Sean Doherty: "I Was Always Trying to Do Stuff That No One Else Could Do", Col Smith in 1977

3 Oct 2020 3 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

Photo: Bill McCausland

Photo: Bill McCausland

COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY | BOOK EXCERPT

The following is an excerpt from Sean Doherty's new book – Golden Days: The Best Years of Australian Surfing – which tells the story of Australian surfing through the lives of the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame members, one year at a time from 1915 to today. Last week we went back to Parko's 2012 World Title.This week, it's 77 Aussie Champ and Narrabeen legend, Col Smith.

"I Was Always Trying to Do Stuff That No One Else Could Do"

Col Smith had just been asked in a 1977 Tracks interview if his surfing revolved around pulling off ‘gravity defying stunts’. Col wasn’t sure if the interviewer was taking the piss. ‘Well, let me put it this way…’ After a weighty pause Col told it straight. ‘There are certain manoeuvres that are near impossible… and I’m going for those manoeuvres. I don’t really like going for tubes all the time. If there’s a tube there and I can’t avoid it I’ll go for it, but there’s nothing very difficult about getting tubes. I’m not going for the packet of hundreds and thousands… I’m going for the big one!” This wasn’t a hollow boast. Col Smith might have been ancient at 28… but he was the oldest, most radical surfer in the world.

Going for the big one had recently landed him in hospital. ‘I was always trying to do stuff that no one else could do,’ Col remembers today, ‘and the thing no one else could do was a barrel roll. To turn around, upside-down inside the barrel and land it. The first guy I ever saw do one was a dirt bike champion named Herbie Jefferson. He did a barrel roll on a kneeboard at Angourie and made it. I went, that's looks good. If he can do it on a kneeboard, I can do it standing up. So this day at Car Park Rights at Narrabeen the waves were just phenomenal. I dropped down this wave on my backhand, jammed a turn and gone right round inside the wave. I made the barrel roll, I was 99 per cent there, but came down and fell off the front of the board. It whacked me in the mouth. The nose of the board hit me and snapped off in my face. I pulled this bit of fibreglass out and went, what's this? I pulled it out and my bloody top and bottom lip nearly fell off! I got a hundred stitches, but I’d been pretty close to making it.’ To this day no surfer ever has.

Col Smith’s radical streak had started early in life. Soon after moving to Narrabeen at age 10, he’d taken his mother’s wooden ironing board, stripped all the metal fittings off, cut his jeans down into shorts and gone surfing. A couple of years later his brother brought him home a 10’6” balsa nose rider from the States, which Col had no intention of nose riding. ‘Chris Crozier and I cut three feet off it and that was our shortboard.’ Col was a child of the shortboard revolution and like most of those kids would almost immediately take it too far. ‘We made them smaller and smaller and smaller to the point where I ended up one year riding a 4’10” board at 15-foot Margaret River. Very hard to get into them, but once you got up you were fine. Boards just kept getting smaller and all different styles. I made a board that nearly looked like a football, only five-foot long, super-round, but you could sort of hang ten on it.’ As a kid Col also rode skateboards for the Midget Farrelly skate team. ‘I remember I did a demo at Dee Why and another out at Ryde where the big shopping centre is. It was a bit scary, downhill racing at Dee Why in bare feet and a see-through skateboard.’

Maybe the biggest influence on Col Smith’s surfing though was a kid his own age. Col doesn’t remember ever actually surfing with Wayne Lynch, but in those years before Wayne stepped away from the spotlight he was kind of hard to miss. In particular it was Wayne’s backhand re-entry that caught Col’s attention. ‘Many times I’d watch him and think, gee whiz, I’d like to do that.’ If Wayne was the first to train the board vertically at the lip on his backhand, Col was the one who took it past its physical limit. ‘It got to the stage where I thought, look, most of the surfing contests are held in righthanders, I'm going to ride rights better than I can ride lefts. And that's exactly what I could do.’ Narrabeen was the best left in Sydney. Col preferred Car Park Rights, just down the beach. 

The biggest influence on Col however was Narrabeen itself. ‘As a kid you weren't allowed to surf Narrabeen until you were good enough. They were the rules. It was strict.’ Young Col worked his way up the beach from Waterloo Street to The Pines and eventually to The Alley. Col remembers the ‘Log Mob’, a hardcore group who hung around a log that had washed up on the beach. Before it was Narrabeen against the world, it was always Narrabeen against Narrabeen. ‘It was ruled with an iron fist,’ recalls Col of the Narrabeen scene. ‘Very strong but very close. It's probably the closest community I've ever been involved with.’

