Riding the waves: inside 'Men of Wood and Foam'

“It’s not like a pair of shoes or something.”

Denny Keogh says this line near the end of Men of Wood and Foam, a heart-warming documentary about the beginnings of Australian surfboard making. He is talking about the surfboard, of course.

Denny is one of the Brookvale Six — one of a half dozen Aussie optimists who back in the late 1950s, with little evidence to back them, decided to make surfboards for a living. Their harebrained choice helped trigger a global way of life enjoyed by millions, and the growth of an industry worth billions.

Men of Wood and Foam is the brainchild of Phil Jarratt, and if anyone was framed for this job, it’s Jarratt. A renowned writer, journalist and surf scribe, he has almost as much surf time as writing time under his belt. Phil knows a good story when he hears one and, as director of the Noosa Festival of Surfing, he’d heard plenty about these six legendary craftsmen: Barry Bennett, Gordon Woods, Bill Wallace, Scott Dillon, Greg McDonagh, and Denny.

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Phil Jarratt at the Men of Wood and Foam launch

Thing was, he knew time was running out. “I was spending a fair bit of time with Bill for instance,” says Jarratt, “because he’s retired up at Noosa. He’s still sharp as a tack, they all are. But physically, things were starting to fall apart. And nobody had told the story.”

That tale, as told in the documentary, encompasses a time before modern surfboard materials existed. This was a time when four-metre “toothpick” wooden-framed craft ruled what few waves were ridden. Gordon Woods, a Bondi boy and handy with carpentry, recalls making himself one around 1954 and hauling it down the sand, when he was accosted by a kid of similar age.

“I’ll buy it off you,” the kid suggested. “No, it’s mine!” Gordon told him. “But I’ll make you one.”

“I suddenly realised,” Gordon says today, “we’re in business!”

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In late 1956, lifeguard teams from the US and Hawaii arrived to compete in a series of carnivals against the Australian surf swim stars. They brought three-metre lightweight balsa Malibu boards. Unlike toothpicks, the Malibus could turn. To the Aussies, it was “like the spaceship had landed”, as original world champ Midget Farrelly (pictured left) put it. (Midget is interviewed in the doco in one of his last on-camera appearances before his sad death in September 2016.)

Brookvale, the light industrial area just north of Manly in Sydney, rapidly became Surfboard Central. In the next decade, Bennett won the race to perfect the process of “blowing” the polyurethane foam at the core of most modern surfboards. Woods, Wallace, Dillon, McDonagh and Keogh set up factories and, well, boom. Baby Boom that is.

Today, surfboards are cut by computer-driven robots, but the Six and their crews were expert craftsmen by absolute necessity. Back then, everything was done by hand and half of it at home, to the point where Bennett recalls being told by a doctor to clean up after work: “We had a new baby, and the resin fumes weren’t too good for him.”

The Six all did pretty well out of that first big surfing boom. However, in the late ‘60s, boards and fashions turned; boards got shorter, and surfing tastes changed with the emerging counter-culture. The torch passed to a new generation, though Bennett still makes blanks and boards in Brookvale today.

Jarratt’s scripting, along with director Shaun Cairns’ light touch, plays the story out with gentle grace, interleaving the surf culture with the surrounding world (Little Pattie Amphlett is also interviewed, for instance).


Men of Wood and Foam tells the story of surfing in Australia

But it turns on an equally gentle irony. While surfing is now almost unrecognisable in most ways from the semi-madcap adventure it was in the days of the Brookvale Six, there’s been a re-birth of interest in the boards they made among many young surfers.

Kids who maybe crave an authentic experience of the sport, and wonder if in the rush of the modern world, they’ve missed something.

Like Denny said: it’s not a pair of shoes.

Men of Wood & Foam premieres on the HISTORY channel on Foxtel on Wednesday, December 14 at 7.30pm

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