Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew Bio
Etching a storied path from meager Gold Coast beginnings, Aussie regular footer Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew battled through the amateur ranks to realize glory among the royal reef breaks of Hawaii’s North Shore. Scrappy and raw in the water as well as on the sand, Rabbit’s persona was more Jagger than Bowie, becoming immortalized on film as the rock and roll harbinger of the “Free Ride” generation. His formula of equal parts aggression and effortlessness would influence future superstars (most notably competitive juggernaut Tommy Curren) as he parleyed both image and performance into a (then unimagined) multifaceted career in surfing. Eventually, his titles would include world champion, author, contest organizer and environmental crusader. Finally, over two decades after his perceived peak, Bartholomew was elected President of the same professional surfing tour that allowed him to live his dream in the first place, thus completing a sort of full-circle journey.
Long before his ascent to the top of the surfing world, little Wayne Bartholomew wasn’t even a blip on the radar in a country rife with wave riding talent. The son of a school teacher and a dance instructor, he earned his legendary nickname for his speed on the soccer field, but “Rabbit” soon applied his athletic speed to the ocean, learning to surf at age 11 at Snapper Rocks. Bartholomew’s parents soon split, resulting in instability that left him searching for something to grab on to. And he found that almost religious devotion upon his move to Kirra at age 13, where he learned to effortlessly thread the winding tubes of one the world’s premier right-handers. Even amongst the most progressive modern surfers, the legend of Rabbit’s early years at Kirra reverberates today. Although Bartholomew was still a good student and a promising athlete, he would later tell stories of hustling tourists for cash and stealing wallets to put food on the family table. At the same time, Rabbit turned his eye on the science of surfing: wave dynamics, surfboard design, and competitive strategy. Any perceived lack of natural talent for competition would be eclipsed by his workhorse mentality and thus drive him through the amateur ranks to lock horns with the best surfers in Australia.
By 1972, Bartholomew secured a win at the Queensland State Juniors and finished second runner up at the Australian national titles. The following year, he was the Queensland state men’s champion (a feat he’d repeat in 1974 and 1976). Battling the likes of Michael Peterson and Peter Townend, Rabbit finished fourth in 1974 and third in the 1976 at the national titles. But scrapping it out with his countrymen ad nauseum was not to be his legacy. In the book Bustin’ Down the Door, Rabbit writes of a moment years earlier at age sixteen. He sat in the Capital Theater in Coolangatta, Gold Coast, Australia studying a new surf flick “Five Summer Stories.” He watched as warriors chased glory in the giant Hawaiian surf. He was nagged by a fantasy that one day he would surf the world and get paid for it. As most Aussies idolized Nat Young, Rabbit looked up to the Hawaiians surfers who braved the dark caverns of the North Shore and could imagine his own lines drawn across those shimmering blue walls.
On his way back from the 1972 World Contest in San Diego, Bartholomew made a stop-over in Hawaii. One session in, and IT was on! At 18, he worked part-time and scraped together enough cash for a return ticket to Oahu. After a particularly gnarly Pipe session with the more seasoned Ian Cairns in which Rabbit scored a single bomb of a wave, he made it his point to “attack the North Shore like I was Attila the Hun. That was my way.” Although his compatriots already had invites to the big events, Rabbit’s North Shore surfing began turning heads, a goal that would dominate his early years.
As the winter of 1975 began, Rabbit had established himself as not only a performer in terms of surfing but also by way of aggressive antics in the face of the established Hawaiian order. He shattered the quiet island adjectives of “mellow” and “passive” to paint himself a sort of surfing Muhammad Ali who invested as much time in showmanship and myth building as in performance. Aggressive in the heavily localized breaks, he admitted to sending a guy to the beach and fading surfers into the pit. None of this was common practice among visiting surfers and although he called several local “heavies” friends, his reputation quickly became a liability. However, it now seems it was integral to his move to the world stage
The competition was fierce. Rabbit would later concede Shaun Tompson’s dominance at Off the Wall and Ian’s power at Sunset, but he would imply that Pipeline was his. Amid the bluster, Rabbit famously lent MR the money to enter the Smirnoff Pro in which the young Aussie performed well, a coming out of sorts for the new generation that put the old guard on notice. During that same winter, Rabbit and his southern hemi hell-men were putting in countless hours at Off the Wall, a then rarely surfed nugget just west of Backdoor angled perfectly for close-up photographic drama. The surf media took notice. Bill Delaney and Dan Merkal were filming for “Free Ride” as the crew took apart every OTW A-frame that rolled in. Terry Fitzgerald once berated them for taking all the photographers away from Rocky Point. Exposure was the key to getting an invite to the big contests. In the 1975 Smirnoff Pro, Rabbit took third behind Ian and MR. About the surfing that year, Rabbit wrote, “…I think it set the wheels in motion that would change our lives and bring about the creation of a sport.”
