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1950s WA Surfing History by Kevin Merifield

At 10 years of age (1948) I started riding my bike from Daglish where I lived to City Beach, that in itself was quite an experience as the then only road leading to City Beach was the old “switch back” a narrow unsealed road which literally went up and down over the sand dunes. At the beach I used to swim and catch wave’s body surfing style with arms to my sides and chest out usually in the white water straight to shore. As I got a bit older I started cutting across the face of the wave with one arm out and hand of the other arm on the face of the wave to keep me in the action area of the wave, I guess that’s where I first experienced the thrill of surfing and I just kept riding that bike back for more.

At about age 12 or 13, I joined my big brother Lyn as a junior member of the North City now Floreat Surf Lifesaving Club and then a couple of years later followed him to the Swanbourne club. Lyn was a pretty good swimmer and won a state junior R&R title in 1952, unfortunately I wasn’t much chop as a swimmer and usually brought up the rear of the field in most races, come to think of it I’m still not much chop as I usually find out when swimming after my board at Margaret’s or Yals after snapping many of Creatures leg ropes, they reckon I’m their best test pilot!

The real stuff was yet to come and at age 17 I ventured down South to Yallingup with my cousin and best mate Ray (Spider) Evans for the Australia day long week end 1955. It took us about 5 hours to get there via the South West Hwy. as there was no coast road then. I can still recall driving the little green bug (Renault) over the hill looking at Yals for the first time and saying “shit spider, have a look at that” both our eyes were popping out of our heads as the waves looked monstrous, in reality it was probably a typical Yals 5-6 foot day but by Perth standards it was huge.

To this day I still don’t know who told us about Yals, I guess the word just got around!

Some of the guys I remember heading down south in the first couple of years included the following:-

List of WA surf pioneers ex Kev Merifield IMG_0002a

Apologies for any left out.

It didn’t take long for the word to get around, so the numbers swelled significantly in subsequent years and still is today.

Photo: Early 1960s Yallingup Beach line-up. L-R Tony Burgess, Don Roper, Dave Williams, Don Bancroft, Howard Kent, Rob Birch, John Peterson, Kevin Merifield, unknown, Alan Hamer, Gary Birch, Mark Paterson, Barry King, Laurie Burke & Colin Moore. Photo courtesy of the West Australian.

1960 Yalls beach line-up West Pic IMG_01

Our home at Yalls was an ex-Navy hammock pitched between a couple of melaleuca trees in the virgin bush overlooking Yalls main break. Tucker was usually a couple of tins of baked beans, great for Jim’s blue flame fart trick or spaghetti and meat balls around the camp fire, later jaffles became the go with Horse Williams regularly knocking off a half a dozen or so a meal.

Sometimes for a real treat Red Abbott would walk out on the reef at low tide and catch a couple of octopus which he would cook in olive oil and share if there was enough to go around, it was a bit like JC feeding the multitude.

Getting into the old hammocks at night after a skin full of booze provided a challenge which often resulted in being tipped upside down with the help of a mate flat on your face in the dirt. Trying to keep warm wasn’t easy until someone got hold of a couple of  ex air force bear suits which the fighter pilots used to wear in world war 2, they were great and it wasn’t long before quite a few of us had one. When it rained, we used to head for the shelter of the veranda of the old one room Yallingup primary school on the corner of Caves Rd. and Wildwood Rd. just down the road from where I now live, or sometimes if there was an unlocked door or window head for one of the old Hammond cottages, which were the only houses on what is now the exclusive Yallingup hill.

Often in the mornings at first light we would be wakened by the sounds of the then budding trumpet player Don Bancroft a non-drinker going through the scales to the annoyance of the hung over, bleary eyed rest of the crew. After much yelling of abuse and rock throwing to no avail it was time to scramble out of the hammock and from where we were camped check out the waves. Don later became one of the leading Trad jazz trumpeters in Australia and if I’m ever in Perth on a Saturday arvo and not watching my old footy team Subi, I head down to the Railway hotel North Fremantle to see Don and his Cornerhouse Jazz Band do their stuff.

Photo: 1957-68 Subiaco Football Club. Kevin Merifield SFC 213 games & 4 State games – Photo courtesy of the Subiaco Football Club and Weekend News.

