Vic Tantau was an early Victorian surfing pioneer and one of a small group of Torquay surfers that discovered surfing back in the late 1940s, long before surf shops, surfboard makers and highways to our favourite surf breaks. He was also a well known surfboard shaper credited with shaping one of the first balsa surfboards out the back of the old Esplanade kiosk in Torquay, Victoria. Vic was born on 24th April 1928 and grew up with his sister Beryl in Brighton. He went to Elsternwick State School then to Brighton Tech. During World War 11, when his father was serving overseas, Vic, aged 16, quit school, advanced his age and joined the army. Once his mother found out, she had a fit, stormed the Broadmeadows camp at morning muster and frog marched him home.
On leaving school, Vic secured an apprenticeship as a boiler maker/engineer with Centenary Woollen Mills, Moorabbin. It wasn’t long before he had wheels and the trip to Torquay changed his life forever. It was at Torquay beach where he met his future wife Myrle whom he married in 1957. His early surfing alliances contributed to the formation and development of the Torquay Surf Lifesaving Club which lay a foundation for the establishment of surf lifesaving in Victoria.
Vic had many friends including Torquay Surf Club members Dick Knight, Ken Pollard, Dick Garrard, Sprint Walker and Rex (China) Gilbert. Rex was a great board rider and champion competitor. He had competed at the Australian Championships and brought back the latest S.L.S.C training techniques. Vic embraced these methods as well as developing his own. This resulted in him dominating club and state competition on 16ft, hollow ply, toothpick boards. He was Victorian long board champion from 1952 to 1956, Southern States champion in 1954 and made the final of the Australian Championships in 1952, 1953 and 1956.
Vic was greatly influenced by the short 10ft American balsa boards introduced by the visiting American and Hawaiian surfers at the Torquay International Surf Carnival in November/December 1956. He started shaping okinuee and balsa boards in the backyard shed at his house in Grandview Grove Moorabbin before setting up his factory in nearby Chesterfield Rd, Moorabbin in early 1957. On weekends and holidays Vic also shaped boards at Myrle’s parents’ general store and kiosk on The Esplanade Torquay. He was heavily influenced by the balsa shaping of Gordon Woods and Denny Keogh (Keyo). Vic was very clever practically and worked out all the details on board making by himself, even making his own tools to perfect shaping balsa. He purchased balsa blocks from Arthur Milner in Springvale that were sourced from Ecuador.
When foam came along he saw how others were making blanks so he made his own moulds to blow blanks and glue them together shaping polyurethane foam 9’, 10’ and 11’ boards. It was in this period he shaped over 900 surfboards. A close bond between Peter Troy and Vic was evident when they produced a limited number of surfboards under the ‘T Boards’ brand (Tantau and Troy) in the early 60s. Vic also formed a brief alliance with well known 1960s surfboard manufacturer, George Rice, producing Rice Tantau boards. Vic also managed the burgeoning surfboard department at Parkview Marine Brighton around this time.
He later took over his father’s taxi cab business and moved to Geelong. It wasn’t long before he was back shaping and glassing a range of watercraft at Fred Pyke’s Torquay factory.
To understand the importance of Vic’s past, you have to go back to 1949 when getting to Bells Beach was like going down south to Johanna. Only 8 kms from Torquay, there was an old track heading toward Bells, but it stopped abruptly and a 45 minute walk to the break was required. The land was owned by the Bells, a pastoral family, since the 1840’s and named after them. It is well documented that in 1949 the first Torquay surfers to understand the true potential of the surf in the Bells area were Vic Tantau and Owen Yateman. That year Vic and Owen rode their motorbikes along the old Geelong to Anglesea Cobb and Co. stagecoach track. It was a hot day and the clutch was slipping on Vic’s bike so they left the bikes to cool off and trekked down to the beach. Owen commented that there was not a bad sort of wave here and sometime after that bike ride they packed a lunch, placed it on the front of Yatey’s ski, paddled around to Bells and cracked a few waves.
In 1958, with the development of shorter, more manoeuvrable surfboards, Bells was becoming increasingly popular. The local surfer boys negotiated access to Bells with the owner of the land. However, this led to problems with farm gates being left open and cattle wandering out. In 1960, well known Torquay surfer and 1956 Olympic Games wrestler, Joe Sweeney hired a bulldozer and graded a track along the cliff tops to Bells. He charged 30 surfers one pound each to pay for the bulldozer. Vic Tantau, along with other early surfing pioneers including Marcus Shaw, Bryan Poynton, Peter Troy and Terry Wall readily contributed their dollar for better access into Victoria’s most famous surfing location.
In January 1962, the first Bells Beach surfing competition was organised by Vic Tantau and Peter Troy. Vic and Peter moved the rally to Easter 1963 when it is still held today. Little did they know that this event would become one of the premier, international, world surfing contest sites. The Bells contest is now a favourite fixture on the world ASP circuit and the longest, continuous running surfing contest in the world. In 1962, the small group of keen surfers competed for ‘the wave of the day’ 1 pound prize, won by Torquay SLSC member George ‘Ming’ Smith, a far cry from the large prize money today.
According to Vic the competition was much simpler back then and the aim was to have fun. It was easy to put together, with Peter and Vic spreading the word that they would hold the comp on a day when the waves were of considerable size. A card table on the beach, a megaphone, old tee shirts with sewn on numbers, Vic and Peter judging and organizing and the rally was up and running. The Bells Beach contest celebrated its 50 year anniversary in 2011.
Vic passed away in 1993 and is survived by his wife Myrle and two daughters Leonie and Sonya. The family is well respected in the local surf industry and Vic’s legacy continues in our rich surfing history on the west coast (especially at Easter time when the Bells contest rolls into town). When the local Surfcoast Shire erects a monument to the pioneers of Victorian surfing, Vic Tantau’s name will be one of the first immortalized as one of its surfing greats.