Throughout the ‘70s Col Smith was the alpha male at North Narrabeen… the most alpha line-up in Australia. Col had the women. Col had the soul patch beard and Col had the cars. He’d do burn-outs in the Narrabeen car park in his FJ, smoking the place up until the diff blew. Col would occasionally paddle out with a cigarette in his mouth and drop in on someone with it still alight. He’d scold the local grommets for not hitting the lip hard enough. ‘All the competitiveness was out in the water,’ Col recalls. ‘It didn't matter who was who; you were going out there to surf… you weren’t going out there to make friends. It had a reputation for that.’ At a time when it seemed every surfing beach had their resident surfing animal, a wild man in and out of the water, Narrabeen had Col Smith.

Surfing Narrabeen wouldn’t be enough for a competitive animal like Col. He needed other outlets. A natural athlete and all-round sportsman, he excelled at everything he turned his hand to. Col was a great tennis player, footballer and ice hockey player. He’d never ice skated before but was playing Sydney first grade within nine months. The physicality of ice hockey suited him perfectly. ‘That was to learn how to fight,’ he laughs. ‘Every time you go on you’re in a fight. I remember this guy smashed me into the railing so I let him have it. And that was my career in first grade ice hockey. Straight into the sin bin. But I loved it. I used to do barrel jumping on the ice. I could jump 10 barrels. If I took something up I wanted to get full-on into it.’

Cars were his real vice. Col was a car guy. ‘Was I ever. I put a 351 Ford into a four-cylinder Transit van. Mate, that was the fastest thing on the planet. It had four wheels on the back and I could wheel spin them up to 60 miles an hour. Then I bought myself a ‘66 Pontiac GTO, two-door, two-speed powerglide, a hundred mile an hour in first gear. I also had an old Ford Fairmont station wagon that I had lowered with all the whiteys on them.’ He helped build the fastest sedan racer in the country, and although he didn’t race it himself, he was a demon behind the wheel. He recalls driving north on a surf trip to Newcastle and being overtaken by another car doing 80 miles an hour. ‘This car shot past me, blew me off the road. I’ve tightened the seatbelt up and then took off after him. It felt like the car was floating. I looked at the speedo which went up to 120. The needle had gone past that and was almost back around at zero.’ When asked how it ended, Col replied, ‘The car in front blew up.’ Col’s driving was a bit like Col’s surfing – not exactly graceful, but always in the red.

Col earned his living shaping surfboards. His shaping reflected his driving. ‘I was a very, very fast shaper. I could turn out a board in 12 minutes. They weren't real good but I was still getting them out.’ Col had got his start at 18, when Denny Keogh offered him a job down at Brookvale. ‘I was a carpenter before that. I could cut the outlines out nearly perfect, but the rest of it was pretty bad. I ended up with a lot of wafers and this side’s thicker than the other.’ He laughs. ‘But after doing twenty or thirty thousand I got there eventually.’

At Keyo’s he shaped alongside Geoff McCoy and discovered Narrabeen competitiveness didn’t stop at the tide line. ‘Geoff and I were mates, but I’ll never forget he said to me, “I'll never ever show you how to shape a surfboard.” And I went, “Why not?” He goes, “Because every board you shape is one I don’t!” I've never forgotten that. Every time I see him I remind him.’

Col shaped with Terry Fitzgerald at Hot Buttered before going out on his own in 1973 with Morning Star surfboards. ‘The idea never entered my head, but one day Wayne Warner said to me, “You want to make surfboards?” I said, “Oh yeah.” He asked, “How much money you got?” I replied, “Maybe 150 bucks.” And he said, “Well I got 250. Let's go make surfboards.” So we ended up making ‘em in his garage in Garden Street and that was our start.’ Morning Star moved to Darley Road, Mona Vale, then opened a shop at Dee Why. Col even employed a young Simon Anderson. They then opened a surf shop in the Western Suburbs. ‘Nat, Wayne and I went thirds in a shop out there on the corner of Bellfield Road, which was about three kilometres from Bankstown Square. There were no other surf shops for 25km in any direction out there. We were only open 13 hours a week, but we took more money than any other surf shop in Brookvale. We had 'em lined up going down the street to get in.’

