During the winter of 1975 in Hawaii, surfing was shaken to its core when a group of young surfers from Australia and South Africa sacrificed everything and put it all on the line to create a sport, a culture, and an industry that is today worth billions of dollars and has captured the imagination of the world.
With a radical new approach and a brash colonial attitude, these surfers crashed headlong into a culture that was not ready for revolution. Surfing was never to be the same again. One of those was world champ Mark Richards, born in the NSW country city of Newcastle where he still lives selling surfboards for a living.
Richards is featured prominently in the stunning new documentary, Bustin’ Down the Door, which chronicles this remarkable journey of a group of outsiders who changed the course of the surfing industry. Richards talked exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Question: When they came to you with this, what were your immediate thoughts on reliving that period?
Richards: Well, I guess my two immediate thoughts were, “Terrific!” Because, you know, Shawn Tomson came to me with the proposal to do the movie, and he planned on doing the interviews Hawaii, because that was where most of the action took place. So my two immediate thoughts were, “Great. I get to go to Hawaii and do the interviews, and spend a few days surfing.” And my second thought was actually one of fear. Because it had happened so long ago, that I wondered if I could remember everything. And I was a little bit apprehensive about doing the interviews, and going through a depression process. I was a little scared about being able to remember everything that sort of went down during those years.
Question: So, did you make a lot of notes so that you could at least be confident in the way you’re answering questions?
Richards: No, I made absolutely no notes at all. I went into the interviews completely blind. The director, Shawn, hadn’t actually presented me with a list of questions, because I think they were hoping for more spontaneous answers. I think they were possibly a little bit afraid that if I had a list of questions, that the answers might sound a little bit too rehearsed. So I usually prefer to do that. Like, you know, during the surfing career, I’ve done quite a few interviews. And I actually hate having a list of questions beforehand. I prefer to just get hit with a question cold, and come up with an answer on the spot. It just feels a bit more spontaneous, and a bit more natural.
Question: Now, you were brought up in Newcastle, right?
Question: What was it about that environment that made you determined to surf in the first place? And why did you want to surf?
Richards: Well, I grew up in a coastal city. Newcastle’s right on the coast, as you know. I had a fairly strange family environment. I was born in ’57, and both mother and father surfed. Which was unheard of in those days. To have one surfing parent in that era was almost unheard of. But to have two surfing parents was completely unheard of. And we spent all of our – I guess our weekend time and family recreation and vacation time, we’d spend at the beach. So I was sort of born into a surfing family. And as I say in the movie, I didn’t really get a lot of choice. Surfing was kind of the chosen sport, unless I didn’t like it. And I loved it, from the moment I was in the water. And what happened was, my Dad used to sell cars. And he went from selling cars to surfboards. So all through – I guess my junior school years, I had this sort of vision of taking over a surf shop, and wanting to be a surf board shaper. And a lot of competing from day one. I started competing in local events in Newcastle, just in the under 14 schoolboys divisions. And I sort of progressed from there to the juniors and seniors. And all as I was growing up, every surfing movie – there was no such thing as DVDs. You know, so every surfing movie, which came out about every two years, finished with the Hawaiian segment. And it was always the highlight of every surfing movie. And I dreamt about going to Hawaii and competing, and sort of surfing in these waves. So I guess my interest in surfing came primarily from the family interest in surfing.
Question: Did you ever expect that that would be your reality? That you would end up in Hawaii, and be a part of – almost this subculture over there?
Richards: Not at all. As I was growing up, I had no aspirations of being a competitive surfer. And it was like a pipe dream, to actually go to Hawaii. I didn’t think it would ever happen. Like my chosen career path when I left school was to be a surfboard shaper. And the reason I wanted to be a surfboard shaper was I wanted to work in the surfing industry, because it seemed that most surfers that worked in the surfing industry, damn tools and responsibility when the surf was on. And then they would catch up on work and responsibilities when the surf was off. So I thought that seemed like a pretty enviable career path. And even during those early years, in the period of time that the movie focuses on, like ’74 through to ’76, I – you know, in all honesty, did not share the same vision that Rabbit had. Or being a pro surfer, and the future of pro surfing. And I think that – you know, Shawn even admits it in the movie, where he was thinking about going back to South Africa, and going back to uni after that winter on the North Shore. It was really Rabbit that really had the strong vision that pro surfing one day would take off, and would be a viable sport.
