Sean Doherty: "The Guys at Narrabeen Really Set a Direction in My Life", Mark Richards in 1971

5 Sep 2020 5 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

The McCoy crew. Photo: Albe Falzon

The McCoy crew. Photo: Albe Falzon


The following is an excerpt from Sean Doherty's new book – Golden Days: The Best Years of Australian Surfing – which tells the story of Australian surfing through the lives of the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame members, one year at a time from 1915 to today. Last week we met 15-year-old Wendy Botha in 1984 heading to Australia for the first time. This week, it's four-time World Champ, MR.

"The Guys at Narrabeen Really Set a Direction in My Life"

‘The shaping bug bit early,’ remembers Mark Richards. While other kids were getting pushbikes for birthday presents, Mark was asking for power tools. ‘My 13th birthday present was an electric planer. I bugged the shit out of my parents to buy it for me. Well, my dad was pushing hard for it, but Mum wasn’t keen at all because she thought I was going to cut my fingers off with it. Once I got the planer, though, I was in seventh heaven. I was carrying it around. It was a power trip. I had all these foam offcuts and old boards and fins lying around, and I was just mowing everything in sight until there was nothing left to mow. There was foam dust covering everything. It was like it had snowed. I had no idea what I was doing, of course. I was planing stuff in the laneway on a set of rickety stands in the sunlight, blinded by the reflection. I was carrying the planer around thinking, look at me, “I'm a surfboard shaper!”’

Richards Surf – 755 Hunter Street, in the West End – was an iconic Newcastle surf shop. Ray Richards had started it as a car dealership, then it became a car dealership with surfboards, before it eventually became a car dealership with no cars, just surfboards. The Richards lived upstairs. The shop became Mark’s second home.

‘I often used to go to Sydney with my dad to pick up boards for the shop. He had a panel van and in the early days he’d drive down to Gordon Woods and Barry Bennett, fill the car and drive back. They were the first two board manufactures he started stocking, and from there it was Geoff McCoy and Nipper Williams. At this point I used to tag along for the ride. At Nipper’s I used to collect foam offcuts, one-and-a-half to two-feet long, and I’d take them home and set up in the driveway and shape mini surfboards out of them with a Surform. Academically I wasn't very good at school, but I was good at anything to do with my hands, like woodwork, anything creative, so the whole idea of shaping surfboards appealed to me from an early age.’

By 13, Mark was already winning Novocastrian contests and his surfing leapt ahead once he started riding Geoff’s McCoy’s boards. ‘Geoff’s boards were the most popular boards we carried. Geoff was the main man at the time. All the best guys rode his boards, everyone else wanted to ride them and his logo was through all the magazines.’ With school holidays coming up Geoff and Ray cut a deal. Mark would spend his school holidays with the McCoy’s down at Narrabeen, staying with Geoff and his family and doing work experience at McCoy Surfboards. ‘I didn’t need to be asked twice,’ remembers Mark of the conversation. ‘It was really my first journey out of Newcastle to another city surfing environment. I’d been to the Goldy twice a year with my parents since I was a kid, surfing Rainbow or Snapper, but this was a hundred times cooler.’

‘Narrabeen was just this legendary wave at the time. It was the premier wave down there in Sydney and featured in every magazine. You'd always see these line-up shots of North Narrabeen just peeling off, and the Narrabeen guys pretty much featured in every mag. It was in the era when Narrabeen had Terry Fitzgerald, Mark Warren, Col Smith, Tony Hardwick, Grant Oliver. It pretty much seemed like every good surfer in Sydney came from Narrabeen, so for a young guy I was kind of living the dream.’

The McCoy factory itself was in the ancestral shaping heartland of Brookvale. ‘I’d stepped into surfboard factories before,’ says Mark, ‘and I'd seen quick glimpses of people shaping boards and glassing, but to see surfboards being made from start to finish, to see a surfboard emerge out of a block of foam, I recognised the work involved but at the same time I recognised the artistry and the logic involved.’ Mark was a quiet kid. He didn’t ask a lot of questions … but he watched everything. ‘I was leaning on a wall or sitting on a stool watching Geoff shape, or Bruce Channon glass, or “Wicka” Hardwick sand, and I think Eris O'Brien, “Dappa” Oliver and Mark Warren were sharing colour, gloss, polish and finish coats. I’d seen all of these guys in Surfing World magazine and Tracks and here they were, making surfboards three feet away from me.’

