In 1969 the south side of Rottnest was like the dark side of the moon …everybody knew it was there but it was a great unknown in terms of waves.
Guys had been surfing Transit Reef in Thomson’s Bay for years but everywhere else in the more remote parts of the island away from the main settlement was believed to be unsighted and untouched.
But a lucky group of five surfers were to be recorded as the first to venture into those fabled waves on the island’s south side: renowned shaper Greg ‘Pants’ Laurenson; Scarborough and North Coast club surfer Terry Garrett; Cottesloe legend goofy footer John Balgarnie; surf photographer Ric Chan, who’d moved to WA from the east coast not long before; and me – then a cadet reporter in my first year with Perth’s afternoon newspaper, the “Daily News”.
And we did it in style on board the 52 foot (15.8 metres) luxury 1930s style US-built wooden luxury cruiser Hiawatha, which was owned by WA Newspapers and normally only used for VIP smooching and Perth’s then A-listers ….not a bunch of scruffbag ‘surfies’!
The Saturday edition of the paper was called the “Weekend News” and included a part-colour insert, the 32-page “Weekend Magazine”. This was at a time when there was no full colour in any newspapers, and the magazine inserts had to be pre-printed at a separate state-of-the-art offset colour press plant at Fremantle.
Image #1. Cover shot Weekend Magazine September 27, 1969.
Alan McIntosh was an old school surfer from Scarborough – used to ride in black footy shorts on a McDonaugh or Len Dibben first generation longboard – and one of the “Daily News” top hard news reporters, specialising in crime and courts reporting.
‘Macca’ is no longer with us, succumbing to cancer quite a few years ago, after further career stints with Channel Nine News and the “Sunday Times”. He took me under his wing and taught me a few great early lessons in how to write news copy which was succinct and to get it out quickly to meet deadlines ….and I’ve been quoting those same simple truths to young journos and PR tyros over the decades ever since!
Macca talked the newspaper’s Editor into the idea that a pioneering trip to Rottnest would make a great colour mag feature. Unbelievably the boss bought it and authorised the cost of the trip – including fully catered lunch …but the bar fridges would stay locked! …Macca and I just had to rustle up a crew of surfers.
But in the magazine surfing feature the published pics were all black & white – while the fashion section and full-page advertisements were in colour! Maybe the Editor called the line on wasting expensive 35mm colour film on a bunch of surfers!
I used to work most Saturdays on “Weekend News” at that time and had Tuesdays off. And so early on an overcast and glassy Tuesday in early September 1969, we all gathered at Royal Perth Yacht Club to board Hiawatha and set off for Rotto.
As Macca wrote in the published article: “Armed with ultra-light 10 to 15lb $100 surfboards the surfers gather for a new wave, the chance to be first, an untouched surf spot.”
Also on board were photographers Rod Locke and Geoff Fisher – the latter a water polo player and very strong swimmer who was toting a camera in a large waterproof housing, to get some close-up action shots …which was also pretty pioneering stuff back then too.
As we moved towards the harbour mouth at Fremantle, Greg Laurenson pointed out a steamer moored on Victoria Quay, which was part of the Stateships line – the government-owned fleet which in those days used to haul most supplies and heavy freight to places like the Gascoyne, Pilbara, Kimberley and Great Southern regions. His dad was a radio operator on the Stateships.
Pants was looking a little anxious as we headed towards the open sea and recounted how he’d once visited his dad on the ship but had gotten really seasick ….while it was tied up in port!! (Funny, but in later years Pants owned a yacht and made long ocean journeys).
We got to Rotto and the Island Manager Des Sullivan was waiting for us on the jetty with a big flatbed truck to haul the boards, and the pretty beaten up old Island Board bus for us and our wetties, towels and camera gear.
When WA Newspapers wanted something done, they had clout and everything was laid on.
We headed for Parker Point and the lone bitumen road snaking along the island’s south shore.
