Vale Bernard ‘Midget’ Farrelly
“OH YES, THE fun’s back” then 61-year-old Bernard ‘Midget’ Farrelly told AG writer Ian Cockerill in 2006. Ian interviewed Midget about a revival in longboarding for issue #AG81. Today we mourn the loss of the iconic Australian surfer who won the very first World Surfing Championships in 1964, and has died of stomach cancer at the age of 71.
Midget was the blond-haired human representation of Australia’s early surf craze. Riders like Midget, said Ian, “propelled surfing from society’s fringes to the centre of popular culture following their introduction to Australia in 1956, courtesy of an American lifeguard team.
“Thereafter, longboards defined an exhilarating decade where teenagers stomped to Gidget movies, the Beach Boys and our own Delltones, where a newly spawned tribe pored over the first surfing magazines, surfing documentaries like American film-maker Bruce Brown’s epic Endless Summer, and where more than 65,000 people turned up to Manly Beach to celebrate the arrival of our own talismanic world champions in Midget and the soon-to-be-crowned Robert ‘Nat’ Young.”
Midget Farrelly’s long legacy
Just a teenager when he won the world championships, Midget would go on to be one of the driving forces behind the creation of the International Surfing Federation, which ensured the growth of surfing as huge business worldwide. Later he became a surfboard designer and manufacturer and was inducted into the Sports Australia Hall of Fame in 1985.
Midget was also behind the sport in its many forms until the end. Two of his daughters took up his first love, longboarding, and he’d been happy to see it have a Renascence. “It was 1992 before I got back on a longboard at Queenscliff [next to Manly]” he told Ian, “and remembered what it was like in the old days. Ten years later you can get three generations surfing together as people have realised surfing on small waves can be so much fun.
“Look, I saw the cover of a Pacific Longboarder [magazine] recently and there was this girl in a bikini riding on the nose. I thought: ‘They’ve got it! That’s what it was all about’.”
Vale Bernard ‘Midget’ Farrelly.
A short history of surf
Fashioned from imported sugar pine, the board Hawaii’s Duke Kahanamoku used to intro-duce surfing to Australia is 8’8″ (2.6m) long, 23″ (58cm) wide and weighs 78lb (35kg). Now displayed at Sydney’s Freshwater Surf Lifesaving Club, the Duke’s board built on Polynesian heri-tage thought to be more than 1000 years old.
Known as tooth-picks, hollow, finless plywood boards 16′-18′ (4.8-5.5m) long and as narrow as 20″ (50cm) dominated the surf scene in Australia for almost 30 years. Weighing more than 50lb (22kg), the tooth-picks spent their lives housed at surf clubs because of their awkward size.
Named after the then centre of the surfing universe, Los Angeles’ Malibu Beach, the Malibu board arrived with a bang in Australia as a team of us lifeguards journeyed to Torquay, Victoria, to compete in an international carnival coinciding with Melbourne’s Olympic Games. Local surfers were mesmerised as three members of the team showed off their balsa and fibreglass boards, measuring a mere 9’–10′ (2.7–3m) and, courtesy of their fins, capable of slicing across a wave. By the end of the decade the mal, weighing about 26lb (12kg), had transformed surfing into a national pastime.
The shortboard revolution was sparked after Bob McTavish and others took to longboards with an axe rather than a scalpel. Within a couple of years the new norm was about 6’6″ (2m) and board weights dipped to less than 10 lbs (4kg).
The modern long-board might look like the classic mal, but lighter foam and less fibreglass mean they weigh just 12–15lb (5–6kg).