Question: When you first arrived in Hawaii’s North Shore, what were your impressions?
Richards: I guess that — the first time I went was in 1972 and I was completely awestruck by the place, and by the size of the waves. The movies that I’d seen, and the photos that I’d seen, had not done the majesty of the ocean there – it just hadn’t done it justice. And really, I went there, to a certain extent, as an egotistical young Australian, expecting to go there and rip the surf to pieces., because I’d watched the movies, and I’d watched those guys riding big waves. And it seemed to me as though they were actually cruising on the waves, and they weren’t doing a lot of turns. And I’d come from a surfing environment of surfing small waves, where you do a lot of turns. So that first year I went there, I actually expected to go there and to surf really well and deep waves, and do all the turns that I was doing in small waves in Australia. But I had just had no vision, or no comprehension, or no understanding of the size and the power and the intensity of the waves there, and the fact that just to actually catch one and ride one, and basically ride it in a fairly straight line was an achievement. I had no comprehension of what was going on there at all.
Question: Were you surprised at the ultimate Australian presence that was generated in Hawaii at this time? You and Rabbit, and everybody else?
Richards: It was – I guess it was surprising that we all arrived there at the same time. And really, I guess it was a generational change. Because we – like, Shawn, Rabbit, Ian Cairns, Peter Townend and I, and Mark and Tomson, all the guys featured in the movie, were all very close in age. Maybe a year or two difference in the age brackets. But it was as though we’d all come through – like, all the junior events in the countries, and we’d come through the amateur events. And we’d seen the vision of Hawaii in surfing movies. And it was just a combination of all our dreams to actually arrive there and surf there. So it was – I guess, a very unique moment in time where you had surfers from different countries and different nationalities, all arriving on the North Shore, all wanting to surf well in big waves, and all on a mission to try and get into these surfing events, and to try and win some of these surfing events.
Question: Yet it’s the Australians that seem to dominate this period. Which seems such an odd thing to me. Did it seem as such to you, that you guys were the ones that people were talking about, writing about, photographing?
Richards: Well, never in my wildest dreams did I realize the impact we would have and if anyone had mentioned the impact we would have prior to doing it, I would have said that they didn’t know what they were talking about. It was – like, the impact was fairly amazing. And I guess what happened was, you’ve got this crew of young, energetic, competitive surfers, that really wanted to actually go there and make a point. We didn’t want to go there and just be making up numbers in the water. And I guess it’s worth remembering, the crazy thing is that pro surfing was starting to take off in the ’70s. And to get invited to a pro surfing tournament in Australia– even though the word “pro surfing tournament” was very loose. Like, first prize was maybe $1000. To get into the Aussie events as an Australian, you really needed to have a reputation as a good big wave surfer in Hawaii. So the mission was to actually go there to experience the surf, to try and ride the waves and conquer the waves, and challenge your peers in those conditions. At a long shot, try and get invited to the Hawaiian events. But the short term mission was that if you could develop a bit of a reputation as someone who surfed well in big surf in Hawaii, you had a chance of getting invited to the Bells Beach event in Australia, which was one of the longest running pro events in the world. So, indirectly, by going there, we were trying to get into the Australian events as well.
Question: The Australians were described in this movie as being cocky and ferociously competitive. Where did that come from?
Richards: I think it comes from our national psyche. It’s been started off – like, we started as a penal colony. And I think that Australians have always wanted to prove themselves against other nationalities. And I think when it comes to sport, Australians are fiercely competitive. Like, our cricketers – you know, we have the best cricketers in the world, and the best cricket team. Our rugby players are very good, and our football – the football codes [?], you know, Australians are nearly unbeatable. You know, we’ve done well in swimming. We used to do well in tennis. And surfing-wise, we’ve always done well, I guess from day one. And it really comes from the – being a penal colony, being a small country, being thrust onto the world stage, actually wanting to prove yourself on the world stage. And really, from day one, Australian surfers have just been incredibly competitive. Like, going back to 1964, I think. Miget Farrelly, one of our great really competitive surfers. He went to Hawaii and managed to get into an event at Makaha which was thought of as an unofficial world championship at that time. Miget managed to win the event, which had never, ever been done before. It had always been dominated by Hawaiian surfers.
