Midget Farrelly, world-champion, boardmaker, and iconoclast, died yesterday at age 71 from stomach cancer. He was a beautiful wave-rider, controlled and polished but with a dynamic be-bopping flair. After making a close study of California power surfer Phil Edwards in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Farrelly trimmed away most of the Edwardian style flourishes and became very much his own surfer. By the time he won the 1962 Makaha International, at age 18, Midget was style icon in Australia; by the time he won the 1964 World Championships—the first event of its kind—he was the sport’s apex high-performer. An entire nation of surfers followed Farrelly’s lead. He had his own newspaper column. He starred in every Aussie surf film, and racked up cover shots by the half-dozen. World-champ-in-the-making Nat Young copied Midget the way Midget copied Phil, and Bob McTavish was greatly influenced by Midget as well—as a surfer, but even more as a boardmaker—and the fact that Farrelly doesn’t get more credit for the shortboard revolution is the biggest of the many injustices he suffered over the decades (read more about Farrelly’s poor treatment by the surf media here).
From 1966 on, as the attention went elsewhere, Farrelly quietly continued to be the sport’s dominate competitive surfer, finishing runner-up in both the 1968 and 1970 World Championships. Meanwhile, he and Young began a feud that that went on forever, unto death in fact—a feud as groundbreaking in its own way as anything else the two surfers accomplished—the origins of which had to do with the aforementioned shortboard revolution, and credit given and withheld.
Midget wasn’t always an easy surfer to like. He was tightly wound, wasn’t a big man for the pubs, had a posh accent. He was smarter than everyone else in the room, and knew it, and seemingly wanted you to know that he knew. In 1969 he editorialized against drugs at a time when every surfer in the world was either high, or about to get high. In later years he was skeptical at best, dismissive and even paranoid at worst, about surf media and surf history in general.
But Midget was also gracious, loyal, and eloquent. He was a perpetually successful businessman—Surfblanks Australia, the business he founded in the early ’70s, is one of the sport’s longest-running operations. He never chased fame; he put all that effort instead into friends and family. Midget was interested and engaged with the world around him, in people and events outside of surfing, and because there was balance in Farrelly’s life, his love for riding waves—the act itself, not all the hoodoo around it—never waned. Midget had an air of class and confidence about him when he stepped onto the podium at the ’64 world titles, and he wore it like a cloak for the rest of his life.