Chuck Morton-Stewart started out as a grommet on Scarborough Beach in the mid-1960s and later in his national TV persona as ‘Charles Stewart’ travelled the world surfing, skiing and covering water sports… being paid to drive fast cars…and even made “Cleo” magazine’s annual list of ‘Australia’s most eligible bachelors’!!
Photo: 1960s Chuck Morton-Stewart at Scarborough vs Warrain inter club competition held at Leighton. Brian Trainer pic.
From 1968/69 when members of our Scarborough crew started getting drivers’ licences, we clocked up thousands of kilometres in Holden panel vans and utes, and assorted other clapped out vehicles, making the Friday night trek Down South (often after a few beers at the White Sands pub in Scabs).
Chuck, Peter “PB” Bevan, John “Jake” Jacobs, me and a bunch of other surf nuts hunkered down in sleeping bags on air mattress’ on the lawn at Yallingup on Friday nights – unless it rained and we dragged them into the old dunnies, before waking with the rising sun on Saturday to see what Huey had dished up for us for the weekend. No internet swell and wind forecasts, or mobile phones back then – the only reliable test was being there and the naked eye.
One Saturday, Chuck, Jake and I woke to big Yallingup and a moderate sou’ easter blowing. Perfect for Injidup Point. In those days you could drive out on a track to just behind the point to a small parking area about adjacent to the break. [The track was later swallowed up by the giant sand dune which now spills into the waters of the bay]
It was firing that day. We were first in the water. The rest of the crew from Yalls soon followed. We surfed multiple sessions, all day, in great waves. We were last to leave. Unfortunately, John’s Holden ute was crap in the sand and we were soon bogged …and stuck there all night – arrggghhhhh!! Hungry, thirsty, salt-encrusted and taking sweltering refuge in sleeping bags, as whenever we put our heads out were attacked by hordes of mosquitos. It was a very, very long night…
Rescue came next morning when we walked around Inji bay and found some mates checking out Carpark. They drove us back around the track. Together, we all lifted up the ute, shoved tree branches torn off trees under the wheels….and pushed the bugger out, with the wheels spinning in the soft sand.
By 1969/70, we started getting panel vans to sleep in during our almost weekly Down South treks. For a year, Chuck, Peter Bevan and I later rented a diary farmer’s old weatherboard cottage located on the road from Cowaramup town to the coast (he’d moved up the hill to a new house but left the power connected to the old place) for $52, paid in advance….i.e. for ONE YEAR (do the math = $1 a week!).
And we started dragging our girlfriends along (some which were later to become wives) for what would now look like pretty primitive living conditions…the hot water for showers in the old cottage coming from a pipe running through a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. One Friday night, I arrived with my lady (now the Missus) in a fierce winter storm to find a couple of pigs had broken in and were occupying one room!
…but it was all part of the great adventure we were having back then. And we were getting heaps of great, uncrowded waves when you knew pretty much everybody in the line-up – how lucky were us baby boomer surfing generation back then, eh??!
Fast forward to January 2016 and my old school, surfing and journalism buddy Chuck was out on Sydney harbour for his weekly group power surf ski paddling session led by close mate, the legendary ironman champion Guy Leech when… the lights went out…
Chuck – non-smoker, fit, still trim – had a heart attack. Guy’s lifesaving skills kept him breathing until the ambulance arrived but he never regained consciousness in the hospital and a few days later the life support system was switched off. And he was gone. It was big shock and raw for me. But time heals a little …and now, just over a year later, it’s time to put down some stuff about his remarkable life, especially related to surfing…………..
Tom Blaxell recalled when they were at Hale School and he was making his first backyard boards at his family’s home on West Coast Highway at south Scarborough, 15-year-old Chuck was urging him to go commercial and make a career of it. Chuck laid out a vision for a bright future for ‘Blaxell Surfboards’. Tom says now that Chuck inspired him back then to have a go.
In 1968, he registered the business. Eventually Blaxell ended up with a workforce of 40 odd and making great boards and boats at the last of three factories he was to operate in Scarborough Beach Road, Osborne Park over the years. In 1987, Tom sold out to some investors from the big end of town.
In the 1968 State Schoolboys’ titles at Scarborough, I was captain of the Hale School team, which included Chuck. We both won our heats. I bombed out in the semis and Chuck went on to come fourth in the Final. Bunbury high school had some great surfers – like Lex Cornelius, Glyn Lance, Peter Roberts – and they kicked our butts to win the then coveted Schools championship.
