THE LEGEND OF COL SMITH: All Guns Blazing
By Kirk Willcox
Legend is an overused term in surfing these days, nearly up there with ‘stoked’. There are a lot of legends floating around. You’d even know a few - if you didn’t meet them in the water, you would have met them at the bar. But there’s a hierarchy to legends and here’s the story of one who is sitting right at the top. Many experts, some legends themselves in the truest sense, will tell you that at his peak Col Smith from North Narrabeen was the best surfer in the world. And he has directly influenced the four Australian goofyfooters who went on to become world champions - Tom Carroll, Damien Hardman, Barton Lynch and Mark Occhilupo. They all attest to that.
North Narrabeen is probably the most consistent beachbreak in Australia and the locals have guarded it ferociously since … well at least since the day some bloke paddled out on a clump of whatever and stood up. When you scan old Surfing World issues, Col is doing a bit more than just standing up. Usually he’s vertical in the lip, backhand or forehand, or in the barrel. But it was his backhand that blew minds – a perfect conjunction of the Alley Rights and Col’s natural aggressive nature.
A memory etched in the tall grom
The lanky 15-year-old grommet with long, sun-streaked hair first saw Col Smith surfing at Collaroy Beach, which lies 3.6km south of North Narrabeen. The only thing in common between the two breaks is that they are at each end of the same stretch of sand. The year was 1969 and the word had gone out that Col had turned up with Mark Warren and Grant “Dappa” Oliver.
“There was no internet and the only way you heard about people was seeing them on a cover of a surf mag at the newsagent, or old mags, or word of mouth around the beach,” the then ‘little’ Simon Anderson recalls.
“Narrabeen guys never came to Collaroy. But one day the ‘roy was clean and not bad in front of the surf club, just a foot or two - the kind of day we wait all year for. Col, Dappa and Mark Warren turned up and surfed our break and the word went out.
“I watched them surf that day, the surfing gods from up north taking apart our little break for about half an hour. Dappa came in from the surf first - he had DAPPA written in big letters across the bottom of his board, which was audacious and outlandish for the time. Then Mark and Col came in. Col lit up a smoke then drove off in his Holden station wagon with a wheel spin and a cloud of smoke, gone forever.”
Colin Thomas Smith was born on 21 December 1948 and his youngest years were in Stanmore, an inner west suburb of Sydney. His parents bought a house on Narrabeen Beach, opposite the hotel, and when they separated his mother went to Narrabeen, while his father stayed at Stanmore.
“I stayed at Stanmore for a little while with my two brothers and my father. Probably every fortnight or week I’d jump on the train, then on the boat (ferry) and then on the bus and come to Narrabeen. I was probably only about eight or nine. I was doing all this stuff by meself and then I sorta got to liking the water a bit ...”
Within nine months, Col had left Stanmore and moved to Narrabeen with his mum, and went to school there. But the ocean was his focus. “Mum had a wooden ironing board in the house and I took all the steel bits off the bottom of it and cut me jeans off with a pair of scissorsand just run and jumped in the water and that was it. And I’ve been in it ever since.”
The North Narrabeen Boardriders Club started in 1964 (and celebrated their 50thin 2014) and as a junior you couldn’t compete in events unless you had a 2101 postcode as your address.“You weren’t allowed to go down to Northy unless you were a good surfer,” Col recalls. “They sort of ruled it with an iron fist, one way or another.”
He remembers the crew being people like Bob Pike, the first guy to go to Hawaii, and Mick Marlin, Clive Handley, Larry Hilder and Peter Wincote. “Terry Hook was a big part of my life there for awhile and he raced cars and drove tow trucks. I used to go and help him build his cars. He used to surf down Northy all the time with us.”
Col said that as their surfing got better they worked their way up the beach to the Alley. “We started off in Waterloo Street, then we moved up to the Pines, which is probably two blocks away from Northy, then when we got good enough we’d move up there.”
And who determined that – being good enough? “Oh it was just how aggressive you were I think (Col breaks out in hearty laughter) – and I was quite aggressive at the time. And there were a few of us who became quite good surfers, especially Grant Oliver, Larry Hilder, myself, Ian Holmes ...”
As a grommet Col remembers being out Northy on an 8-10 foot day and the big guys going: “What are you doing out here?” “And I says: ‘I really don’t know.’”
There’s a famous April 1963 photo of a surfer in the pocket of a steaming Northy left. “The guy was called Jim Fordham. He was actually from Collaroy. And Narrabeen looked like the waves were made out of a machine ’cause they had lines on ’em like a normal pipe when it’s made,” says Col.
“Every now and then it’d get a little bit big and we’d go over in front of the carpark, Carpark Rights. That’s a very scary wave when it’s big. Just barrels. Midget (Farrelly) was out there quite a few times when the Carpark Rights worked.”