In 1976, he wrote a piece for Surfer Magazine titled “Bustin’ Down the Door” in which he portrayed Aussies as aggressive upstarts arriving on the Rock to take what was theirs. A sentiment that didn’t sit well with the Hawaiian locals and led to Rabbit getting mobbed and beaten, losing two teeth in the process and having to practically hide out for much of the winter. Stuart Holmes-Coleman writes in his book Fierce Heart, “But Rabbit’s brash behavior clashed with the local culture’s emphasis on ha’aha’a, humility, and the Hawaiians took deep offense at the brash trash-talking surfer from down under.” Under threats of death, the Aussies spent the winter of 76-77 holed up at Kuilima Hotel to avoid confrontations with the locals as chronicled in the film named after his incendiary article.
Seemingly a dark era for Rabbit, those years on the North Shore became his bread and butter that would cement his legend and set him on course for greatness in the surfing world. From the OTW sessions, Bill Delaney’s flickering frames launched a revolution of sorts. The “Free Ride” generation learned new ways to navigate the tube, and their “backside attack” became the blueprint for ballsy big wave ripping. But even more dramatic was the idea that professional surfing could exist. On the beach in Hawaii before Shaun Tompson left for college in South Africa, Rabbit told his comrade that professional surfing was for real and he would be part of it.
He joined the small, rag-tag group of surfers that followed a loosely connected string of contests around the world, the International Professional Surfing tour. In its second season, Rabbit finished 2nd to friend Shaun Tompson before becoming World Champion himself in 1978. He reportedly earned around $7,650, surely no king’s ransom by far. But Rabbit’s dreams of traveling the world, surfing and getting paid had come to fruition. He finished 3rd in 1979, 4th in ‘80, and 2nd in ‘83 before a gradual loss of steam. He spiraled down the ranks ending with his retirement in 1988. By this time, a new army of young surfers were ready for battle. Tom Carroll, Gary Elkerton, Tommy Curren and Martin Potter led the charge and pushed out the old guard just as Rabbit and friends had done more than a decade before. But his segment in 1984’s The Performers shows a spry and feisty Wayne Bartholomew, navigating North Shore nastiness and posing, collar up, for photos like a rock star. Same old Bugs.
But he was unsatisfied with his departure from professional surfing. He would tell Surfline’s Marcus Sanders later, “I was so used to going for world titles, being a contender in the top three; I had no interest in being number 15 in the world. I kinda questioned what I was doing. And so if I had my time again, I would have walked at number two.”
Competitively, Bartholomew won a total of 8 world tour events and made the finals of the Pipe Masters in 1981, 1984 and 1985. But upon his withdrawal from contest surfing, he opened the next chapter, becoming an announcer for the ASP in the early 90’s and eventually running a surfing school. He coached the Australian National team to several victories in the World Contest and organized a series of events in Australia. Rabbit had gone from rabblerousing glory hound to level-headed administrator, and the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) took note, appointing him President and CEO in 1999. He would serve as president for 10 years, the first former champ to do so. During his tenure, he made huge changes that swayed away from judging based on quantity of waves and maneuvers and pulled contests far from dribbly beach breaks. Rabbit helped craft a new “Dream Tour” that recognized progressive surfing and placed athletes in the planet’s best waves. He spearheaded the drive towards live streaming video for surfing events, making them accessible to a worldwide audience.
In his post surf industry life, Rabbit talks of plans to continue his environmental activism and spend more time with his family. He was elected to the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame in 1987, wrote his autobiography in 1996 (aptly titled Bustin Down the Door) and was inducted into the Huntington Beach Walk of fame in 2001. Showing that the years hadn’t dulled his body or soul, Bugs won the over-40 masters division of the Quiksilver Masters World Championship in 1999, took 2nd in 2001, and regained the title in 2003. In a world where it’s a rule that glory will fade, Rabbit has defied that logic. Echoing the Stones’ classic, it seems that time is still on his side.