Jim Keenan started his surfing life with the City of Perth SLSC at City Beach in the mid-50s. He rode SLSC plywood boards and skis.
In 1956 he was exposed to a new phase of surfing at Interstate surf carnivals on the East Coast when Malibu surfboards were introduced by visiting American surfers.
This was a turning point for Jim and like a lot of other young lads with salt water in their veins, he left the SLSC and joined Kevin Merifield, Tony Harbison, Dave Williams, Brian Cole and other surf pioneers free surfing Down South.
In the late 50s, Jim travelled to the East Coast with other WA surfers searching for waves & fun. He continued to live in NSW during the early 60s, but returned regularly to WA and the surf Down South.
In mid-66 he headed to the Pacific Island of Guam and started another phase of surfing with a group of Californians. In 70 he returned to Perth and enjoyed another spell Down South before heading east again.
In the mid-70s he headed to Carnarvon in the NW. His first visit to the surf break at Red Bluff revealed a surf break devoid of surfers.
He is a well-travelled surfer and a colourful character.
These are Jim’s surfing memoirs (Part 1 Metro, South West & East Coast).
(Note: Excerpts from Jim’s surfing memoirs appeared in the Surfing Down South book published in 2014).
I was a resident of Subiaco and Jolimont for the early stages of my life which began June 1937. The above suburbs were working class in those days, unlike today where prices are sky high. However, it was a fun environment to grow up in those important formative years. Sport was high on my agenda and it was at the Wembley Athletic and Football club where I first made contact with other like-minded people.
Like many of the group we spent a lot of our spare time at City Beach learning like Kevin Merifield to surf off the groyne summer and winter. Body surfing was a great way to learn the fundamentals of wave choice and the technique of riding the wave to its limits. The introduction of Turnbull rubber flippers created a whole new ball game for the body surfer, allowing early pick up and manoeuvrability of the wave.
Some of my friends from those days included Dave Williams, Graeme Killen, John Budge, Tony Harbison and many others. Apart from John Budge we all ended up joining the City of Perth SLSC.
I guess from memory we were all aged about fourteen or fifteen when we joined the club. Borrowing various surfing apparatus led us into another facet of surfing e.g. Surf Board and Ski skills were learnt along with Surf Boat rowing. It was great fun and we all eventually purchased at great expense our craft of choice to either compete with or surf with. Dave a 16 foot Board, Graeme Killen and I on a Double Ski and Tony Harbison a Single Ski.
Photo: 1958 City Beach North Side. L-R Dave Williams on ‘toothpick’ surfboard with Jim Keenan & Cocko Killen on plywood double ski. Photo courtesy of Ray Geary.
The club was a melting pot for many like-minded people and many a friendship developed in that arena. People like Bernie Huddle, Bill Pratley and Brian Cole to name a few.
Rottnest was our choice of escape before Yallingup was born. The Transit and Salmon Bay were great places to surf and develop skills. The Transit was a lot safer than Salmon Bay, but Salmon Bay was a great place to confront big waves. Very scaring also in those shark ridden waters.
Paddling to Rottnest was not without its moments as some times we ran into early sea breezes making the physical effort a dam side harder to say the least. Confronting ocean going liners in the fog was not much fun either, with Tony almost a victim.
Trigg Island also figured in those early days with March, April probably the best months for surfing.
Surfing on the Tooth Picks and Skis were still in vogue when Yallingup came on the surf horizon. The early guys to learn of Yallingup included Bernie Huddle, Bruce Hill, Ron Drage and Bill Pratley. From then on it was like a gold rush with any surfer keen enough heading south to the new frontier. I guess the year was 1954 but, not exactly 100%. As for Cocko and I our first venture down to Yallingup was in Cocks old man’s Ford Prefect with the double ski tied to the roof. The Yallingup coast was like a new world and the waves suited the double ski perfectly. It took some time to adjust to the moods of the Yallingup surf and along with the board riders (16 ft) we copped our fair share of wipe outs. There were days in winter when all of Caves House was visible from the take off point and taking off left one in fear of the outcome. We all became reasonable swimmers due to wipe outs and board recovery.
When the sea breeze arrived and the waves lost their shape, those who were mad enough re-entered with body boards and tackled the swell. It was rewarding enough but I well remember the waters under us darkening up with the schools of Salmon especially around April. I guess the Noah’s were there in numbers and it was only because of the salmon that we were left un-attacked. No wonder the beer tasted good after a day of action in the water.
In 1956 quite a few of us headed to Torquay Victoria for an international surf carnival held in conjunction with the Melbourne Olympics. It was there that we were exposed to a new phase of surfing, the team from California and Hawaii cut the waves up on their 9ft Malibu’s. Measuring tapes came out and hence the birth of the Mal in Australia. We attended another carnival in Manly NSW and again witnessed some great surfing by the visiting American’s. The Americans had been riding Mals in California since the mid-1940s.