The powerful, hollow waves at Narrabeen shaped Col’s surfing. “The main reason I approached the backhand re-entry all the time, which is what I got quite famous for, was because most of the surfing contests were on righthanders and I said to myself: ‘Well, if I’m gonna compete in these things I’ve gotta be able to ride a righthander.’
“So I got to the stage where I could ride a righthander better than I could go left, and I was a goofyfooter. I actually found it harder to go left than what I did to go right. I just concentrated on righthanders nearly my whole life. And plus watching Wayne Lynch when he was at his peak. I thought: ‘Aw that looks real nice. I’d like to do that.’ And it just went from there.”
While still a junior, Col started winning the seniors at Narrabeen. “It was ’64, ’65 so I was about 15, 16 then. Then Fitzy (Terry Fitzgerald) arrived from Queenscliff, and Simon arrived from Collaroy, and everybody ascended on Narrabeen ’cause the wave was so good and the club just became stronger, and stronger, and stronger. Gees, it was absolutely massive. And they all stuck together like glue, it was like a family.”
Col earned a reputation as a good bluer and he admits they ruled Northy quite heavily. “Every now and then a big pile of us would go up to Avalon and it’d be on (Col chuckles like a machine gun) … in the water, you know, and we’d have interclub football matches and the hospital got quite a workout. But they stuck together like you wouldn’t believe, like through everything, thick and thin.”
Simon remembers the first time he saw Col surf at Narrabeen. It was during the sideslipper era of single fin boards with a tiny fin. “This was a time when surfing lost its way for a short period,” Simon recalls.“Sideslippers were virtually impossible to control but Col was the master. On a four-foot day he was doing 360s in the barrel, then coming out and doing all sorts of slides at the end of big cutback arcs. Col was incredible at recovering from the impossible.”
Images abounded in Surfing World magazine of Col upside-down in a backhand re-entry, his signature move, or stretched horizontally banking off the top at hot spots like Kirra.
“These images were the absolute state of the art and Col was the father of modern radical surfing.” Simon says.“The reason that Australians surf the way they do has a lot to do with how Col pioneered radical surfing through the late ’60s and ’70s. I have no doubt that Col was the best surfer in the world at his peak, no doubt. He was a freak in the order of Wayne Lynch, Occy, MP ...”
Terry Fitzgerald recalls going up to Queensland and everyone was talking about this guy doing a backhand re-entry on the long lines of the points. “You didn’t punch through the lip, you ran it,” Fitz said.“So that whole new approach that Col brought to surfing actually broke some boundaries.
“I think the surfing world en masse owes Col particular thanks for the fact he was really the first guy to go vertical,” says Fitz. “When I say vertical I mean 90 degrees and past. I don’t think that has been matched until today. Maybe the air boys are breaking the same kind of boundaries to what Col broke back in the early ’70s.”
All Guns Blazing
“Col had no concept of finesse,” says former Surfing World publisher and photographer Bruce Channon. “Col was just 100% about getting the job done as radically as he could. Although he ended up having quite a good style it was never a part of his makeup. Col always did things fast and furious and he let the style take care of itself. He was a good ice skater.And even with his cars, he always had cars that went 100mph but they looked like pieces of shit. Everything Col did had a bit of bodgie about it but he always pulled it together in a dynamic way.
“And you always knew, in my case floating around in the water, if Col was coming towards you and a section reared up, there was a great photo coming up because he would bash everything that he could find.”
In 1976, when Damien Hardman was 16 and first started doing well in contests, he remembers coming to a closeout section and pulling off. “Col came up to me and said, ‘I never want to see you do that again. We’re goofyfooters and we’re at a disadvantage and you have got to hit every section you can with everything you’ve got and you’ve especially gotta do it on your backhand.’ That stuck with me ’til today,” Damien says.
Col was an animal in the water when the waves were good at Narrabeen, terrorising the left bank, dominating every session and claiming the best waves. “A lot of the time he couldn’t resist a good wave and when paddling back out he would swing around and drop in on anyone,” Simon says.
“And when he dropped in on you he was ruthless. He would smash the lip in front of you and haul a deep, tight, committed cutback in the pocket - either heading straight back at your ankles or turning the cutback into a vertical rebound on the whitewater and nearly taking your head off in the process.
“He was that good and powerful that there was nothing the victim could do about it. Most of the time they would just stand there and watch.”
Col has fond memories of burning Simon in the water. “Terry Fitzgerald and I used to dominate on the good days – Simon was too mellow. Competition is competition. As I’ve always said to everybody in the water, ‘I don’t come out here to make friends with ya.’ I come out here surfing, that’s it. It didn’t matter who it was (laughs). And that’s with and without a singlet.”