Photo: Bill McCausland

Photo: Bill McCausland

The seventies was the Golden Age of Surfing in Narrabeen. Guys like Terry Fitz, Grant Oliver, Mark Warren and Simon Anderson were winning contests all over the country, and in time all around the world. Col’s dominance of the Narrabeen line-up however never translated to wider contest success. He’d never won a major title outside of Sydney. He’d been to Hawaii but never received invites to the contests there. He actually did receive an invite in ’76 but nobody told him. Judging through the seventies also favoured numbers of turns, not one big radical turn. Hundreds and thousands, not the big one. ‘Even though I might only be doing one manoeuvre,’ he told Tracks, ‘that’s got to be better than doing a dozen other less radical ones.’

By 1977 the most radical surfer in Australia was getting on. Col was 28, married with a two-year-old daughter, not surfing as much and working long hours at Morning Star. He was however keeping the faintest hope alive for a major contest win. Pro surfing had arrived but he felt like an outsider to it. He was being overtaken by younger guys. In 1977 he surfed all four Australian pro events but only managed to finish mid-field in all of them. When Col looked at the ratings he saw his name respectably high. Then he saw his name again, way down the list in the same ratings. The guy higher up was Col Smith, a radical young goofyfooter from Newcastle. Col Smith from Newcastle had only surfed one event and was way ahead of Col Smith from Narrabeen, who’d surfed four. Narrabeen Col bristled, taking some consolation that at least a Narrabeen surfer – Simon Anderson – was leading the ratings.

Simon had been a Col Smith protégé, a role now being filled by 16-year-old Tom Carroll. Despite living up the peninsula at Newport, Tom was a regular down at Narrabeen as he was working a panelbeating apprenticeship there. Col was shaping his boards, and when Tom got a start in the Stubbies at Burleigh – the first event of the first full professional season – he jumped in the front seat of Col’s FJ. ‘It was cool,’ recalls Col. ‘I was the oldest so I always used to have to cart everybody around. I took Tommy to his first surfing contest. That was the Stubbies that Peter Drouyn ran. At 10 o'clock in the morning the surf was going off and Drouyn would go, “Okay, contest over for the day!” Everybody lost it. He said, “Don’t worry, the waves are going to be better tomorrow.” He did this for 11 days and every single day the surf got bigger. It was absolutely phenomenal. Tommy had to go and surf against Shaun Tomson, who was the biggest surfer in the world at the time. I said, “Shit, mate, you want me to come down and stand on the rocks with you?”’

But that still left the ’77 Australian Titles, due to be held at Narrabeen. Col had flirted with the Aussie Title in the past, having finished 10th, 9th, 8th, 7th, 6th, 4th and 4th. The past two Aussie Titles had, however, been won by Narrabeen surfers – Fitzy in ’75, and Mark Warren in ’76. Col Smith’s biggest threat for the title was Col Smith. The two Cols – who didn’t really know each other at the time – ended up surfing together in the final. ‘That was fun,’ recalls Col Smith from Narrabeen, who won the final. ‘Col Smith first and Col Smith second and the write-up in the paper going, “This is not a misprint.”’

For his win, Col was supposed to receive an airline ticket to Brazil to compete in the pro event there that year. The ticket never turned up. The pro tour took off without Col. ‘It was a bit hard because I had the family. I went to a few contests – I could've gone to a lot more – but I would've been away from home too much. I’d have to leave the kids behind and find somebody do the shaping. I was getting too old and it was getting too expensive and I wasn’t placing as high as I should. So yeah, I gave it a miss after that.’

Col did the Tracks interview the week after his Aussie Title win, sitting on the bonnet of the FJ. Tied to the roof racks were a set of snow skis. ‘I just spent my first three days in the snow and I’m afraid of it! You see, if I get to like it, and I am stoked on it, I might have to give up surfing for a while. I’ve been thinking about it since I got back. It seemed to me that I learned more in the three days I spent there than guys who’ve been skiing for a couple of full seasons.’ For the next five winter seasons, Col – forever obsessive – would make 20 trips a year down to the snow. In years to come snow skiing would be replaced by fishing, and later, by Ceroc jive dancing. 

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