The ISF and the World Surfing Championships (Post Peru)
The World Surfing Championship experienced both peaks and valleys during its seven year stint as the planet’s premier surf contest. But before there was a professional world tour, this was the undisputed main event in surfing. Including varying categories of gender, age, and format; the World Surfing Championships existed as a pseudo-professional crowning of the world’s greatest surfers but also served as both golden child and abandoned bastard under the surfing world’s changing view of competition.
After the historic 1964 contest at Manly, Eduardo Arena and his newly formed International Surfing Federation organized a successful event in Lima in 1965. And, as the 1966 World Surfing Championships kicked off in San Diego under a new format (one in which surfers accumulated points throughout three separate contests and organizers could change venues to guarantee the best surf ), this innovative and mobile contest’s success looked inevitable. The New York Times and Newsweek were on hand to cover the action, and some 40,000 spectators showed to watch the finals in which a classical nose rider was pitted against a student of the more aggressive school of turning and carving: David Nuuhiwa versus Nat Young. Young bested his rival and went on to publically write off Nuuhiwa’s style as “boring.” In addition to the trophy and the accolades Young would win a new Chevy Camaro and his performance prompted Australian journalist John Witzig to claim “We’re Tops Now.” With a rising of flag waving nationalism, the World Surfing Championships was red hot. But the next event in Puerto Rico would begin to expose a corrosive element originating directly from surfing’s fast changing self identity.
The 1968 contest held in Rincon, Puerto Rico, was won by Hawaii’s Fred Hemings and California’s Margo Godfrey in mostly small, albeit perfect surf at Domes, a fun right-hander. While the surf perked up for the final, many surfers noticed a sea change in the contest atmosphere. The shabby, furry look of the competitors with their long hair and thick sideburns appeared decidedly less sportsmanlike than their crew-cutted counterparts years earlier.
Even more telling was the equipment. The Short Board Revolution had exploded and surfers were riding shorter, lighter boards. Carving and sharp turns were the rule not the exception but, after a stacked one hour final, Hemmings prevailed against his more progressive rivals including Nat Young, Midget Farrelly, Russell Hughes, Mike Doyle, and Reno Abellira. Margo Godfrey (who would go on to win three professional titles) took the women’s final over Sharon Weber and Phyllis O’Donell, and consequentially, garnered the most media coverage to date for the women’s division.
On the surface the contest seemed a success with a multitude of nations competing in a tropical paradise but an air of discontent rose from surfing’s growing, collective distrust of competition. The pervasive perspective of surfing as art, rather than sport, would signal the death knell for the championships.
In 1970, The World Surfing Championships in Victoria, Australia was plagued by sloppy waves and sour weather. America’s first world champ, Rolf Aurness, and Sharon Weber took home the titles, but at this point the unifying force of the ISF and its World Surfing Championships were being viewed through a decidedly anti-establishment prism. Drug raids on competitors’ lodgings and an incident that (for a moment) saw the USA team kicked out the contest only added to the discontent. These issues, combined with the bad weather and sickness amongst many of the surfers who hailed from more tropical climates, set the stage for the waning influence of the ISF.
The proverbial nail in the coffin would come two years later as the 1972 World Surfing Championships commenced in San Diego while the swell of the year was lighting up coasts farther north. Past winners like Rolf Aurness, Margo Godfrey, Midget Farrelly, Felipe Pomar, Nat Young, and Fred Hemmings skipped the event. The finals, in which Jim Blears and Sharon Weber took first place, were called by many a definitive low point in competitive surfing. Amidst major financial blunders, reports of wide spread drug use and crime, and weak surf; the World Surfing Championships, which began with a roar at Manly just seven years prior, died with a whimper. Runner-up David Nuuhiwa (according to many, the deserved winner) echoed the collective sentiment as he left the beach, “I want to get drunk and forget about it.”
But as that era ended, a new one began. Among the competitors in that final contest, a few like future professional champion Peter Townend, new school innovator Larry Bertleman, and Hawaiian big-wave legend Michael Ho would rise from San Diego’s ashes to build the next generation. For the next few years, the ISF would be unable to secure a format or sponsorship as Hemming’s new Smirnoff Rip Curl World Pro/Am became the event to watch, essentially replacing the World Surfing Championships as the showcase and proving ground for the world’s best surfers.