There was plenty of swell and lots of white water. But in those days there were none of the little roads or tracks branching off – like the well-worn path to Strickland Bay every surfer who now goes to Rotto knows so well. So we didn’t even get to sight “Stricko’s”.
We finally stopped on a headland well past Strickland – I think maybe it was the spot now known as Radar Reef.
It was still overcast and glassy, with a bit of north in the wind, and solid swell pouring in from the deep Indian Ocean. Conditions were perfect.
“On towards West End and we hit the jackpot. Unreal? We’re blown out of our tinies. It’s a right-hand point surf, similar but opposite of the famed Yallingup wave. We liken it to Yallingup, Rocky Point in reverse, all comparisons complimentary. There’s another break that could be a right-hand version of Margaret River, WA’s greatest wave, if it were a little bigger…” wrote Macca.
The first challenge – what to call our newfound spot? “Garrett’s Point” got a nomination from Terry but somebody had spotted an old bucket washed up on the beach and so Macca made a ruling – it was to be known as “The Yellow Bucket” …at least for his writer’s licence for the one-off feature article.
“Down the winding cliff face, across the reef where feet are cut then out, paddling madly through the broiling foam until we’re “outside” ….
“…An hour later we have the place “wired”. Everybody’s getting waves except Ric Chan, the daredevil who sits too far “inside” and keeps getting pounded. The camera strapped to his chest is not helping much…”
I can’t recall much of that session now except there was lot of paddling, a lot sets on the head, the water was pretty icy, and we all did some swimming – no leg ropes back then!
And we tried not to run over Geoff Fisher in his budgie smugglers and fins as he was getting the waterproof camera in position …I think the published shots of Pants and me on waves were taken by him.
Rod Locke shot from the shore with WA Newspaper’s giant ‘elephant gun’ lens mounted on a tripod – expensive equipment which was usually used for important news assignments like league football at Subiaco Oval or Sheffield Shield cricket at the WACA Ground,
Lockey took the shot on the first page of the story of Terry Garrett and me on the beach heading out, plus the one of Ric Chan doing the eskimo roll.
Back on land, we loaded up the truck and hauled arse on the bus back to Thomson’s Bay where we all scoffed down the freebie sangars, as we laid back on our luxury cruiser….and I also recall looking out a porthole from below decks while having a hot shower as we glided away from the jetty at Thomson’s Bay ….what a day. Boy, had we all lucked out, or what?!
“Back on Hiawatha we’re still a little delirious”.
“All the speculation has paid off. Whenever the wind’s a few points north and the swells even moderate, we have a whole new surfing ground”.
“No wonder metropolitan breaks are so small. That island’s stopping the lot”.
“For the surfers present it has been a whole new line of thinking”.
“We may not be the first, but now we KNOW”…
“…And as we look at that wave we decide we’re going to ride it at every chance before it gets too crowded.”
In fact, for the next few years we spent pretty much every chance we could driving Down South and rarely ventured back to Rotto.
It was not until early 1975 when I was living in South Africa – and getting great waves in Durban and later J Bay – that I received a letter from (the late) Chuck Morton-Stewart of him and Ian ‘Kanga’ Cairns at a classic ‘new’ wave at Stricko’s.
And he also wrote about other Rotto south side breaks they were getting into, like Chicken Reef …but that’s a whole other story!
Image #2. The Yellow Bucket article (page 6) courtesy of Weekend Magazine.
Image #3. The Yellow Bucket article (page 8) courtesy of Weekend Magazine.
Image #4. The Yellow Bucket article (page 10) courtesy of Weekend Magazine.
FOOTNOTE: the caption on the shot of me riding a wave in the magazine piece stated: “Journalist Errol Considine, a talented surfer, on a wave at The Yellow Bucket” …I’d take the “talented surfer” tag any day. Did wonders for the ego. But – sadly – that was a first and last time, like evuh… and my mates baked me mercilessly for being a big head!!!
Coming soon ‘West Country Surf’ magazine by Errol Considine.