Rolf Aurness – Biography
Before Tom Curren, there was Rolf Aurness. That’s a heavy statement considering the latter’s competitive and cultural significance to surfing, but Aurness was truly mainland America’s first world champion. And like Curren, he single-handedly broke the Aussie dominance in place at the time. That’s where the comparison ends, however.
Aurness quickly fled the surf scene upon reaching its summit, thus casting a healthy shroud of mystery over his place in surfing history that only a bewildering disappearance can cast. Aurness wasn’t some overnight success but rather a driven athlete who charged the competitive ranks for some four years prior to his win at the 1970 World Championships in Australia. Then he left it all behind.
Rolf Aurness was born in 1952 in Santa Monica, California. His father, actor James Arness (birth name Aurness) was best known as TV’s Marshall Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke. He provided all the means and opportunity for his son’s meteoric progression, flying him off for frequent surf trips to Mexico and securing a beach front pad at Hawaii’s premier right-hander, Makaha, thus creating a fertile environment for a young surfer to cultivate his wave riding skills.
As a result of natural talent and his father’s intense support, the young Aurness began competing early on and pretty much took every title that came his way, beginning with a win in the boys’ division of the San Onofre club competition. Sixteen year-old Aurness next powered to the top of the Western Surfing Association junior division and grabbed a slot at the World Championships in Puerto Rico. The following year, he ripped through the world championship qualifying contests, winning the Redondo, Oceanside and Malibu contests, thus solidifying his position as one of California’s hottest teenage surfers and securing his place on the world contest team.
By the time Aurness was 18, he was heading for the World Championships in Victoria, Australia. While his radical and smooth goofy foot approach was plenty strong to perform alongside the world’s best, he arrived at the contest a dark horse with his “big” 6’10” under his arm. The Shortboard Revolution ran deep as the 60’s came to a close, and nearly all the favorites (mostly Aussies) were riding boards under-six feet in length and capable of vertical moves and radical directional changes.
Leading up to the final, Aurness’ genial nature remained steadfast amidst an otherwise disastrous contest. Poor weather, bad vibes, complaints about unfair judging, drug busts, weak surf, and a change in venue from Bells Beach to Johanna plagued the event. The finals included Reno Abellira, Peter Drouyn, Keone Downing, Midget Farrelly, and Nat Young with Aurness on his Bing foil. Riding backside on the majority of his waves that day, Aurness rode far back on his board with confidence and abandon. According to all reports, he handily took the title, riding backside faster and more powerfully on his more “traditional” equipment than anyone else.
Being the first American world champion and the son of a Hollywood heavyweight, Aurness returned to California a hero under a relative firestorm of mainstream media attention. An appearance on Merv Griffin and magazine interviews followed, but fame didn’t agree with his mellow nature and he quickly withdrew from the surf scene. As the 70’s unfolded, Aurness skipped the World Championships in San Diego, reportedly dallied in jazz piano, and got married.
Sadly, the decade would be filled with sadness with the deaths of the most important women in his life. Within a few years, Aurness lost his new wife, sister, and mother. These events had a profound effect on the former champ. By 1980, he was holed up in seclusion on his father’s property where he would resume surfing. Last reports place Aurness in L.A. where he volunteers at a Santa Monica mental health clinic and is working on new surfboard shapes. Ultimately, through it all, Rolf Aurness is still surfing.