1957-68 Subiaco FC Kevin Merifield SFC 213 games & 4 State games - Weekend News IMG

When it was time to go for a surf we would venture out at Yals on whatever equipment we had. For the first couple of years that was usually a 16 foot toothpick ex lifesaving paddle board, 9-10 foot home made hollow ply board, chest board, hand board and not to be outdone Jim Keenan & Cocko’s whopping big double ski which was about 25 foot long.

For me at first it was a chest board which was probably the equivalent of today’s body board. It was about 4 foot x 18 inches marine ply with turned up nose, they were originally hired out at Scarborough beach as ‘surf shooters’ in the 1920s / 30s but later banned, being too dangerous at the popular beach. After being stored at the Scarborough surf club for many years we managed to get hold of a few which were ‘re born’ at Yals.

Photo: 1950s wooden chest board similar to the board used by Kevin. It is understood this board was made by Ward boat builders. Photo courtesy of Bob Green.

Kevin – The board built by Ward looks very familiar and similar to the one I used to use, chrome handles and all. You will notice the concave at the bottom that used to fit around our mid drift when lying on the board, we also wore flippers. Hard to see if the Ward board had turned up nose as mine certainly did. 

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Surfing in those early years was hassle free, dropping in wasn’t a problem and it was normal to see 3 or 4 guys on the same wave sometimes even holding hands. Jim and Cocko were classic to watch on their double ski as was Pato doing head stands no wonder Jake and Paul turned out so good and Davo carving up the waves in great style, he was probably the pick of the bunch at that stage. Kneel paddling was the go and for some like Pato finished up with calluses on their knees the size of tennis balls. There were no wet suits, or leg ropes just ‘budgie smugglers’ or a pair of old footy shorts and jumper which meant you spent half the time swimming after your board in the bay at Yals and if you wiped out spent time under water trying to free the footy jumper wrapped around your head.

For the first couple of years we only surfed Yalls but then started exploring other spots, they included Injidup Bay now Car Park Gallows and South Point. Getting to Injidup was a challenge as there were no roads or 4 wheel drive vehicles just a sandy fisherman’s track with plenty of limestone outcrops. You would regularly get bogged and more often than not take out a muffler or stake a tyre. About the only car that could handle the track trouble free was the old reliable VW Beetle, they would go anywhere and looked a sight with six or more 9/10 foot Mals strapped on the roof. It seems funny now but we surfed South Point for a couple of years, usually when it was onshore at Yals before someone said “hey have a look at that over there” pointing to what is now famous North Point. We also didn’t make it to Margaret’s until 1960/61.

I can’t recall exactly when, probably late fifties, Davo, Horse and myself ventured south down the beach after a surf at Gallows and spotted a few good looking  waves coming in, Davo said that looks like a cut throat wave and hence ‘Guillotine’ a now popular break was born.

There is always conjecture as to who and when the first waves were ridden at Yals and Margaret’s. At Yals the names of Ron Drage, Rod Baker & Don Morrison and Bruce Hill, Bernie Huddle & Bill Pratley come to the fore. Bill Pratley swears it was he, Moonshine & Bernie in Easter 1953 and I reckon that’s probably right. As for Marg’s the most accepted claim is that Mal Bromley and Warren McKinney were the first in either 1960 or 61, Murray Smith, Cliff Hill & other names also pop up in conversation. Harbo claims Mal & Warren came back to Caves House raving about the monster waves they discovered and surfed at Prevelly. With more than a few ales under our belts their claims were dismissed as exaggerated bullshit, “nothing could be bigger than Yals we all said. Harbo reckons he and I went down there the next day and surfed it but my memory fails me on that one.

Image: 1969 Kevin Merifield surfing Margaret River main break. Image courtesy of Sunday Times.

1969 Kevin Merifield surfing Marg River Sunday Times1

Around 1957/58 we formed the West Coast Board Riders club with meetings held in Davo’s garage in Wembley. By then, there were regular groups heading down south for weekends, this usually entailed 4/5 hour trips via South West Hwy. with the obligatory refreshment stops (pubs) along the way. By the time we hit Yals we were well and truly primed for a good days surf the next day. On the return trip home we would often stop at the Highway Hotel in Bunbury for the Sunday arvo session. With Bernie Huddle (piano), Don Bancroft (trumpet) Moonshine (clarinet) Artie Taylor (trombone) and Harbo (tea chest slap base) we had the makings of a pretty good Trad jazz band. The band and the rest of us would get free grog which made it all worthwhile. How we got back to Perth in one piece I’ll never know!