The first things impressed on Mark was that McCoy Surfboards was a slick outfit. ‘Geoff was very meticulous with his work. Near enough wasn't good enough. Nothing was half-arsed. He was really quality orientated, and that feeling was echoed by everyone else in the factory as well. They weren't just spitting out numbers. They were going, “We're making the best quality surfboards we can and we're putting everything we can into it.” You know, all those guys were great craftsmen. All of those guys were thorough. Bruce glassing, Wicka sanding, Mark and Eris and Wicka, they all carried that sense of craftsmanship.’

Mark, however, was still a grommet, and, ‘the thing that stood out and was really cool about hanging out in the factory was that whenever someone came in in the middle of the day and said, “Narrabeen's pumping” everyone downed tools and went surfing. It was like this mass exodus. Everyone just filed out the door. I’m chucking my board in the car thinking, wow, this is like the best life ever! I had the impression up until that point that work was nine to five, no time for fun, but this was nothing like that. If the waves were good they were all out of there.’

‘There was this funny instance where Col Smith took me surfing one lunchtime. Col used to park on the other side of the lagoon at Narrabeen, near the rockpool, and he’d just paddle out from there. Anyway, this day we’ve surfed, got changed and driven off and somehow I’ve left my board behind. I just left it leaning on the concrete wall, full grommet move. It was a brand new McCoy double end single-fin that I'd only had for a few days. In those days you got one board every two years, so leaving it there was a big deal. We ended up back in Brookvale when the penny dropped, and I’ve gone shit, where’s my board? I’m freaking out and Col’s gone, “Get in the car,” and we’ve driven straight back to Narrabeen. The whole way I was freaking out, just going, “Oh no, it's gonna be stolen for sure! Dad paid for it, he's going to kill me.” All of that. Col, meanwhile, is playing it cool. “Don’t worry, it'll still be there. You were there with me. No one will touch it.” He kept assuring me that it had this invisible force field around it because it had been left there in his presence and no one would dream of touching it because I was with him. We got back and, sure enough, there it was, just leaning on the wall.’

Narrabeen was also one of the most localised beaches in the country, but because of the company he was keeping, Mark got a free ride. ‘It was amazing. I was completely accepted. I was an honorary Narrabeen guy for a while there because I was surfing with those guys, guys like Col.’ The standard in the water was a step up from Newcastle. ‘It was way, way more competitive than home. And it was a different way of surfing. The surf was better, and it was a completely different vibe because of the ability of this big group of surfers who were all involved in this great unspoken contest. As well as the big-name guys there was all these other Narrabeen guys, this whole other crew of guys who ripped. It wasn't just like those five or six, there was another 20 guys around that. I thought, holy shit. How good are all these guys? At the time I didn't know who any of them were, but they were ripping.’

Mark did two, two-week school holiday blocks with the McCoy’s, but also started tagging along on surf trips and contest runs. ‘I’ll never forget the Phillip Island trip for the Alan Oke Memorial. We were in Geoff’s white, pop-top Kombi. Geoff drove, Wicka – as next in the command – had the passenger seat and then in the back there was a comfortable two-seater facing forward which folded into a bed and Mark Warren and Grant Oliver had that. That just left me and I got the shittiest seat in the car. It was this square, fold-out wooden bench with a vertical backrest, no cushions, right next to the little fridge in the very back. It was this medieval torture seat but that wasn’t the worst part. It faced backwards. The drive was from Sydney to Phillip Island so I looked backwards for a thousand miles. Geoff barely stopped; only stopped for petrol, and I was in the dog box staring at the car behind the whole way’”

Trips north however, were a little more upbeat. ‘Again we were in the white Kombi and Geoff would swing through Newcastle and pick me up and we’d take off on these camping trips to the North Coast. Our first stop would usually be Angourie. We would just camp near that old rotunda thing. The Kombi had a stove and everything in it so we just pulled up and slept in the car park. Then we'd go to Byron and camp at Broken Head. I have these vivid memories of those trips and there being no one around. Not a soul. It was just us and the water at Angourie with Baddy and Rod Dahlberg and a few other local guys. Broken Head we’d surf on our own before Nat and Bob McTavish would turn up. I was just like ... I was in heaven, you know? We actually had a week at Broken Head where it was off its nut, four-to-five feet and just peeling. We had it for a week like that with no one around. Just us, Nat, McTavish and the dolphins. We were the only ones camping in the camping ground. You know, looking back and thinking back on it, it was a pretty special time. But we never went any further north. Geoff didn't go past Byron for some reason. That was it. It was like there were a set of imaginary tick gates at Byron that he wouldn’t cross.’

