Midget Farrelly. Photo: Perrott
Midget Farrelly. Photo: Perrott

History of Surfing: Midget Wins It All

Matt Warshaw, on the inaugural World Championships in Sydney in '64

Australian Midget Farrelly was critical as a promotional figure for organizer Bob Evans as he suavely negotiated for Australia to host the inaugural World Surfing Championships in 1964. Fast-forward to when the event was given the green light, and the compact Farrelly stood half a foot shorter and 30 pounds lighter than Mike Doyle or Joey Cabell when they lined up at Manly Beach on a warm Finals day. But Midget had already established himself as Australia’s must-know talent, and, as History of Surfing‘s Matt Warshaw explains, he possessed the competitive intellect to emerge as a force on the global circuit. Here’s Warshaw:

They hit the water [for the Final]. Doyle shifted back and forth between power and finesse, and Cabell—ignoring the new sportsmanship rule and fading the rest of the field at every opportunity—rode with signature precision and elegance. Farrelly wasn't quite as sharp here as he'd been in the quarters and semis, but he kept the other two in range, and with just three seconds left on the clock he picked up the last wave of the event, a clean shoulder-high right. The ride looked almost as if it had been diagramed. Farrelly snapped to his feet, cross-stepped to the nose and hung-five, backpedaled for a tricky bit through the whitewater, returned to the open face, zipped up the nose and back, grimaced his way through an exaggerated arms-up cutback—really playing to the back rows now—then finished with a long bow-legged cruise all the way in to the wet sand. The standing ovation began about halfway through the ride and continued as Farrelly walked up the beach, the corners of his mouth pulling up into a tight little smile.

Officials set up a three-tiered podium on the beach in front of the judges stand, and a few minutes later the winners were announced. Cabell and Doyle tied for second, but Cabell was knocked down to third for what Surfing World charitably described as a "tendency to become over-aggressive." Farrelly got the win with a few points to spare. Photographers formed a semi-circle around the podium, shooting up at the three trophy-holding champions. The surfing world had just realigned itself. Up to this point, everything of significance in the sport had flowed from Hawaii or California. No longer. Australia was now a fully vested surf-world partner. In fact, it was more energized than the other two. A pair of world titles in a single afternoon? Mate, we’re just getting started!

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Of course, there’s much more behind the ’64 World Championships than Midget’s win. There was Bob Evans wooing high-level executives in new business ventures, Eduardo Arena and the founding of the International Surfing Federation, the Women’s World Title between SoCal darling Linda Benson and Australian underdog Phyllis O’Donnell…1964 was an eventful year. Good thing we have Warshaw to escort us through it. When we asked him to, he kindly obliged.

What kind of pose did Evans strike as he made his pitch to businesses for the World Championships? How did he make his case, and what was different about his strategy compared to other ventures from the past?

Bob Evans was John Steed from the "Avengers" (click ‘play’ below, you won't regret it), with a touch of eau de surfer dabbed on his neatly-trimmed temples. Tailored suit, posh accent, charming, perfect manners, a salesman to his core. But also a true surfing zealot. There was no resisting Evans. We should get a fingernail clipping, clone it, bring him up to date, and install Bob Evans as head of the WSL.

Eduardo Arena did more to lay the groundwork for international competitive surfing. But by the early '70s, Both Arena and the ISF disappeared from the scene. How come?

Competition in general at that point was so out of fashion. Anything that seemed organized, or commercial, or Establishment was out. The 1972 World Championships was a train wreck, and I don't know if it could have been otherwise. The whole era was just this sort of thrilling, volatile, ridiculous time where everybody's going around saying "peace and love" while indiscriminately lighting things on fire. Incredibly progressive on one hand, but mean-spirited and narrow-focused and small-minded on the other.

Let's catch up on the females who were the main players in the '64 title.

Linda Benson was everybody’s little sister when she first turned up, in 1959, winning the Makaha contest at age 15. She was surfing's own Doris Day, friendly, always smiling, and weapons-grade cute. Like Dewey, she was small and built low to the ground, with super quick feet. That said, Phyllis O'Donnel, who nobody in America had heard of, was clearly the more complete surfer at the 1964 world titles—smoother, linked her moves, rode with the wave, not on top of it. It didn't change things for Linda, at least not back in America. She was a star, while in the rare occasion O'Donnell got a mention over here, we'd misspell her name.

After the event, did any part of Hawaii or California surf media wake up to the fact that Australia had arrived, and that they were hungry for glory?

No, just the opposite. American surfers dug in hard against the idea that Aussies were now at their level, and on a trajectory to blow past them. Two years later in San Diego, Nat Young made this as obvious as humanly possible, and American surfers still wouldn't accept it. Which brings us to John Witzig and the only surf mag article that matters, but we'll get to that in a few weeks.

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