I always do a dawn surf check from my car in the parking area by the Rock Piles guard tower; it gets you a good view of Off The Wall and Backdoor. I remember the morning of that classic Mark Richards vs. Shaun Tomson "Brothers In Arms" barrel ride. I got down to the beach just as the first rays of sunlight hit the water. Light trade winds brushed a northwest swell, not too big, but pumping. Just as I pulled back onto Kam Highway, I see Mark Richards flying past in that old, grey BMW he thought was a sports car. He whipped it into Gary Gerberg's driveway to check the conditions. It was then I spotted his two twinnies crammed over the seats.
A hundred feet later I see Shaun walking up the sand path at O.T.W., a couple of his Prawn models (single-fin round-pins) under one arm and his classic duffel-of-stuff over the other shoulder. This was a battle for supremacy, not only skill but also of board design. MR's prowling around two hours earlier than his normal wake-up. Shaun came loaded for bear. Cheyne Horan's country beater was parked on Ke Nui. The rat patrol of cars and cameras began pulling up. There was a strong smell in the air--film mixed with blood.
Even the average Backdoor and O.T.W. sessions through the late-'70s and early-'80s brought out the best. MR jokingly referred to the place as "Off The Planet," while filmmaker Yuri Farrant nailed it as "Kodak Reef"--both titles aptly earned. Quivers, girlfriends, food, drink--all the gear needed to survive a 10-hour session got dragged down that sand path. It was simply a sun-fried podium next to the greatest stage of the era. Every go-out became progressive surfing's newest standard.
Yet, of all that's been written concerning the three decade championship career of Mark Richards, from his earliest Australian amateur Cadet division wins to his professional multi-world championship titles ('79-'82), a point that needs emphasis was MR's equipment evolution. Richards was the first champ to turn to multi-fin designs at a time when 99 percent of all title competitors were still riding the standard single fin shapes of the period. An involved surfer/shaper, he developed a hybrid from Reno Abellira's "fish" model and a twin-fin template shape by master builder Dick Brewer. Richards actually took shaping lessons from Brewer in order to see his personal vision through. Subsequently, square in the middle of his professional career, Mark decided to shape/ride a board so different, that his field of competitors (save for Cheyne's galactic stardust induced "Laser Zap" outlines) were completely caught off guard. Think of Kelly Slater's current design metamorphosis with his ultra-short boards, but imagine them bringing unprecedented success. Think of Simon Anderson's introduction of the Thruster, but imagine that Simon stood as the sport's most winning athlete. Mark Richards' personal board development program put him all alone on a unique track toward world titles and recognition by his peers as their lead man during both IPS and ASP championship eras.
It's a little talked about fact that, later on the morning of my OTW surf check, when both Shaun Tomson and MR pulled into the same gorgeous barrel (a defining moment of the Free Ride generation), that barrel held more than two of the time's most electric surfers, it held a passing of the baton in a design revolution.--Bernie Baker