Mowing foam in Brookie
To spend as much time as they could in the water, a lot of the Narrabeen guys took jobs in the nearby board factories at Brookvale. Col started with Keyo Surfboards when Geoff McCoy and Nat Young were there.
Denny Keyo asked him if he wanted to learn to shape boards. “He said to me: ‘Here’s an electric planer. You’re a shaper.’ I had never used one in my life and I asked Geoff McCoy if he would show me what to do. ‘No. I’m not going to show you anything at all because for every one you do, that’s one I don’t do.’ So we becamereally, really close, Geoff and I, for a long time.
“I just shaped a lot of boards that probably should never have been sold but (laughs) they were.” Col started Morning Star Surfboards with Wayne Warner and worked with Terry Fitzgerald at Hot Buttered and shared a factory with Simon Anderson and Steve Zoeller at Energy.
Simon remembers Col as a good shaper and quick - “He didn’t like to spend too much time in the bay, he would prefer to be in the surf.”
When he was inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame in February 2014, Col said Simon shaped the first Thruster in the same factory. “And 10 minutes later I shaped the second!”
Col was the 36th surfer inducted – previous inductees cast the votes - and he admitted he nearly cried when he got the phone call from Surfing Australia. While he doesn’t drink much, and never did, he needed a few champagne and orange juices to make his speech. The glow in the room was palpable as Col stood on stage with many of Australia’s surfing greats, taking his rightful place among them, and hooking his arm around his little buddy Tommy Carroll, who rode for him at Morning Star. “This is the greatest honour of my life,” he humbly declared.
When Tom was in his early teens, his father Vic was deep in his work as editor of the Financial Review, so he didn’t see him that much and Col became a father figure.
“Col was this big hairy guy and I was just this little kid,” Tom says. “He was just really happy and loud and quite straightforward but as soon as he hit the water it was just amazing to watch. He would draw off the bottom and go straight up the face and Col did it in no uncertain terms in a real individual style. Col was always surprising in that area. He was always electric on a wave and looking to use his whole body in the move. I found that really enticing; I watched his hand movements and all the detail of how he did it.”
“I always wanted to have one track up the face of a wave,” Col says.“Drop down to the bottom, hit it up as fast as you possibly could and soon as you hit the top come back down on the same track that you made going up. I think I came pretty close to it.”
The other one was to stand up inside the barrel and do a standup barrel roll – “which I 99 per cent did once at Carpark Rights. Actually it was one of those days in 1978 when the Coke was that good at North Steyne. I’ve dropped down the bottom of this wave and I’ve turned and I’ve gone completely round standing up inside the wave and then just fell forward and ran off the front of the board. The nose of the board went straight in my mouth, through my bottom lip and up into the roof of my mouth, and I got 100 stitches. That was the ultimate surf and that was nearly the ultimate ride ...”
Competition and Hawaii
In 1970 Col came 11th in the Australian Titles at Greenmount Point. Peter Townend competed in the juniors and he remembers that there was no one surfing on their backhand like Col Smith.
“There was a smooth-flowing Wayne Lynch on his backhand winning his fourth Australian Junior Title, whilst in the men’s it was being dominated by the ‘Old School’ regularfoots,” PT recalls. “But it was Smithy’s down-the-line, vertical backside attack that was leading the goofys in the men’s against the winner Peter Drouyn, Ted Spencer, Keith Paull, Nat and Midget.”
The World Titles were held at Bells that year. “They took 12 to the World Titles and they didn’t put goofyfooters into it,” Col says.“They didn’t put me in because I stood with my right foot forward and they didn’t put Richard Harvey in and he came 9th in the nationals. And that’s the year Californian Rolf Aurness won it at Johanna and he was a goofyfooter.”
Col describes it as “a bit of a blow” but said half of Narrabeen ended up going to the World Titles in San Diego in 1972. “I competed against David Nuuhiwa – I out-noserode him at his home ground which I thought was terrific.”
The Australian team came back through Hawaii. Col loved the Bowl at Bells but he couldn’t transfer that approach to Sunset. “I tried to do the backhand re-entry in the bowl all the time and it kept nailing me. I was getting angrier and angrier. Then I got a wave that absolutely smashed me. I probably only made about one re-entry in the bowl at Sunset out of about 100,” he laughs.
He tried to surf his own equipment at Pipe “but I’d never made an actual board to ride big waves. It was way out of my league at the time”.
“I think the first 10 waves I just slid down the face, down underneath the lip, and got squashed. I actually borrowed one of Terry’s boards and I got some good juice. It was a straightliner, down to the bottom and ‘choof’ along it, it was absolutely perfect.
“The noise inside the Pipe - there’s that much force you can hear it coming and then all of a sudden it hits ya (claps his hands together loudly) and it blew me out of the barrel at Pipe with no board, still standing in the same spot.”