Question: Were you fulfilling as much your parents’ dream as your own, through the successes that you’ve attained, do you think?
Richards: I guess indirectly. A lot of the motivation for what I was doing was for approval. Coming from a family that both surfed, I wanted to make my Mom and Dad proud. And really, you know, the first thing I needed to do after I did well in a contest in Hawaii, I went straightaway looking for a public pay phone. There were no cell phones. Where I could ring my Mom and Dad and sort of tell them how well I’d done. And also, they had given me an ultimatum. When I left school and I embarked on a career as a surfboard shaper, pro surfing sort of started to appear. And they gave me an ultimatum, where they would help me out financially for one year, to do some of the events on the tour. And if I did well, they would continue to help me out, and I could continue to go for it. If I didn’t do well on that first year, then – you know, their suggestion was that any financial support would be held [?], and it was back to more a nine to five job, and a surfboard shaping career.
Question: Did that dream almost disappear when the Hawaiian Black Shorts [?], that whole feud escalated the way it did?
Richards: Well, to me, it didn’t. Because –
Question: You were called “the good Australian,” weren’t you?
Richards: I was called “the good Australian.” While all that was going down, when Rabbit and Shawn and Ian were sort of living in fear of their lives, and – that wasn’t really an exaggeration. The movie didn’t exaggerate anything. It actually underplayed the intensity and the heaviness of what was actually going down then. for me, it was a very strange experience. Because my best mates were getting beat up every time they went surfing. Whereas I could go surfing wherever I liked, having no problems at all with the Hawaiian surfers. So it was nearly as though we had this focus on this sport, and we had this dream of pro surfing. But it nearly became derailed right from the start, with what was going down. I managed to side step all the violence and intensity, mainly because the year before I was living with an Hawaiian family on the North Shore. And when we won all the events, I got a sense of – that their pride was wounded. They’d welcomed all the out-of-state surfers with open arms, the Hawaiians would be terrific towards the international surfers. And they were – I think they were hurt, and their pride was wounded a little bit. They were really disappointed to have lost the event from their own boarders, because they had such tremendous pride in surfing. So when we all went home from Hawaii that year, and some of the guys started writing stories and boasting about their performances, I just really felt that it was the wrong way to go. And I felt that it could have repercussions the next year in Hawaii. But I didn’t visualize the repercussions that went down.
Question: And obviously this is a film that does explore the downside of ego. What do you think everyone learned from that whole experience?
Richards: I think everyone learned a little bit of humility. I think that when it comes to sportsmen and sports women, people love them as long as they actually show a little bit of humility. You know, I don’t think anyone likes a sportsman or a sports woman that continually has to tell you how good they are, and has to boast about their achievements. I think that you can make your achievements stand for you. You don’t have to broadcast them to the world.
Question: To what extent has the surfing industry changed? Has it changed for the better or for the worse since the mid-’70s?
Richards: Well, I think it’s changed for the better. From the competitive point of view, and from a pro surfer point of view. In the ’70s, you thought you were doing great if there was a free pair of board shorts, and you got a free surfboard to ride, and, like, a free wetsuit to wear when it was cold. You know, what we’ve seen, is the industry go from – or, the pro surfing industry go from the point where the guys were finding it very, very hard to make ends meet, and were just getting handouts from clothing companies and so forth, coming to a point now where we’ve got Andy Irons and Kelly Slater and Nick Fanning, sort of current world champion and past world champions – well, I’m estimating here. But probably making over a million dollars a year. And we’re seeing, in a year where pro surfers these days who’ve been successful at it could walk away from the sport without having to ever work again. Which was a dream we had. And we’re seeing a surfing industry that went from sort of a cottage industry to basically a worldwide, billion-dollar empire, which some surfers see as surfing maybe selling out, but I see it as an opportunity for more and more people who’ve also been involved in the industry, to make a living from it.
Question: Is surfing, for you, a metaphor? And in particularly as explored in this film, a metaphor for your own life’s journey, do you think?
