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Archive: The Challenge From Down Under, 1968

Remembering psychedelic rants at the dawn of the shortboard, from SURFER Volume 9, Number 3

"The Challenge from Down Under": This is a mad piece, in every sense of the word. Mad-angry, mad-crazy, mad-funny. It is nine pages of barbed wire dipped in psilocybin, wrapped in a gorgeous afternoon of waves at Honolua. You know the day: Bob McTavish and Nat Young on their vee-bottom Plastic Machines, Dick Brewer on the cliff quietly seething that he didn't make those boards first. This was the moment, if you had to pick a moment, when the shortboard blew past the longboard.

I've read this article a hundred times, quoted from it, would rank it as one of the Top 5 essential documents of the shortboard revolution. But boy, it is a hot mess. Starting with authorship. Flamethrowing Aussie surf writer John Witzig got the byline, but most of the article was written by shortboard surfer-designer-stoner-revolutionary McTavish. Young also gets a paragraph or two, as does Midget Farrelly. At first Witzig asks, "What's happened in Australia in the last 12 months?" then follows with a quick review of recent board-design changes. Witzig is less combative here then he'd been a few months earlier, when, in response to SURFER shamelessly stonewalling Australia's rise to dominance after the 1966 World Championships, he roasted the entire purblind Dana Point Surf Establishment with "We're Tops Now"—still the best, most righteous "fuck you" surf article ever published. But if he's cooled down a bit for "Challenge," Witzig still carries the colors, and proudly. "There is greater experimentation being done in Australia," he writes, talking about both equipment and performance. He name-checks Wayne Lynch, a hot 15-year-old junior from Victoria whom nobody in America has yet heard of, and says, rightly, that "Australian surfers appear to hold the key to the future."

Then McTavish drops onto the page, all froth and pixie dust and good cheer and boldface-type paragraphs, to literally and figuratively give us a view from inside the revolution. We're back at Honolua Bay on that perfect afternoon. Atop his "inner-space probing zapper"—also known as a "surfboard"—McTavish eyeballs an approaching set wave, swings around, and…

Woo!! Bowling slightly even here on the takeoff! Now…easy…two paddles…liftoff! Drop!! Down into that curve. Bring it up on edge. GET IT ON!! Thrrrust! Move it out! Up. Under. Curl. Coming over! Right over! (that noise) Inside! (that feel) A GIANT GREEN CATHEDRAL AND I AM THERE! Positive—Negative. Pow!! Infinity. Curl just going further ahead of me, but it's right! Can't see out, but who needs to because time is gone. Seconds? Minutes? A lifetime. Crystals. Soundsmells. Tastefeels. Forever. Now. The door is open. The wave laughs, board breathes, sun smiles, cruise out into…peace.

McTavish, today, would laugh at his younger self, and be humble and proud at the same time. He remains a man of multitudes. He most certainly knows what he did 50 years ago, and what it meant to surfing, and how much fun he had doing it. And the whole thing—the whole explosive first act of shortboard surfing—was in fact distilled in that Honolua tube. In that "GIANT GREEN CATHEDRAL" with a "Positive—Negative. Pow!!" Futuristic equipment under his feet. Perfect late-afternoon waves. Good friends in the lineup. McTavish was 23, happy and high and moving forward. Moving the whole show forward. If ever a man deserved to gibber, and if ever that gibbering deserved to be enshrined in print, to be read and laughed at and envied 50-something years later, this was the moment. McTavish's froth is timeless. It will outlive us all.

[This feature originally appeared in SURFER 58.4, “Life & Death of Waves,” on newsstands and available for download now.]