Col became Australian champion in 1977, beating Newcastle’s Col Smith in the final – another great goofyfooter who sadly died of cancer in his early 30s. Previous winners had got an invite to the Pipe Masters but Col didn’t - “and I didn’t chase it up.”
Sometime in the early 1980s, Col walked away from everything – shaping and competing.
“I’d competed in about 16 pro contests and placed in two or three, and I’d had enough. And I’d never had a sick day in my life until 15 years in the shaping industry, manufacturing surfboards, and I felt crook all the time. I don’t know what it was; it was probably all the fumes or dust.
“I surfed all my life, I done nothing but surf. I thought to meself, ‘now it’s time to not go surfing and do all the other things – like pro fishing’.”
Col got a fishing licence and did that for the next 10 years. “I never made any money out of it but it was good fun being out on the water all the time. I had a few boats. I used to go and sit down the ramp at Long Reef where they all go out fishing, and I sat down there every afternoon around 2 o’clock and I’d go out fishing with every different person that went out cause I’d learn something from every single one of them. I was really into the fishing for a while,” he adds with understatement.
He also got into skiing and spent five or six years down the snow, doing 20 - 30 trips a year, only coming back to Sydney to earn some money to go back to the mountains. He took up Ceroc, a modern day jive dance, where he met his girlfriend Jane 15 years ago. “Col is a very good dancer,” says Jane. “I didn’t know who he was when I met him dancing. He didn’t introduce himself as ‘I’m Col Smith the famous surfer’.”
“We ended up being dancing instructorsat Club Med in New Caledonia,” Col says.“I took that up and was doing that for six or seven days a week, and ended up teaching in schools – Newcastle, Wollongong, and schools around here with the actual owners for eight years all up. And then I stopped that.”
Now 65, Col is a large, genial man, with a shock of white hair, though the trademark goatee on his lower lip is gone. He’s had some radical health problems, starting with major back surgery when he was 49 after spending two months in traction on heavy painkillers.
Five years later, Col had his first open heart surgery. “I was a really heavy smoker and I started when I was about nine. I used to buy five Capstan cigarettes for sixpence. The surgeon told me I wouldn’t make 45. I said, ‘how can you say that?’ He says, one, I’m not going to operate on you and two, I’ll make sure no one else operates on you (laughs). And what he did was he scared me and I haven’t had a cigarette since.”
Mark Warren remembers Col paddling out at Northy with a durry in his mouth – and even taking off and dropping in on someone while still puffing away.
Ten years ago Col had a heart attack in the water and had to have a stent put in. Then only a couple of months before his Hall of Fame nomination, he had a quadruple bypass – a nine-hour operation.
“My health is now pretty good,” he says. “I’m still sore. If I sneeze or cough I’m in a lot of pain. But I can go for a lot longer now. Before I could sort of work flat out for two or three hours, maybe four hours, then I’m exhausted, absolutely had it. Now maybe four, five, six hours, I can keep going.”
For the past 15 years Col has been renovating and selling houses with Jane. “Jane is probably the best tiler on the northern beaches (laughs). She tiled a whole Italian marble bathroom with a pate knife.” He has three daughters from a previous marriage and six grandchildren.
Col and Jane were renovating their house in Avalon when I turned up with my tape recorder. Col’s planer was sticking out of the garage and his truck carries “CS” numberplates. They both love to travel. “We get itchy feet – we can’t stay around too long. We’re going to try and stick it out here for a year. I can’t see it but … (both start laughing – and, as it turns out, they did hit the road.).
Col last had a surf on a big day at Currumbin in 2013. “That was hard work after not being in the water for a long time. I only got one wave but it took me nearly an hour to get out. My back always hurts now. If I go for a surf, my brain says I’m young but my body says I’m old. And if I try and do what I used to do, it can knock me out for a month. I’ve been out there and done it a few times and two weeks later I’m still in bed. So I’ve had to slow down. I just go fishin’ and swimmin’.”
Do you miss all those Northy sessions, Col?
“Yeah. I go down there and go diving in Narrabeen Lakes all the time, when the tide’s high I just float up the river with it. And when I see the surf sometimes I think, ‘Oow, I’d like to get out there again.’ (laughs).
Fitz would like to see Col back out there – “Narrabeen misses Col Smith.”
Simon agrees: “Col was a great influence on me and all Narra guys; he set the bar at the highest level which was such an advantage and inspiration to aspire to. And he paved the way for all North Narrabeen success to this point. Narrabeen was an industry and surfing community thanks to Col and we behave the way we do in part because of Col’s personality.”
And Fitz has a score to settle. “He dropped in on me a couple of times which I’ve never forgiven him for. But I’ll get him back; he’ll paddle out one day with his quadruple bypass and I’ll shaft him.”
- Kirk Willcox/Surfing World Magazine