Richards: I think surfing makes my life complete. My wife and children could tell you that if I don’t get in the water every day, I’m not really a lot of fun to work with. I’m a much happier person when I get to go surfing. And it’s – I guess it’s me, and surfing, and we’re just so connected. And it’s the whole reason for being, you know? In an Australian sort of way – and this will sound weird – I actually feel a bit awkward on land. But the moment I get in the water, it just feels like everything comes together, and it’s where I was meant to be.
Question: How old are your children?
Richards: I’ve got a 20-year-old son, a 15-year-old daughter, and a 13-year-old son.
Question: And have any of those kids taken to water like you have?
Richards: Not like me. They all surf a little bit. My son Carl, my oldest son, Carl, who’s 20 years old, he is the most noncompetitive person on the planet. It’s strange, to come from me, and he’s so noncompetitive. He’s noncompetitive with everything. But he discovered snowboarding at an early age. So, we live in a beachside community, and he comes from Australia. We’re miles and miles from the snow. When we get snow in Australia it will last for about a month, and it’s like white concrete. And he’s like, a frustrated snowboarder. And he wishes we lived somewhere in North America, or somewhere in Canada. My daughter, Grace, is actually – this will sound funny. She’s scared of waves. She likes to swim, but she’s scared of waves. It’s funny, we’ll go to, like, a theme park. Like, you know, Disneyland, or something. And she goes on all the horror rides, but I’m too scared. Of the scary rides. She’s a keen dancer. And the youngest son, Nathan, the 13-year-old, he’s like, a mad keen snowboarder, skateboarder, and surfer. He’s just possessed with anything that involves having a board under your feet.
Question: So he could turn out to be another MR.
Richards: No, because somehow or other he picked up that noncompetitive gene from my older son. He’s just quite happy to go and do it for fun. But when it comes to competition – like, he surfed in some of the junior surfing events in Australia, but he’s just – you know, at least to do well, you’ve got to be prepared to go out there and hassle over the top with someone, and win at all costs. He’s, like, a bit of a cruiser. If a wave comes to him, he’ll go. But he’s not prepare to hassle, or sort of fight for waves. These days in competitive surfing, you just don’t go ahead if you’ve got a cruising attitude.
Question: Are you still competitive?
Richards: Yeah, I guess I am. [LAUGHTER] I don’t have many outlets for it, but I’m competitive, like, in the business life, with manufacturing surfboards. You know, I like to think that my boards are better than what everyone else – you know. A couple of years ago, I surfed in – Quicksilver had a Masters tour that happened for a few years, and I surfed against Rabbit in the final in Makaha. I think it was either two or three years ago now. And I actually lost the final to Rabbit, and I’m still pissed off about it. I think about it now, two years later, what I did wrong, and where I made mistakes. And if we get in another one of those finals together, I won’t make the same mistake again.
Question: And I take it that your life is now in the surfboard manufacturing industry.
Richards: Yeah. I’m still living in Newcastle, where I was born. I’m actually still running the shop that my Dad started. I’m shaping surfboards, and manufacturing surfboards.
Question: So life’s come full circle for you.
Richards: It’s come full circle. It’s funny, I left school and wanted to be a surfboard shaper. And had a career as a surfboard manufacturer. Pro surfing got in the way of that. It was a diversion for about ten years or so. Now I’m back to doing what I started doing when all that stopped. It’s a strange career path.
Question: What do you hope – obviously diehard surfers and fans of the sport will flock to see this. But do you hope that people who are not necessarily interested in surfing will see this movie as being something more than just about surfing?
Richards: Yeah. I think what we’re hoping is it reaches a wider audience. There’s no question that it will reach a surfing audience. I think there will be – very few surfers would not agree that it’s the best surfing movie ever made. I think what we’re hoping is that it reaches a wider audience. Because I think it tells a wonderful story. And it’s got everything. It’s got life and death and drama and great visuals. And I think it really captures the spirit of what it’s like to surf, and what it was like to be there for the beginning of pro surfing, and to see the sport develop. I think it’s a sport that, you could have never heard of surfing, or never seen a surfboard, or never seen a wave in your life, and I think you could go and watch this movie and come out of it thoroughly entertained, and go, “Well, I know nothing about surfing, but that was a great story.”