After a few years of roughing it between the melaleucas at Yals we put the hard word on Bill Copley, the then manager of Caves House hotel to take over the old laundry as our new home. After a bit of tidying up, double decker bunks, concrete floor and a roof over our heads we really had it made, and we only had to stagger about 50 metres back to the ‘Shack’ as it became known after a night at Caves. With sometimes a dozen or so crammed into the shack it was every man for himself. They were hilarious times with everyone taking the piss out of each other, it was a laugh a minute with some real characters within the group. The mateship amongst that early crew was very special and still is today.

Photo: 1962 Yallingup WCBC shack with Laurie Burke’s FB Holden & the Ghost’s Holden panel van out the front. Brian Cole pic.

1962 Yalls WCBC shack L Burke's FB Holden & Ghost's Holden panel van - Brian Cole pic img268

A couple of years later another shack was built not far from the original to house the ever increasing crew heading south, most were younger than the original crew and many too young to hold a Driver’s license hence the originals became known as the ‘big wheels’ and the younger crew the ‘little wheels’.

A collection of my anecdotes follows:-

Mixing with the locals

For the first couple of years the locals, primarily dairy farmers couldn’t work out who these weird bods were invading their territory, trespassing on their land and going out in what they considered wild seas and shark invested waters. Even back in those days we dressed, acted and spoke differently (surf speak had already began). Sometimes on a Saturday we would head into Busselton for a night out on the town. It usually took about a half an hour at the Vasse or Commercial hotels before it would be on. The locals would have a go at us and it would be good old fashion one on one fisticuffs for about 5 minutes until you were both buggered then up to the bar to share a beer together. After a while the locals got to know us better and we became good mates with some and were eventually accepted into the community.

Proto-type leg rope

Getting tired of swimming after his 16 foot toothpick at Yals Bill Pratley proclaimed enough was enough. What was probably the first attempt to attach board to body Bill tied a big hunk of rope around his waist and the other end to the handle on the tail of his 16 foot tooth pick board, the rope was pretty thick and no way was it going to snap. Bill paddled out at Yals on a reasonable size day, took off, blew it, got wiped out and consequently got dragged behind his board all the way to shore. I can still picture his head bobbing up in the white water every now and then desperately gasping for air on the journey to shore, just as well he had good lungs!

Butch Guthrie

There were times when we would be sitting out the back at Yalls when someone would yell out “lookout here comes Butch”. All eyes would turn to the sky and in the distance this little single engine plane would be heading our way. Before long Butch would swoop over us at about 10 feet above the ocean do a loop and come back for seconds. We would be crapping ourselves usually diving under as he passed over us. We got to know Butch a local farmer and real character and after we discovered Guillotine, put the hard word on him to put in a track for us from Gallows. Butch who never wore shoes had feet about 6 inches wide with soles as hard as leather, he came to have a look and literally walked through this prickly bush scrub as though it was carpet, “no worries boys” he said, went home got his bulldozer and an hour later we had our track, total cost 1 carton of beer.

Photos: 1960s Butch Guthrie with bi-planes and tractor on his Moses property. Photos courtesy of Guthrie family.

1960s Boodge Guthrie 5 collage_photocat

While there are old car bodies littered along Butch’s old dirt track to Gallows as testimony to its roughness, Kevin didn’t need a 4wd to conquer the track, he did it with ease in his Mercedes sedan.

Photo: 1968 Kevin Merifield driving his Mercedes 280SE on the Gallows track. Photo Jim McFarlane.

1968 Gallows track Kevin Merifield's Merc 280SE- J McFarlane img623

Hammond cottages

There was this time when we were in our hammocks at Yalls and it started to piss down. Jim Keenan said let’s check out one of the Hammonds cottages, so he Spider and myself headed off and managed to find one with a window unlocked, after settling in with a bed each there was this knock on the door with a female voice shouting “come on out I know your there”, there was silence and then after about the third time, Jim casually called back in a soft voice “There’s no one here”, we  pissed ourselves laughing and with tails between our legs fessed up to a not so amused Mrs. Hammond.

Photo: 1971 a Hammond Cottage on Elsegood Road Yallingup. This cottage was purchased by Peter ‘Spook’ Bothwell. Photo courtesy of Peter Bothwell.

