It’s still by far the boldest move ever pulled in the history of professional surfing.
The year was 1979 and Paul Holmes was the contest director for the Australian 2SM Coke Surfabout. At the time the event boasted the biggest prize money in surfing and attracted the best competitors from around the world. When the pro surfing circus descended on Sydney’s northern beaches Holmes was juggling his role as Surfabout ringmaster with his position as the editor of iconic Australian surf magazine, Tracks.
The Surfabout concept was designed to ensure the event was held in the best waves in Sydney on any given day. As contest director Holmes had free reign to take the competition anywhere between Palm Beach and Sandon Point, just North of Wollongong. This typically involved piling all the competitors on to the Surfababout bus like a bunch of big school kids.
For the early rounds Holmes loaded up the world’s best surfers and hit the road to Bondi. However, as the event reached the quarterfinals stage the swell dropped, the wind blew the wrong way and the entire Sydney stretch became virtually unsurfable. With only one weekend left in the contest window Holmes ran out of worthy options within a bus-ride’s distance.
While Holmes cursed the wave gods and tried to figure out a plan, the pressure was being applied from multiple directions. The Channel Nine news team was producing a TV special on the event and were desperate for good action footage. Then there were the remaining surfers in the event (including Cheyne Horan, Simon Anderson, Mark Richards, Bruce Raymond, Dane Kealoah, Peter Townend and Larry Blair) who were hungry to get their salty mitts on the $10,000 first prize. And finally, the primary sponsor, Coke, was demanding an even better finish than the previous year which had featured a famous tube duel between Larry Blair and Wayne Lynch at Manly’s North Steyne.
Instead of cowering in the corner of a wind-blown contest tent, Holmes and his team came up with a radical idea that redefined the term ‘Surfabout’ and tested just how much Coke was willing to tip into the can.
The ambitious plan was hatched from the humble setting of the Narrabeen Beach car-park. Somehow Holmes convinced Coke to stump up the cash to charter four Navajo light planes and fly the surfers to Bells Beach, Victoria, where a clean six-to-eight foot swell was due to hit.
Cheyne Horan was at a Bondi bar when someone from the club tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Your mum’s on the phone.”
Unable to track Cheyne down the organisers had called his mum, hoping she could reach him and let him know the remaining competitors were being flown to Bells.
The next morning Cheyne and 10 other surfers from the fledgling sport of professional surfing, feeling a little like rock stars about to fly to the next gig, climbed on board three Navajo planes. The seats were promptly ripped out of a fourth plane to make room for gear and the film crew. Pro surfer and part-time radio announcer Mark Warren took to the airwaves and rightfully called it ‘the biggest Surfari ever mounted in the history of surfing’. Meanwhile, one of the quarter finalists, Bruce Raymond, (who later went on to become a boss at Quiksilver) missed the convoy and had to scramble on to a domestic flight.
The risk to go interstate paid off and the contest finished in flawless Bells conditions with Cheyne Horan ultimately defeating Larry Blair in the final. Holmes pulled off a major coup as contest director and his out-of-the-box solution to lacklustre conditions also ensured he had a great story for Tracks. Channel Nine scored epic footage and Coke got the dramatic finish it wanted.
Flying back to Sydney on the Navajos, Cheyne Horan and Larry Blair played a backgammon tournament and wondered if pro surfing would ever get better. It didn’t. Despite more money and major technological advances, nothing quite so brave or ambitious has been executed since.