The time spent with McCoy was leaving its imprint on the kid. Mark was always going to be a great surfer, on his own he would probably have been a great shaper, but that time with Geoff McCoy opened up a path to a higher plane. Mark embraced the idea of the master and the apprentice. ‘Geoff was the guru of his generation. He was Australia’s equivalent of Dick Brewer. I was lucky that I’d have both McCoy and Brewer as mentors.’ The most noticeable aspect of the relationship, however, was that it was never really a relationship. Geoff never tried to teach him anything. Mark wasn’t taught; he learned. ‘I spent a lot of time with Geoff; staying at his place, travelling with him, surfing with him, and learning the basics of shaping from him. He never actually sat me down and taught me to shape though. I learned by watching what he did, by watching the process.’

‘Geoff was a very, very talented shaper, but more importantly he was also a designer,’ offers Mark. ‘He had a lot of great ideas. There are leaders and followers in shaping, and Geoff was a leader. He was technically a very skilful shaper, but he was also a great surfboard designer as well. He wasn't copying anyone. He was on his own path with his own ideas.’

Mark’s future success on twin-fins was hatched during his time with McCoy in 1971. ‘The first boards I rode of Geoff's were single-fins – round nose, round tail, almost like double-enders. Dead flat bottoms with big kick in the nose and that camel hump kind of deck. Then I think an issue of Surfer magazine came out with Corky Carroll or Rolf Aurness on the cover riding a twin-fin, and that was the first time I’d ever seen one. There were shots of them trying to do 360s, and not long after, there was a cover of Surfing World with Mark Warren and Terry Fitz both holding twin fins. The first twin-fin I had was from Geoff, and it was that same sort of board – the camel hump deck, flip in the nose, and it was a wide rounded square with a big 45-degree chamfered-off tail. The tail was probably three inches thick. The first twinnie I had from Geoff was a clear board with a green glue-up resin line for a stringer, and it had a bright blue McCoy logo on it. I can distinctly remember riding the twinnie for the first time. It was fast and manoeuvrable and I remember just how much more responsive it felt compared to the single-fins. I was sold from my first surf on it.’ Mark was a pragmatic kid by nature but his time with McCoy provided enough bold creative spark for him to eventually pursue the idea of the twin-fin in a landscape populated exclusively by single-fins.

Mark’s work experience at McCoy’s also landed him on the home beach of the guy who, in time, would see Mark’s twin fin and raise him. ‘Simon Anderson was shaping with Shane Stedman at the time, so he was on the other team and I didn’t really know him. Shane had Ted Spencer, Terry Fitz and Simon. The first time I actually saw Simon was at the State Junior Titles at Narrabeen. I'd heard about him, because his surfing reputation preceded him, but the first time I saw him I was sitting on the beach and he just wandered past with a board, and some guy said, “That's Simon Anderson.” And I just went, “Oh, there's no way that guy’s going to be able to surf small waves. He’s way too tall.” I just instantly thought he can't be that good … that theory didn’t last long.’ Mark finished ahead of Simon at the NSW titles that year – both of them beaten by young Steve Cooney, fresh from his Balinese starring role in Morning of the Earth. Simon would win the 1971 Australian Junior Title soon after at Bells.

‘That time with Geoff McCoy and the guys at Narrabeen really set a direction in my life,’ offers Mark. ‘My life would have been completely different without that. Without that initial exposure to shaping and making your own boards and the lifestyle those guys led, I may never have developed an interest in shaping. If that hadn't happened, the twin-fin thing wouldn't have happened for me, and without the twin-fins I wouldn't have won those world titles. Looking back on it, that whole experience, with Geoff and his crew of surfers and Narrabeen and getting to stay with him and travel with him, it set the direction for the rest of my life and I’m forever grateful.’

Mark went home, dragged a table into his bedroom to cut surfboard templates on, painted the wall at the foot of his bed black, hung the templates on the wall and went to sleep dreaming of surfboards moving through water.

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