Nick Carroll: MR, Midget and the Scent of a Blank

21 Mar 2019 15 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Mark Richards with Johanna and Beverlie – the daughter and wife of the great Midget Farrelly.

Mark Richards with Johanna and Beverlie – the daughter and wife of the great Midget Farrelly.

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL

How three great surfers relate through surfboards

Mark Richards knew Midget Farrelly, but didn’t know him. Not quite. “I would get blanks from him, for years,” MR says, “but I never really knew him – who he was. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, that’s for sure. But it was hard to crack the shell.”

Mark is standing with his wife Jenny inside the VIP marquee at the Vissla Sydney Surf Pro, a gangly pillar of calm in a sea of well dressed and slightly coffeed-up businesspeople, politicians and local identities. He is here to accept the Midget Farrelly Lifetime Achievement Award from Kelly Slater, who has come out especially for the occasion via a golfing trip to New Zealand and who has just wandered into the marquee, and somehow goes unnoticed. For about five seconds.

It’s funny timing, in a way. This award, in this place. Fifty-five years ago almost to the week, in early April 1964, Midget had paddled out for the first world contest final, pretty much right in front of where everyone was now milling around trying not to gaze adoringly at MR and Kelly. The surf had been a bit bigger back then, but otherwise the day, cool with a little cloud and an orange light over the ocean at sunrise, was much the same.

Various official speeches occur, then MR and Kelly are up on stage with Beverlie Farrelly, Midget’s wife, and Johanna, one of their daughters.

Kelly knows the Farrellys from a week they accidentally spent together on Tavarua a while back. He knows MR very well. He met the four-time world champ at a Japanese trade show when the future 11-time champ was just ten years old, and got Mark’s autograph. “He’s such a nice person,” Kelly says to the crowd. “If you met Mark on the street you’d have no idea what he’s done with his life.”

He then told a story about MR making him a board. This was the year, maybe 2002, when Mark invited all the world champs and great surfers he could gather to surf a demonstration heat at the Newcastle Surfest. MR carefully cut out Kelly’s board – a Super Twin, one of his re-birthed twin-fins with an optional trailer – and did such a good job that Michael Ho, who’d also been invited, decided it was Michael’s. “Whoa, MR, this is perfect for me brah!”

“I think it’s the only time MR’s had to say no to someone,” Kelly says. He has since thought about giving the Super Twin to Michael, but somehow, hasn’t got around to it.

When it comes to his turn to speak, MR is typically humble. He says how an award like this “seems like a personal thing, but it isn’t just that, there’s always so many people involved”, and he thanks some of those people: his mum and dad, and the old Newcastle Surfboard Association that used to run the local contests when he was a kid.

He brings up his uncertainty about the great Midget, but then something comes into his mind. He talks about the sense of trust he had gained form the blanks Midget had sent him over the years, and how many of the famous boards he’d made and ridden had come from those blanks. He talks about the pineapple scent of the blank as he’d cut into it and how that scent had lifted his spirits about the task ahead. The crowd is silent, somehow riveted, as Mark’s eyes alight with the memory of that scent.

MR didn’t know Midget, not quite. But they both knew what they were doing, and they both knew surfboards. It strikes me quite suddenly how the three surfers’ histories – the two who are here and the one who isn’t – are entwined around the surfboard and the idea of what it means to a surfer. It’s part of how they understand each other and how the rest of us understand them: MR the super-hero who makes boards for ordinary blokes in his surf shop, Kelly and his restless mind and hilariously complex relationships with shapers from Al Merrick to Greg Webber and about two dozen in between.

And Midget … well, just look at his boards. You’re not sure who he is? He’s there in the boards he made: clean, classic, smooth-riding and yet also unflinching, even a bit scary, especially if you look at the guns.

And he’s there in Beverlie and Johanna, who watch smiling as Kelly hands over the award. Just a piece of glass really, but like a surfboard perhaps, a symbol of something more.

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