Photo: 1956 Melbourne Luna Park. WA boys in WW2 flying suits. L-R unknown, Dave Williams, K Jones, Jim Keenan, R Howe & Graham Killen. Photo courtesy of Jim Keenan.
The Mal arrival in Australia led to a massive decline in surf club membership due to the adoption of the board and free surfing by Australian surfers. West Australia rapidly followed suit and I along with many others quit the SLSC movement. For Cocko and me it was only one step before suspension anyway because we refused to quit paddling to Rottnest.
Yallingup came of age with the Mals and life changed drastically. No more patrol work freed up the weekends and the expression “Down South” was born. There were many surfing widows during that period with the boys preferring “Down South” to the Drive-ins and all that goes with it.
Photo: 1957 Yallingup campsite. L-R Des Gaines, Jim Keenan, unknown, Laurie Burke, Bernie Huddle & Arty Taylor. Photo courtesy of Jim Keenan.
The early boards although spot on were expensive and made of balsa imported from South America. My original board made by Gordon Woods cost 30 pounds, equivalent to about a month’s salary in those days.
Photo: 1959 Yallingup beach. Boys & their boards L-R Ray Nelmes, Brian Cole, Jim Keenan, Des Gaines, Laurie Burke, John Budge, Artie Taylor. Photo courtesy of Brian Cole.
Most of my friends were aged from 17 to 21 years of age and were super keen on surfing, thus the regular trips “Down South”. Strong bonding took place over the years and remains to this day. The only difference being that “The older you get, the better you were”.
It’s a shame that a good photographic history of those early days is not readily available, but it’s simply because the only person armed with a camera was John Budge and its credentials were very limited. However, we did manage to gather a few shots out on the double ski on a classic day.
Photo: 1957 Yallingup Main Break. Graham ‘Cocko’ Killen & Jim Keenan on the double surf ski. Water photo by John Budge.
As we aged, that is turned 17 to 18, driving to Yallingup became less dependent on the older guys. My choice was an FJ Holden like Bernie Huddle’s, the only difference, mine stayed on the road.
I can recollect driving up and down Caves Road and into the various surfing spots such as the Gallows, South Point etc checking out the breaks. We sure wasted a lot of time before making a decision and mainly to avoid the so called crowds. In those days, probably six surfers constituted a big crowd. Those numbers today would be heaven.
Photo: 1959 Yallingup Car Park. L-R Des Gaines, Ian Todman, Laurie Burke & Jim Keenan Photo courtesy of Bill Pratley.
In the fifties any surf film would have originated on the East Coast or California and Hawaii. I guess that’s why quite a few of the group embarked on the journey east with Bernie Huddle, Cocko and Brian Cole leading the charge in 58. Their reports induced others to follow including myself in 59.
My fellow travellers included Laurie Burke, Moose White and Ian Todman. Sydney to me was like an endless party with surfing thrown in. Accommodation was a problem in the early stages as the sequence of Party followed by Eviction was not broken until a more permanent abode at Woodstock in Curl Curl Parade South Curl Curl. Woodstock was a two storey house and I had the good fortune of a room with an ocean view. This home became a focal point for those that surfed the Northern Beaches of Sydney especially in winter. Many friendships developed between the locals and the West Aussies. Among the West Aussies to call Woodstock home were Les Gillies, Tony Burgess, Owen Oates, Ian Todman, Colin ‘Moose’ White, myself and many others passing through.
Photo: 1960 A mixture of surfers from northern beaches (Sydney) and WA at Manly Beach NSW. L-R Joe Larkin (surfboard & film maker), Chris ‘Batman’ Steinburg, Colin ‘Moose’ White, Brian Cole & Jim Keenan. Photo courtesy of Jim Keenan.
They were great days on the East Coast but, the South West ruled the waves.
March 1961. Returned to Yalls for a two month holiday with Puppy Dog Paton a talented surfer from Manly NSW. It was the summer that fires ripped the South West apart with many mill towns like Karridale wiped out. We were also nearly wiped out at the Gallows on a very big day. The bomboras were working for what seemed miles out to sea. We were stupid enough to try out the fourth break and it was there that we were threatened by the relentless swell. Puppy was only about 17 years of age and I was fearful of losing him in the surf. We chose our wave with respect and managed to make shore a little out of sorts. I understand the break we could observe out to sea is what is now called Cow Bombie.
Photo: 1961 Gallows outside break. L-R Jim Keenan & Puppy Dog from Manly NSW. Photo courtesy of Jim Keenan.
I returned to the South West for the summer of 64 to surf Yalls and engage new breaks such as Margs and Guillotine.
Jim Keenan’s surfing memoirs continue with Part 2 Guam, Red Bluff & SW Anecdotes.