Image: 1968 Hale School Cygnet magazine. Review of 1968 WA Schoolboys Surfboard Championship. Image courtesy of Errol Considine.
That same year Chuck, me and Jake piled in an FJ panel van owned by another school buddy Geoff Rankine-Wilson and well went south for the March long weekend State titles. The radiator kept boiling and we had to stop often. Its max. speed was about 50mph (80kmh). The suspension and tyres were dodgy. So, we couldn’t take the shorter Old Coast Road as part of it was unsealed with corrugated limestone which would have probably shaken the car body from chassis! So it was a long journey both ways on the South West Highway.
I remember the heats were held at Yallingup on the Saturday but the swell jumped on Sunday and the wind went onshore, so the Finals were moved to glassy and overcast Huzzas. There was a big crowd.
[I think it rained a little and there were people sitting under that big limestone overhang which was of course to be the scene of such a deeply-scarring tragedy decades later, when it collapsed during another competition.]
We were barracking for some of our home beach Scarborough mates – Robin ‘Skullcap’ Sutherland in the Open and Bob Monkman in the Juniors. They were both great surfers. Both were to later move down south to be part of the first generation of resident surfers on the Capes coast – Skully settled in Smiths valley at Yallingup and Bob at Quindalup and then Old Dunsborough, where they remain living today. Bob is still carving on the big stuff at Yalls – legend!
In January 1969, both Chuck and I landed jobs as cadet journalists with WA Newspapers – Chuck on “The West Australian” and me on the afternoon “Daily News”. Peter Bevan had started as a cadet Press Artist at WA Newspapers too.
Us three amigos chased waves and women together on weekends and if we weren’t working, drove down south. In those days we all wore suits or jackets and ties to work. Chuck was always the most stylishly suited. With his long blonde locks and twinkling blue eyes he never found it hard to attract the ladies.
In 1970, PB bought a good Holden panel van and had double bunks fitted in the back. Before dawn on cold Saturday morning in early May, the three of us loaded on the boards (them on Blaxell models and me with a new Laurenson) and we set off for Bells Beach and the World Surfing titles.
We drove non-stop, taking turns sleeping in the back and rotating on wheel duty. Although, I don’t think anybody slept on the long unpaved section on the Nullarbor Plain at night, as we dodged hordes of roos. And back then heaters were an ‘optional luxury extra’ in Holden cars, so it was pretty chilly too.
On the final overnight leg from Adelaide to Victoria, we encountered a mouse plague. On a section of country road in the backblocks of South Australia, there were thousands and thousands of mice scurrying across the road illuminated by the headlights. Their bodies being crunched and squished under the wheels, which was a little gut-churning for three city boys from Perth! But another unique experience of the natural phenomenon in our wide brown land.
We pulled up at Bells in the half-light of dawn Monday morning to see the world’s best surfers in the line-up putting on a show. They were all huddled in a clump. There was one lone rider on the other side of the bowl going backdoor ….as the sun came up and it got lighter, we realised that surfer was our mate Ian Cairns, who’d been included in the Australian team along with Michael Petersen as sort of junior wild card rookies. Kanga was already something special and always aggressive and ready to take on and stick it up anybody – so doing his own thing in the water regardless of reputations was nothing new.
We played pool with Michael Petersen at Torquay Hotel one night. He didn’t talk. Just sipped his beer and sort of grunted when it was our shot – we thought he was a bit strange but of course now know that he was fighting some inner demons.
Bells and Winky were pretty much off limits while the World titles were on, so we surfed Point Impossible a lot and had some great sessions. We even got about an hour session, with the tide just right, with great waves at Torquay Point!
We also visited the then pretty rudimentary Rip Curl factory and bought long-sleeved wetsuit vests from Doug ‘Claw’ Warbrick. They were the latest breakthrough in wetsuit design technology. Worn over our sleeveless long-john wetties it was a lot of rubber but welcome added upper body warmth to cope with the shock of the frigid Vic water.
One night we went to the Torquay movie theatre with the crowd cutting loose, with Jaffas being rolled down the aisles, lots of chatter and hootin’ and hollerin’, and everybody having a great time.
We didn’t stick around to see the end of the World titles. So, after about a week at Torquay we did an overnight run north up the Hume Highway, from Melbourne – including taking a little detour into Canberra next morning to have a gander at Parliament House …it proved to be not great timing!
