Pro Surfing’s Hilarious Beginnings

The IPS Tour set the benchmark for competition weirdness

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Jokers from the 1976 Lightning Bolt crew. Photo: Witzig

Come for the surfing. Stay for the comedy. Three out of four times, when I dial up the latest WSL webcast and begin lopping off irreplaceable half-hour chunks of my life for the privilege of watching two surfers float on their boards artfully ignoring each other while two more surfers sit in a booth and warp my laptop speakers with torrents of fetid-mellow brospeak, I'm in it for the comedy. For the Twitter feed. For zinger two-paragraph web posts. Just the whole delightful, futile, nailing-Jello-to-the-wall insanity of trying to recast surfing, even if just for a few hours at a time, into a consumable and schedule-friendly professional sporting commodity.

Sometimes it actually works just as it should. Filipe Toledo nudging the high performance marker forward heat by heat at Snapper, Kelly Slater dropping perfect scores just seven years shy of getting his AARP card—these are treasured moments. I love them. Crave them even! But wanting and getting are two different things, and more often than not what keeps my rheumy eyes on the screen heat after heat are Twitter-powered commedia de jour topics such as the WSL desk or the incredible Dr. Moreau crossbreeding of best-surfer-best-waves and Rio de Janeiro.

We are indeed, here in 2015, living in a Golden Age of World Tour humor. But not the Goldenest! No, for the best, most-primo A-grade flower-top Keystone Cops beach bungling pro circuit action, the award, now and forever, goes to 1976. The first year of International Professional Surfers, the organization that created our unified global set of prize-money surfing contests. In no way do I discredit the work that IPS founders' Fred Hemmings and Randy Rarick did to breathe life into this endearingly malformed creature which, from the very beginning, was as abused as much as it was loved. I am in fact hugely grateful and appreciative that they took the project on, and nurtured it through those early years, when it so easily could have expired from any one of a dozen different causes.

But as Mark Richards laughingly said, years later, recalling the 1976 season, "It was chaos!" And out of chaos' fertile soil the seeds of humor shall issue forth the choicest blossoms of absurdity and farce. Where to start?

Heat size | A late-round heat in the '76 World Cup featured nine competitors. Six surfers was the norm; seven- and eight-man heats were not uncommon in Hawaii. (On the other hand, Barry Kanaiaupuni, who finished 4th in the eight-man Duke Classic final that year, said "it didn't seem strange at all" to have so many jersey-wearing surfers out at one time. "Sunset's a big place, plus we weren't wearing leashes. One clean-up set and the peak was empty for 10 minutes."

Entry fees | You're in the Pro Class Trials? That'll be $75 bucks, please. You're in the Duke? Here's a C-note just for showing up, thanks and good luck.

Starting field | Eighteen surfers, total, in the '76 Pipe Masters. Forty-eight in the Smirnoff Pro. The politics and intrigues of pro comp invitation lists, which could make or break careers and were drawn up at the whim of each individual contest promoter, made the Schleswig-Holstein Question look like a kindergarten playground dispute.

Judging systems | Two completely different judging formats were used in 1976. The 0-20 subjective system (forerunner to the current 0-10 system) often featured an arcane progression of repêchage heats, semi-main heats, and losers' rounds. For the points-per-maneuver system (also known as the Hang Ten, or objective system), each competitor surfed the same number of heats and got a pre-determined number of points for each successfully performed maneuver. Which is how you arrive at the great Michael Peterson riding straight for shore on a closeout, squatting, straining, eyebrows knitted in concentration as his left foot stretches forward to the tip for a "cheater five" nose ride worth five extra points.

Discrimination | Rory Russell finished the 1976 Tour rated No. 8. He should have gone higher. "The surfers used to vote on where the contest was going to be held for the day, and I'll tell you, the regular-foot lobby just sucked. Thirty out of 40 guys at each contest were regular footers, and every time it'd be like 'Are we going to surf the fun-looking left down the beach, or are we heading over that closeout crap up there cause it's almost like a right?' Closeouts, every time, guaranteed."

Existentialism | Was there even really a "Tour" in 1976? Hemmings and Rarick incorporated the IPS in October, retrofitting nine events into a schedule, with five events still to come. Why did Shaun Tomson, the best surfer in the world at the time by a country mile, finish the season rated No. 6? Because for three-quarters of the "season" he didn't know there was a world championship up for grabs, and sensibly passed on most of those $2,500-purse events early in the year that later counted toward the title. Rory Russell put it this way: "All I remember is PT [eventual 1976 world champion winner Peter Townend] running up to me in Hawaii that October, all excited, saying 'There's a new Tour, mate, and you've already got thousands and thousands of points!’" Mark Richards goes further, "I don't really think I knew for sure there was going to be a world title that year until PT was announced as champion."

But guess what? It all came out fine in the end. Not perfect, but fine. In 1976 as in 2015. Thank you Fred Hemmings and Randy Rarick. Thank you Peter Townend and Ian Cairns. Thank you Dirk Ziff and Joe Turpel.