASA the following year and second to PT on the IPS.
To capitalize on surfing’s growth (and propel it), Cairns co-founded the Bronzed Aussies, a team loosely based on the Harlem Globetrotters which infamously wore matching velvet jumpsuits to major surfing events. The aim was to attract corporate sponsorship by replacing the image of hippie surfers with this new clean-cut concept. Surfers didn’t buy it. Fred Hemmings recalls one “articulate” surfer who referred to them as the “bronzed anal ports.” Thus, the ill-fated team (including PT, Mark Warren, Cheyne Horan, and Jim Banks) eventually faded into the surf history books. PT would later say, “I think it (The Bronzed Aussies) ultimately failed because we stepped outside the ‘cool factor’ of surfing.”
Undeterred, Cairns continued to forge his own path as he stepped away from competitive surfing to work as a stunt double for the classic surf film Big Wednesday. His powerful surfing during the film’s climactic “Great Swell of ‘74” is instantly recognizable, standing in for Gary Busey’s character Leroy “The Masochist.” After his break, Cairns’ competitive results lagged, never again breaking the top ten internationally but still posting big wins. He won the 1977 World Cup, 1978 Pro Trials, and 1980 World Cup
But by 1979, Cairns again set a course in a new direction. Turning his focus from Australia to America, he moved to Huntington Beach in 1979 and became head coach for the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA). The culminating national amateur team touted greats like Tom Curren (future two-time world amateur champion and three-time professional world champion), as well as Brad Gerlach and Mike Parsons. The US won the World Amateur Championship in 1980 and 1984.
In 1983, with substantial financial support from Ocean Pacific, Cairns commandeered control of the IPS from then “czar” Fred Hemmings and replaced it with his new Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP), staying on as Executive Director. Hemmings stepped down under the push of what he termed “competitive opportunists.” One of Cairns’ memorable accomplishments on that inaugural ASP schedule was the OP Pro held at Huntington Beach. But what began as a surfing festival with bikini contests, mammoth crowds, and historic clashes between iconic surfers (most notably Tom Curren and Mark Ochilupo) devolved into an afternoon of riots, fires, and general mayhem. Not long after, in 1986, Cairns resigned and returned to West Oz.
By the early 90’s, Cairns had returned to California as executive director of the Professional Surfing Association of America (PSAA) Bud Tour and ASP North America. Cairns was again integral in an evolutionary step in competitive surfing which linked the ASP World Qualifying Series (WQS) with the PSAA, thus allowing young surfers domestic opportunities to garner points for ASP qualification. PSAA contest exposure injected energy into American surfing and accelerated the rise of stars like Taylor Knox, Kelly Slater, and Rob Machado. Around this time, Cairns also founded the U.S. Open of Surfing and U.S. Surfing. Both entities are still successful today.
Not to rest on his laurels, Cairns was executive producer of Surf the Planet, a 26 part Fox TV cable series. He founded and served as President of Broadband Interactive Group (BIG) and Bluetorch, an action sports-based website, but eventually went on to take a break from surfing for some 4 years before returning to work as a professional coach for such notable surfers as Brett Simpson, Gabe Kling, and Evan Geiselman. In June 2009, Cairns returned to coaching to fill a slot left by Joey Buran, leading the amateur team for Surfing America. Cairns helped America win its first gold in some 14 years.
Ian Cairns was inducted into the WA sporting Hall of Fame in 1985, the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame in 1993, and is the obvious inspiration for the Ian Cairns award, which recognizes outstanding Western Australian surfers. Cairns was married twice. His second wife, Alisa Schwartztein, was a former NSSA surfer and world amateur champion in 1980.
Traveling without a map is always difficult, but a true trailblazer makes his own path where none exists. Before Ian Cairns, the direction of competitive surfing lacked true bearings, but his participation and leadership helped bear both fruit and purpose. Cairns’ career is a testament to vision and ambition, but as with all surf stories, it began with a kid who loved riding waves.