1976 World Champ Peter Townend takes us along for the Free Ride.

In putting together our 400th Issue’s Generation Now feature, it was clear that we’re currently witnessing a high-performance surfing renaissance the likes of which we’d never seen. What wasn’t so clear is how we got there — at least until we started doing a little digging. From the previous class of New School rippers through the ’80s tour-horses and beyond, today’s futuristic flyboys share a fair bit with all their ancestors. But surprisingly enough, they have most in common with the Free Ride generation — Mark Richards, Shaun Tomson, Wayne “{{{Rabbit}}}” Bartholomew, Ian Cairns and Peter Townend — the first band of surfers to not only redefine how waves are surfed, but how pro surfers are perceived. Here, 1976 World Champ Peter Townend discusses how a few winters on the North Shore set the whole surfing world on fire.

SURFING: Why was Free Ride such an influential movie?

Peter Townend: Well, there was a huge thing at that time, which is so different than how it is now: your reputation was carved on the North Shore. You just didn't turn up for the contests, you turned up in October and you stayed through ’til March, and the way you became a star was you had to go out and surf everyday at the places where the cameras were. And in those days that was when the whole Off The Wall phenomenon began. And a huge part of what Free Ride was about is that whole Off The Wall period from around ’75 to ’78. I mean, that was the defining period at Off the Wall. And not only in the movie. Every day, every magazine photographer — the Merkels, the Brewers, the Divines — they were all on the beach and every day it was any good we’d be out there.

The other thing is there wasn’t any video. There was surf movies and that was it. So you didn’t have 10 videos coming out every year like today; in those days you were lucky if there was one or two. So you couldn’t afford not to be in the water. Because that guy would put his camera up and it was your only chance to be in a film that was going to be anything, so you stayed out there until he took his camera down. [laughs] The beginning of the photo slut era was definitely the Free Ride generation.

SURFING: What do you think your generation brought to surfing performance-wise?

PT: Well, that period of time had grown from what was the tuberiding phase of modern surfing. After the longboard the next phase was riding the tube for real. And Lopez kind of pushed it, but there was the Australian crew who grew up in the righthand points of Queensland where it just barrels like crazy, so there was another element coming from Rabbit and me and Michael Peterson where we were riding the barrel, too. And then, all of a sudden, we discovered that besides riding the barrel we could ride the face, as well. And that was the real difference between the Australians and Hawaiians. The Hawaiians were real focused on riding the barrel. And we saw that we could not only ride the barrel, we could surf of the face, too. And at Off the Wall, guys were not only getting barreled, but they were doing off the lips and roundhouse cutbacks and snaps off the face. I mean, Shaun, sometimes gets overlooked for the maneuvers he was doing. And then there was one other component that was causing us to go on the face, and that was the Town guys. I mean, Bertlemann and Buttons and those guys, were doing all that face stuff and people were giving them no credit for it. So they were pushing their performance. And I think the Free Ride generation took the best of all that and did it better than anybody.

SURFING: What united you as a group?

PT: Well, the whole beginning of that era was the ’72 World Contest in Ocean Beach. Every one of the people in that generation were in the contest in ’72, they were all young and they were all representing their national teams. And they all saw each other for the first time. And just by destiny, we all ended up at that contest. And then over the next few years we attacked the North Shore year after year. Because in those days, the only thing that mattered was how you good did in your home country and how good you did on the North Shore. Nothing else mattered. Realize there were no Teahupoo’s or Tavaruas. There was your home and the North Shore. And that was it. And I think we were a new force that said we’re going to surf the waves differently, we’re going to surf the wave in more of an attack mode. And when you come together like that as a crew — a new crew, say like the Momentum generation — you push the envelope together. Because each time one of you does something better, you can’t be left behind. So you’ve either got to learn what they’re doing or do something innovatively on your own and move on. That was what forced me to develop the layback cutback. Because I had to do something to stay competitive with MR on his twin fins destroying the face.

But, I think, if you look back, we’re more united now. Because in those days, there was so little money in the contests — I mean, there was camaraderie and respect for each other — but we’d do anything to beat each other because you had to survive. You not only had to get your picture in the mag so you might get a couple trickledown free pairs of shorts, you had to win the money in the contest. That was the only way you could survive.

SURFING: You say you’d do anything to beat the other guys — define “anything.”

PT: Well, that one photo of MR and Shaun at Off-The-Wall symbolizes it. From the point-of-view of just competitively and also in the water. Shaun’s on the inside and MR’s on the outside getting barreled, because MR’s pissed off Shaun got too many good waves. [laughs] ‘Cause Shaun wasn’t a hog but he would sit out there until a “Shaun Wave” came. And when a Shaun Wave came, that was his wave no matter what. And he’d had too many Shaun Waves so MR dropped in on him. [laughs]

SURFING: That became one of the defining moments for your crew, what were some of the others?

PT: Clearly, there was also that session at Honolua Bay, which was featured in Free Ride. That swell was the first time all of us left the North Shore and went to Maui to surf the mystical Honolua Bay. And it was unfreaking-believable. I mean it was 10 to 12 feet and as perfect as you could get it. So that was a symbolic moment. The whole contest period of that time, the Smirnoff, the Duke, those contests and the performances in those contests were symbolic of that era. And really just the whole Off the Wall phenomenon. If anything defined that era, it was the Off the Wall phenomenon, without question.

SURFING: And then the ASP.

PT: Well, it was the IPS at that time, which was founded in the year that they crowned me world champion. Actually, it was founded the year before but they never declared a world champion until the next year. 1976, It’ll be 30 years next year! 30 f–kin’ years! But that first title founded pro surfing. Guys like Slater and Irons and all that might not be what they are today if it hadn’t started right there. It started in the Free Ride generation. The first four world champions were all the free ride generation. It was me, Shaun, Rabbit and MR. So the Free Ride generation defined pro surfing as we know it.