It was national Moratorium Day with the biggest street demonstrations ever seen in Australia, protesting against the Vietnam War and conscription ….some burly security guards nabbed us as soon as we got through the front doors and three scruffy surfers were unceremoniously booted out (literally!) and told to bugger off ….
Onwards to Sydney and we drove into Manly that afternoon with a big swell pumping and glassy conditions. Some mates from Scarborough had rented a beautiful but aged two-storey white weatherboard house right on the beach road opposite North Steyne break and had some spare beds on an enclosed veranda and let us move in for our Sydney stayover.
[Today there is a high-rise block of apartments on the site. Ironically, Chuck’s wake last January was held a short distance away at Queenscliff Surf Lifesaving Club – a big joyful-sad event with a who’s who of past and present Sydney TV and media attending]
That first afternoon in Sydney, the only spot we dared to try and get out was Manly corner. It was fun. We weren’t brave enough that first day to join the small crew at Fairy Bower, which had a fearsome reputation back then …although we did have a small-ish session out there some days later.
Next morning, we ventured up to Palm Beach corner – as the swell was still big and unrideable on the main beaches – for another fun session. PB had been across in 1968 to watch Wayne Lynch, Nat Young and crew in the Nationals with huge swell seeing some heats even held at a break inside the harbour Heads, when all the open beaches were maxxed out. So, he knew his way around to the northern beaches and did all the driving.
We also went out at North Narrabeen. We’d seen it in so many magazines and movies. The waves were good. But the locals had a well-earned reputation for protecting their home turf. They were not too friendly to three interlopers from the other side of the country trespassing on their break!
The swell settled down and served us up a week of all-day offshores and great overhead waves at North Steyne. We tumbled out of bed each morning, slipped into our wetsuits, walked across the road and stepped into great surf. Magic.
A big memory for PB was a session in the North Steyne line-up with surfing demi-god Gerry ‘Mr Pipeline’ Lopez in the water, on his way back to Hawaii from the Bells titles.
Mr Lopez was surfing on a board over a foot longer than ours, which paddled way faster. He snaked PB about six times. This was despite pumping swell, great left and right banks, and plenty of waves for everyone.
PB finally got jack of this and kept paddling onto a wave as the Hawaiian did his wave hog snake thing AGAIN …and he landed right on top of Lopez. They surfaced about a metre apart. Lopez just launched a king-hit ….PB left the water with blood streaming from his nose.
[PB was a good surfer – a goofy-footer who excelled in the big stuff down south, he was later named WA Surfer of the Year. He was not a hassler in the water and never involved in biffo, so this incident was right out of character. We all admired Lopez back then – and still do – but maybe his demi-god Zen state of mind was something less than Island mellow in the surf, back in those younger days when we were all a little more testosterone-charged?!]
We then headed north again and had a great late afternoon session at classic Angourie, with hardly anybody out. Then on to Byron and slept in the van to wake to an OK few waves at The Pass, and then a couple of really good uncrowded sessions at Broken Head.
Heading further north, we rolled in to Coolangatta on a Sunday afternoon and hit the beach at the fabled Greenmount and could see waves rolling through. But the traffic was heavy and we had to keep driving. Rounding the headland, our intention was to pull over as soon as we could, do a u-turn, and go back and surf Greenmount.
But around that bend was Kirra. And it was absolutely pumping with not many guys out. Wow!
It was one of those sessions you remember for the rest of your life. I got one of the barrels of my life. Chuck and PB were yelling their heads off and even some locals were hooting.
After some days of great waves at Snapper with OK crowds (and as I now recollect, generally a pretty friendly and hassle-free vibe in the water), we headed north again – to Noosa.
We got a week of perfect pumping Noosa points.
Back then, from memory, Noosa consisted of the surf club, a servo, pub and a couple of shops, and not much else. We camped in the panel van at Nationals carpark. The few locals didn’t seem to bother hitting the waves until about 10am. We were up at the crack of dawn. One morning, Chuck and PB surfed pumping Granites by themselves and I was alone at perfect Tea Tree, for about three hours. Those memories stick for a lifetime…
Back home in Perth to work – and both Chuck and I eventually moved on from newspapers to TV news. He joined Channel Nine and I went to Seven.
Through this period he was carving out quite a name and appearing on camera in news reports most nights. Quickly becoming the golden-haired boy – figuratively and literally!
