South African Surfing’s Oom: John Whitmore
Dick Metz, Surfer/World Traveller, 1959
The Endless Summer
South African Surfing Association
SA Hobie Cat Sailing Association
“How It’s Never Ever Gonna Be Again”
John Whitmore -- sometimes referred to as the father or “uncle” of South African surfing -- was “an energetic man with an adventurous spirit and an enquiring mind,” eulogized surfer, writer and friend Paul Botha, following Whitmore’s passing on Christmas Eve 2001.1
Affectionately known to South Africans as “The Oom” – the Afrikaans equivalent of “uncle” ‑- Whitmore spent the better part of his life pioneering surfing, Hobie Cat sailing, and bodyboarding on the Southern tip of Africa from the 1950s into the 1990s.2
“The story of his life is a fascinating account of how a photograph of three surfers riding a wave at Makaha evolved into the thriving sport and industry that has, and will continue to influence the lifestyle of millions of people in this country,” emphasized Botha. 3
John Whitmore was born in the beachfront suburb of Sea Point in Cape Town in 1929. He was raised by his mother and maternal grandmother, who, due to the family’s experiences during the Anglo Boer War, refused to speak English. 4
Alternatively known as the “Boer War,” the armed conflict between the British Empire and the Dutch Boer Republics lasted between 1899 and 1902. The British Empire was at its zenith of power and prestige. The High Commissioner of Cape Colony, Alfred Milner, precipitated a war with the Boers in order to gain for the Empire the economic power of the gold mines in the Dutch Boer Republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State. This move was just part of a bigger dream of Milner’s of a Cape-to-Cairo confederation of British colonies dominating the African continent. The war, itself, quickly went from a conventional to an unconventional armed conflict that caused the imprisoning and starving of thousands of non-combatants, including women and children. As a result, British public opinion soured and a long, slow decline of support for the Imperial idea followed on its heels.
Meanwhile, in South Africa, the enmity between English and Dutch had long-lasting effects.
This negative turned out to be a positive for John Whitmore some thirty years later when he attended an English school while having been brought up to speak Afrikaans at home. Consequently, he grew up completely bilingual. Years later, this bilingualism served him well while on surf safaris, as he had the ability to talk with the many farmers along the Cape coastline and thus gain access to remote surf spots in the 1950s and early 1960s. 5
John “took to the sea early,” wrote Paul Botha, Whitmore’s major biographer, “building tin canoes out of corrugated tin sheeting with wooden bow and stern pieces, to catch crayfish in the rocky gullies off Sea Point and even ‘surfing’ the waves in these canoes when there was swell. In his teens, during WW II, he and his pals started bodysurfing the local reefs and got into diving for crayfish and abalone, a career he was to pursue from 1953 to ‘55.” 6
It was in the early 1950s that John got into surfing on boards. One day, while paging through a copy of South Africa’s skindiving magazine Findiver ‑- looking for ideas on how to make his own diving gear ‑- he came across a Jantsen ad featuring three surfers on a wave at Makaha. The photo in the ad was titled “High surf at Makaha.” 7 This was probably the famous shot of Woody Brown, George Downing and Buzzy Trent first released by the Associated Press in 1953.8
“That was it,” Whitmore said in an extensive interview at his farm in 2000, “I had to ride waves standing on a board.”9
Whitmore wrote to Findiver asking for info on surfboard materials and shapes. Armed with what he received from Findiver, he then built hollow plywood boards for himself and friends. Together, they started surfing the waves at the reefs in Sea Point and at Muizenberg.10
This was not the beginning of surfing in South Africa, however. Unbeknownst to Whitmore, there were already South Africans surfing in Durban for a little more than a decade before he got started.11
Yet, as it was in those days, surfing sprung up in enclaves separated from other surfing enclaves. So, for a while, awareness of South African surfing as a whole was lost in provincial pioneering. The unity of South African surfing would be another area where John Whitmore was to play a large role.
