Forty-five years ago, Rolf Aurness flew to Australia and absolutely ran the field to win the 1970 World Championships. Rolf was 18, and barely out of the Juniors division. Not only did he win convincingly, at a time when the Aussies were at their first and maybe greatest peak of high-performance domination (see: Evolution), but he did so with a warm smile on his face, and a kind word for all, and made friends left, right, and center. Wayne Lynch, the pre-comp favorite and another teen sensation, was among the vanquished and the charmed. I talked to Wayne recently about Rolf, and the contest, and what happened afterward.
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Rolf was barely out of the Juniors division when he arrived in Torquay for the contest, and the surf media back then was so slow and regional. Did you even know who he was when he turned up at Bells?
There were no computers or mobile phone back then, no Facebook or Instagram or Twitter. The American surf mags, by the time they got here, were really dated. So mostly what you heard about other surfers was just through the grapevine. And even there, the information was often outdated or just wrong. Yeah, I'd heard of Rolf, but really didn't know much at all about his surfing. Also didn't realize he was James Aurness’ son!
I think Rolf got there early to get used to the waves. Did you meet him before the whole contest circus came to town?
He came over about four weeks before the contest, to get used to the waves, and I think just to get a feel for the place. Arrived way before anybody else on the U.S. team. James came with him and they surfed Bells a lot. Both made a really good impression on the local surfers and Torquay townspeople. Very down to earth. I didn't get to meet James, as I was in South Australia shaping some boards, and James had left back to America just before I returned. I met Rolf maybe a week or so before the contest, and we traveled the coast together.
Very natural, very easygoing. I really liked him. There seemed to be a natural affinity between us, with the way we saw our surfing and lives. And of course I was super interested in the way he was riding, and the boards he was on. This was still during the early days of shortboards, really, and there was so much we didn't understand, and so many directions open for creative development. [Note: Aurness was on a 6’10” Bing Surfboards rounded-pin shaped by Dan Bendiksen; Lynch was on a wide, sub-six-footer he shaped himself.]
There’s a little film sequence in a movie called Freeform showing the two of you at daybreak, I think at Bells. Chest-high waves, maybe a little bigger, offshore wind. Looks cold. Do you recall that session?
Yes. It had been a really cold autumn here; not a lot of surf but some clean small swells. I remember watching Rolf surfing that morning and being very impressed with how fast he was going, especially on those semi-flat waves at Bells. Meanwhile my board was bogging in those conditions; it wasn't good on that sort of a wave at all. Rolf was using a design principal that I'd been working on a couple years earlier (his was more refined, though), and it hit me as I watched him that I'd let something important go; that maybe I'd rushed things a bit. It was one of those aha! moments, watching Rolf, that got me thinking in a new way about my boards.
Rolf won just about every contest in America leading up the the ’70 Worlds, and he won that one pretty convincingly too. Yet he seemed like such a sweet, non-competitive person. Did he win, do you think, because he was simply that much better than the competition, or did he win because beneath the sweetness he was actually a fired-up competitor?
Rolf seemed to be in that perfect state of mind to do well in contests. His equipment was really refined for that period, he knew his boards extremely well and was totally confident in them. His surfing was flowing beautifully. You could see how relaxed and confident he was in and out of the water. I think he was certainly competitive, but carried that with great sportsmanship and focus. He never did or said anything to upset competitors; he never hassled anybody; he never tried to put anyone off their game. It was one of those rare times where a person just has perfect concentration. He got into rhythm every time he hit the water, no matter what the conditions.
What about the event itself? Apart from Rolf's win, it was kind of a mixed deal at best.
It was a strange affair, yes. Most of the local surfers, myself included, were shocked and dissapointed at the blatant exploitation of the coast that took place in promoting the event. In general, I was pretty disillusioned with competitive surfing at that time; the direction and attitudes seemed pretty short-sighted and exploitive.
On the plus side?
That seemed like the last big contest where diversity was the rule, not the exception. The way people spoke, the boards they rode, all the style nuances. It was maybe a high point in terms of individuality. Lots of eccentric characters involved with that contest. The sport and the culture around it felt really unique at that moment.
You sort of vanished right afterwards.
I spent a few years in exile, avoiding the call-up [the draft]. But apart from that, after the contest, I just felt like I needed to retreat and just go back to what I loved about surfing and the life it offered.
Rolf retreated too.
Right, and I think some of the kinship I felt with him came from that fact. Seemed as if he wanted to live quietly, without the distractions and expectations that come along with fame. I respected that. I was doing the same thing.
Did you guys keep in touch after the contest?
No, and I've always regretted it. The last time I saw Rolf, it was right after the banquet dinner, which was the the same day that he won. He came by my shaping room later that night. I hadn't gone to the dinner because I was already sort of on the run, and concerned about the local cops getting onto me. Anyway, he came by and we spent about 45 minutes, just the two of us, looking at the boards I was working on, just chatting about this and that. He told me he really loved the coast here, the rawness and the simplicity of the area, and he really dug the people he'd met. Amazing thing was, he never mentioned anything about the contest, and the fact he had just won the thing. Just came by to say goodbye and thanks. It was a really nice thing to do.
This might sound strange, but I also felt, as he walked out into the night, some real concern for him. I don't know what it was. Maybe that all the bullshit coming his way, the hype and the fame and all that, was going to be too brutal for someone as gentle as Rolf.
Bottom photos: Witzig (top); Barrett (bottom)