We were all doing a lot of surfing together – day trips to The Spot (near Yanchep); up to Lancelin and paddling out to South Passage; occasionally to Avalon and Geary’s, or Long Point near Rockingham (if there was any north in the wind, in winter); Kalbarri; and of course hauling south down the then sealed Old Coast Road – hardly any traffic, no coppers or speed traps to be seen, and so we made some very fast trips to Yalls! During this period we surfed Windmills quite often and tasted new breaks like Three Bears.
Sometimes in summer, desperate for some good waves, would get up at 4:00am. Drive down to Yalls. Check out the conditions and pick a spot. Surf till we dropped. And drive home that same night – totally knackered but stoked.
PB had acquired a short wheel-base Jeep and sometimes if the summer conditions were right – i.e., hot and E/NE winds – we would just head straight to Left Handers or Big Rock, back of Cowaramup, or to Three Bears to get our wave fix.
Photo: 1970s Chuck with his Blaxell board in the keyhole at Rocky Point. Ric Chan pic.
And of course, back in Perth there was classic Trigg Point without the mega crowd dangers seen now…plus Scarborough, when it still regularly had good waves. Cottesloe and sessions at Cove and Isolated (NOT ‘Isolaters’ as it has more recently been misnamed!). And City Beach at night sometimes.
Around his time, as Chuck’s TV profile increased, surf photographer Ric Chan was featuring him in a lot of his shoots.
Chuck became a lifelong photo buff and always had a camera in his hands…I suspect that’s why he was mates with Ric Chan as he was probably get tips early on from Ric about what camera gear to buy, how to take shots etc.
Photo: 1970s Chuck with his camera at Scarborough. Ric Chan pic.
I went into TV news producing but Chuck was made to front the camera. Eventually, he went across to Sydney to take up a highly-prized gig as a reporter with the Nine Network’s “A Current Affair”. Then fronted by the legendary Mike Willesee, it was all ground breaking stuff and now part of Australian TV history.
Chuck did a lot of surfing around Sydney and up the NSW north coast.
He had become close friends too with Kanga Cairns, around the time I took off with my lady to South Africa, UK and Europe on a long working holiday, over 1974/75.
During this time, they took the ferry across to Rottnest to surf Strickland Bay and Chickens as those spots had opened up and become better known.
Chuck posted photographs to me in Durban, South Africa (where I was getting sensational waves with the likes of eventual World champ Shaun Tomson) of perfect surf at the new break, Strickos, with him and Kanga surfing it alone. [Ian last year told me they got back so late from the back of Rotto and had to run with their boards and barely made the ferry home.]
Photo: 1974 Rottnest Island. Chuck surfing on his backhand at Strickland Bay. Charles Stewart pic.
Photo: 1974 Rottnest Island. Kanga Cairns surfing Strickland Bay. Charles Stewart pic.
Chuck took the following photo of Kanga and wrote the caption.
Photo: 1976 Ian ‘Kanga’ Cairns surfing Margaret River main break. Chuck Stewart pic.
In 1976 Ian was the unofficial Aussie world champ and subsequently featured as the guest of honour in an episode of the hugely popular national Seven network show, “This is Your Life”. Hosted by Roger Climpson, each week it featured a famous Aussie who was lured to the TV studios on some false pretence and then shoved in front of the cameras and a live audience for the half-hour show. Family, friends and other people from the celebrity guest’s life came on and told stories about them and showed clips.
Chuck was one of those giving testimonials and anecdotes about Kanga, as well as brilliant WA surfer Barry Day (also a hugely-talented WAFL Premiership player, before crossing to Melbourne to play in the VFL for Essendon).
Photo: 1979 Kanga on This is Your Life TV show (7 Network).
L-R Ian Cairns, Chuck, Barry Day and show host Roger Climpson.
In the early 1980s, with the birth of national breakfast TV, Chuck moved from ACA to Nine’s “Today” show and became the ‘motoring correspondent’. This allowed him to indulge his love of fast exotic cars. And get to flog them around test tracks and get paid for it – heaven on a stick!
Photo: 1980s Nine Network publicity shot of Chuck – when he was the Motoring Reporter on the (then new) Today show. Photo courtesy of Nine Network & Errol Considine.
Peter Bevan reckon the board Chuck is holding in the following photo was an Ian Cairns ‘Bonza’. Tom Blaxell reckons it was an early thruster and dates some time from 1982 and before 1990, when fin boxes were invented.
