The Unsung J-Bay Hero: Gavin Rudolph

An ode to a Supertubes pioneer

Gavin Rudolph of Port Elizabeth had a good long run as a competitive surfer, starting in late 1968, when he jetted off to the World Championships in Puerto Rico as the stoked-out 15-year-old grom on South Africa’s Springbok team. Made the quarters and had himself a fine time in the tropics hanging out with Wayne and Nat and Corky and all the other big-dick-swinging shortboard radicals. A year later he won the first Gunston 500 (or the Durban 500, as it was called then), and a year after that it was Bells for the ’70 world titles, and Gavin was once again rubbing shoulders with Wayne and Nat and Corky, and bunking down with red-hot 14-year-old teammate Shaun Tomson.

And then, holy smokes, 1971! Gavin’s barely out of high school, doing his mandatory South African military service, in the navy barracks day in and day out, surfing maybe just a bit on weekends, when he gets invited to the Smirnoff Pro-Am, the biggest and richest surf contest of the year. North Shore! Sunset Beach! Gavin’s never been to Hawaii, he’s kinda out of shape, but fuck yeah, talk to the C.O., get a few weeks leave, sign at the bottom and send that invite back special delivery!

Rudolph pulls up at Sunset for the first time in his life the day before the Smirnoff, on a Randy Rarick 7’10” pintail so new that he’s breathing resin fumes on the paddle out. Big, clean, scary west swell Sunset. Ten foot, 12 foot, 15 foot, who the hell knows, it’s his first time out there (“I was kakking myself, put it that way”), but he gets a banger right straight away, and it’s off the races.

What Gavin did the next day, in slightly smaller, less organized surf, will be forever enshrined and pedestaled in the main room of the Surfing Dark Horse Hall of Fame. Sailed through the elimination rounds without without breaking a sweat, and found himself standing on the beach in a dark-blue Smirnoff jersey just prior to the eight-man (!) final next to Jeff Hakman, Ben Aipa, the Aikau brothers, Owl Chapman, and Billy Hamilton. Nobody would have held it against Rudolph had he simply gone fetal in the presence of all that hardened North Shore firepower. Instead, he calmly put himself in the lead during the opening minutes of the heat, kept his nerve, and closed the door by calling Hamilton off the wave of the day and nailing a perfect score. As SURFER put it, “Gavin was one notch fuller-on than anyone else.” (Rudolph himself explained it thus: “The other guys surfed Sunset like it should be surfed, where I sort of surfed it like it shouldn’t be surfed, but should be surfed, you know what I mean?”)

So there’s the contest stuff. You could add to the list: the ’72 world titles, a Top 16 World Tour ranking, and on and on. Gavin got his licks in. But if you really want to light him up? Change the subject to Jeffreys Bay. The pioneering years. Mid-’60s and early ’70s. No one else in the water. Shorefront filled with cactus, sand and rock, and nothing else. Three or four pals in the water, a few bags of food stashed in the van, and long-period Indian Ocean waves unspooling like ribbons down a mile-long point. Yeah Rudolph gladly put the contest trophies on his mantle and deposited the prize money checks. But the clip above, along with with 500 other blurred-perfection afternoons at Supers and the Point, when Gavin was in his teens and early 20s—to this day, it remains the salty red beating heart of his surfing experience.