Phil Jarratt famously called Mark Richards the “wounded seagull” because of the way Mark held his arms and hands—that avian style that was (and remains) totally unique. Actually, I never quite got the “wounded” part. MR’s lanky upper extremities simply unfolded like bird wings when he surfed, and it was fantastic. At speed, he very much looked capable of flight. Gorgeous flight. Nothing wounded about it.
Way more peculiar was Richards’ stance. There are moments in the clip below, especially in the part from the winter of ’75-’76, where he looks like a foal who dropped straight from the womb onto that sleek red-and-yellow Lighting Bolt pintail, knees and upper legs glued together by leftover amniotic fluid.
It wasn’t Jarratt, but some other SURFER wag, that same winter, who described Richards as “not pretty, but plenty radical.” Oddly, Richards’ surfing in retrospect doesn’t look all that radical (or no, actually it does, but only in context of the way-less-radical surfing of the period). It does, however, look pretty. Very much so.
I can think of two reasons for this. First, the man was flow incarnate. Shaun Tomson, for my money, was the real groundbreaking surfer of the era, but Shaun—or Rabbit, or BK, or Lopez, or anybody else on God’s green earth—couldn’t touch Richards for purity of line. Swooping, high-speed, heavily-torqued and friction-free. I’m especially partial to MR’s late-period single-fin riding. Energy perfectly gathered and perfectly spent. Yogic, almost. At the end of a ride, if you could somehow measure the weight of all his turns on the bottom half of the wave against all the turns on the upper half, the two would balance out to within a milligram or two.
The second way Richards was able to turn that freakishly knock-kneed style into something lovely was because the man himself is lovely. Of course, you don’t win four world titles on the fly without being a laser-focused, hard-hitting competitor. Did Mark Richards, in the entirety of his competitive career, give an inch to anybody? The fuck he did. But just as surely, he never stooped to dirty tricks, never bitched over bad calls, was gracious and friendly almost to a fault. (I say “almost” because he had enough game to tag his chief rival “Cheyne the Pain.” And not without reason.)
More so than anybody before or after, MR was the everyman champ. You might dream of being a favored attendant in the court of Shaun Tomson. You would, in a heartbeat, jump in a rattle-trap Holden for a white-knuckle Burleigh-to-Bells run with Wayne Bartholomew. But Richards is the guy you’d want to be friends with for the long run. He has that world champion aura, yes. He is, and always will be, the door-busting, Free Ride-starring, Superman-logoed surf legend. But he just as strongly remains the son of a Newcastle car salesman. An incredibly decent, nice human being. Nice enough to help make that weird crook-leg style beautiful? I don’t know. Maybe. Sure didn’t hurt.
Cheers to the great and humble MR, who turns 57 today, and many happy returns!