Photo: 1980s Chuck with an Ian Cairns ‘Bonza’ surfboard at Scarborough. Photo courtesy of Errol Considine.
Later in the 1980s, Chuck moved to Nine Network’s “Wide World of Sports” and “Sports Sunday”, which were in their heydays. His WWOS Producer was another ex-Scarborough surfer, Steve Matthews (who had also competed against us in the ’68 State Schoolboys’ titles, riding for one of the Leederville Catholic boys’ schools, CBC I think).
Photo: 1966 Steve Mathews Boomerang Board Club Scarborough. Photographer unknown.
Apart from motor sports, and especially Grand Prix, Chuck covered anything that involved water for WWOS.
At the wake, Guy Leech said that Chuck’s passionate and graphic reporting on WWOS played a critical role in pushing triathlons and the Ironman event to becoming headlining, mainstream sports in Australia.
Chuck was the first to bring the Hawaiian Ironman to Australian TV screens, taking the camera into the heart of the action, up close and personal long before Go Pro.
His WWOS reporting work took him to the USA, Canada, England, Europe, Asia and the Pacific and included covering two Winter Olympics as part of Channel Nine’s Australian host broadcaster team.
When satellite TV and other technology and TV audience changes spelled the end of the WWOS regular weekend programs, Chuck set up his own production company. He made many corporate videos and DVDs on sports and famous sportsmen. He loved working with all sports, except for some in rugby league who he reckoned were blockheads and hard to deal with!
In 2011, he was on the broadcast production crew doing interviews for Fox Sports for the Drug Aware Margaret River Pro.
I think that was probably the last year (or second last year) the DAMRP was a Prime rated event, before getting full ASP CT tour event ranking – cos it was the last time I hosted the media conference and we had a good contingent turn up, including TV, because we had Kelly Slater – I remember me asking a series of questions to the surfers (probably with Joel Parkinson and Taj B on the front desk with Kelly)….anyway, I threw the floor open to the journos after my opening salvo …and the reporters all sat there like stunned mullets (mute and in awe of Kelly, I think) ….so Chuck quickly worked out what was happening and jumped in from the back of the room and fired off 3 or 4 good questions, which saved our bacon!
…would have been bloody embarrassing for Surfing WA and me, if it had all just petered out …at that stage I couldn’t very well jump back in with more ?s!
After that the ASP > WSL took over responsibility for pretty much all the media stuff – and I was put out to pasture!
Photo: 2011 surf journo Wayne Murphy, Chuck & Ian ‘Kanga’ Cairns. Loz Smith pic.
Chuck later took a year off to research and write a book about the true story of his father who passed away when Chuck was very young and he never knew. “The Rich Man” revealed a charming gentleman swindler who became the focus of an international manhunt and worldwide headlines. Amazing…
At Chuck’s wake, fellow Perth surfer and journo Brad Schmitt gave a eulogy (more like a celebrity roast) about their days working at TCN 9 and chasing parties and girls around Sydney, and hunting waves up the northern beaches and north NSW coast. They both also became accomplished skiers and surfing gave way in winter to weekends driving up to Perisher Valley in the Snowy Mountains. Later, they took skiing trips to New Zealand then the USA and places like Colorado and Utah, and tackling challenging ‘black diamond’ powder snow slopes:
Schmitty in his address to the wake crowd: “Returning from a northern beaches party one late rainy night, Chuck –who always fancied himself as a rally driver – fanged the gold BMW …and went to do a left turn. “Hmm…bit fast”, I thought. And sure enough we continued to turn left and around and around, aquaplaning 360 degrees into the old timber bus stop. The bus stop exploded into a thousand pieces. We looked at each other – what the f+*# just happened?! Fortunately, the streets were empty. Both of us escaped unscathed and quietly we pushed the old Beamer down the road and left it parked in a side street. Chuck returned to retrieve his car a few days later and no one was the wiser.”
You Tube clips of his TV career, including the Olympics, were on the show reel which Chuck’s son Matt (now a highly respected and sought after cinematographer for big budget advertising and some TV shows) put together for screening at the wake last year.
While Chuck rarely surfed in his later years, he was often on the water doing hard-core surf ski paddling sessions…including from Sydney’s inner harbour, out into deep water and the open sea, around the heads, past Fairy Bower, and back into Manly. Hitting the snow slopes remained a passion.
He was 64 when he passed away January 2016.