1971 Yalls Spook's Hammond shack - Peter Bothwell IMG_0002

Bernie Huddle

Spider Evans, Jim Keenan and myself would often hitch a ride down south with Bernie Huddle in his FB Holden. Bernie who was an industrial chemist by profession wasn’t very mechanical minded, Jim sitting in the front seat without Bernie realizing would ease his leg across, put his foot on the clutch and slowly push the peddle down. With the motor revving like hell Bernie would throw his hands in the air and declare “there’s something wrong with this bloody car” Jim would suck Bernie in several times without him ever knowing what was going on, Spider and myself would be pissing ourselves in the back seat. After a couple hours of driving Bernie would be seen continuously tapping the fuel gauge and further declaring “there’s something wrong this bloody thing keeps going down”.

Photo: 1958 City of Perth SLSC members L-R Bernie Huddle, Tony Harbison, Artie Taylor, Dave Williams, Colin Taylor & Bruce’ Moonshine’ Hill. John Budge pic.

1958 City Beach B Huddle, T Harbison, A Taylor, D Williams, C taylor, Moonshine John Budge pic

Spider’s lucky break

One night at Caves House Hotel Arty Shaw lined up this barmaid and arranged for her to meet him back at the shack after she knocked off. At closing time we all staggered back to the shack and settled in for the night. About a half an hour later, I heard this little faint voice in the darkness calling “John are you there” Spider not being one to miss an opportunity responded also in a faint voice “over here” Well Spider did pretty well for himself that night and for me on the bunk above him, it was little sleep with the boat rocking and rolling all night. At daylight we heard this almighty scream and the barmaid yelling “who the hell are you”, Spider had a grin on his face from ear to ear for the rest of the week end.

Ghost rescue

One day at big howling offshore Marg’s Ghost Kent took off on this huge set wave and didn’t make the drop. Paddling back after a wave I spotted Ghost swimming to shore after his board. I paddled over to him and said “Ghost your board went back over the wave and is heading out to sea”. Ghost who wasn’t a very strong swimmer turned around and headed back after his board. After sitting back in the line-up for a while and watching what was going on I realized Ghost wasn’t making any headway as his board with the aid of the stiff offshore was drifting faster than he could swim. I decided it was rescue time and took off after his board, by the time I got to it and caught up with him we were probably a K or more off shore in the deep black water struggling like hell to make any headway. I reckon it took us a good hour or more to make it back where we both collapsed buggered on the shore, but very pleased to be back on dry land.

Photo: 1961 The Ghost surfing Gallows on a King and Cole surfboard. Photographer unknown.

1961 Ghost at Gallows on King & Cole surfboard unknown photographer 2 (2)

Serenade at Caves House

Sometimes in the arvo after a good mornings surf we would head over to Cave House for a quiet ale. Caves a State Govt. owned hotel then catered mainly for honeymoon couples. We would sit on the road next to the pub playing 78 rpm Trad Jazz vinyl records on a wind up gramophone which was our kind of music in those days. Jim Keenan’s favourite was ‘I want a gal just like the gal that married dear old dad’ it was a great rendition but after about 10 times straight it got a bit much. The honeymooners also thought so and would lean out the window telling us to shut up.

Gallows delights

When we went to Gallows for a surf pre track days we had to walk through the scrub for about a mile, board perched on our head Indian style. We would sneak past the Cullity house in the middle of the scrub and if you were lucky sometimes get a glimpse of a very attractive Cullity daughter sun baking nude in the back yard. On our way back we would collect drift wood from the sand dunes and trade it for a Devonshire Tea at Mrs. Hunt’s Tea Room on Caves Rd (now Lavender Tea House), she used to use it for dry floral art arrangements.

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These days.

These days Kevin is retired and lives on a rural property in the South West with his wife Margaret. He still surfs in the South West and enjoys surfing up north during the cold SW winter.

Photo: 1990s Kevin Merifield surfing Turtles on the North West Coast. Photographer unknown.

1990s Gnaraloo Kevin Merifield surfing Turtles IMG_0011a

70th Birthday party.

In 2008 Kevin celebrated his 70th birthday with surfing friends at his Millbrook property.

Photos: 2008 Kevin’s 70th birthday pics and bottom right 2012 Kevin & Harbo at Yalls. Photos courtesy of Kevin Merifield & Loz Smith.

2008 -12 Kevin Merifield 70th birthday & Harbo 1 collage_photocat

Biography.

Kevin has written & published his biography ‘An Interesting Life’ for friends and family…see book cover below.

2014 An Interesting Life by Kevin Merifield IMG_001

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