“John was probably not the first guy to surf waves in Cape Town – the lifeguards were probably riding their 16 foot hollow wooden paddle boards, based on Australian designs, in the 40’s,” Paul Botha told me. “He and his friends were [rather] the first to pursue the sport/lifestyle of surfing on the Cape Peninsula, exploring the coastline for better breaks, and of course he built all the surfboards that he and his crew rode. 12
It did not take Whitmore long to transition from basic “kook box” construction to the further evolution of board design and construction as pioneered by Bob Simmons, in the States. “By chance a Swiss guy married to a South African girl living in America was sent a copy of a Cape Town newspaper in which an article covering John and his friends’ activities appeared,” wrote Paul Botha. “He started sending information to John in the early ‘50’s, which coincided with the appearance of polystyrene foam in South Africa. John’s enquiring mind was applied to how to shape this material and how to make it waterproof and strong enough to withstand the battering of the powerful Atlantic waves.”13
In his garage in 1954, John molded a block of styrene foam for a surfboard and then shaped it with a hand plane. Since only polyester resin ‑- that dissolves styrene foam ‑- was available, John covered the shaped blank with muslin soaked in Cascamite glue and painted with PVA. He did this in order to seal it before the glass fibre matting and the slow mix of resin were applied. 14
“Despite its rough shape and laborious glassing process,” wrote Paul Botha, “this board and similar Whitmore Surfboards models were used by John and his friends, who started exploring the Peninsula and riding spots such as the Outer Kom, Witsands, Scarborough in the Kommetjie area, Muizenberg in False Bay and the Pipe and Thermopylae in Sea Point.” 15
News of these Cape Town area foam boards soon spread to the lifeguards and surfers in Durban, in Eastern South Africa, who were riding “Crocker skis” and hollow plywood boards. 16
The Crocker Ski was a South African innovation, based on the type of surf skis then in use in Australia, following their innovation by Australian lifeguards in 1932. The Crocker Ski, itself, is classified as a “long distance ocean craft.”
The origin of the long distance ocean craft lay with the arctic Eskimos and their use of the sea kayak. Eskimos using sea kayaks covered expansive territory hunting, sleeping and keeping warm and dry. The difference between the kayak and modern day surf ski is that the kayak is a “sit-in” craft, whereas the surf ski is a “sit-on-top” craft. The other difference rests with the paddle instrument. The kayak usually used a single blade paddle, unlike surf ski paddling (and canoeing) that makes use of a double blade paddle.
Likewise, throughout Polynesia, outrigger canoes were the traditional ocean craft used for commuting between islands, fishing and even riding swell. However, outriggers are sit-in craft, not sit-on tops. Also, like kayaks, outrigger canoes use flat, single paddles for propulsion.
The Crocker Ski was designed by Fred Crocker, a master carpenter. Fred Crocker arrived at the Pirates Surf Lifesaving Club, Durban, in 1932. Magazines with pictures of Australians riding the surf on five member rowboats and canoes caught his imagination. He used some wooden floorboards and built a surf ski. This first ski (14 feet long, 2 ½ feet wide) weighed ‘a ton’ taking four junior lifesavers 10 minutes to carry it 60 meters to the water, with rests. 17
“Once you caught a wave,” remembered Gabie Botha of the Pirates SLSC, “the ski picked up momentum and before you realized it, you were way out in front of the breaker going crazy. Paddles were like giant ping- pong bats. In a strong westerly wind we often lost the paddles being blown out of our hands.” 18
In 1938, plans of Australian surf skis reached South Africa, yet the lack of necessary materials caused local interest to wane. The Australian designs were flattop, “closed-up canoes” with no seats. Instead, during the war in 1939, Fred Crocker, then stationed at Durban Air Force, sought to build a light and stable craft from aircraft canvas. Thus was born the famous Crocker Ski: canvas on a slat frame, water proofed with aero plane dope, 3 meters in length, almost 1 meter wide, a slight banana shape from stem to stern, no point, but about a half meter straight back. It was not a fast craft, but it was stable. One could paddle on it and catch waves, standing up or sitting down, depending on the waves, with the paddle anchored to the nose. It too was a flat top with no seats! At this stage it was for fun, not competition. 19
After the Australian lifesaving tour to South Africa in 1954, surf ski ideas were revolutionized. Sleek marine ply covered boats came to the fore along with the introduction of the surfboat. Soon thereafter fiberglass mould skis characterized lifesaving clubs.
The name “surf ski” emerged out of international lifesaving competition between Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. These meetings fueled the rivalry of “racing” events. The ski formed part of the 3-tiered competition; namely the Malibu Board, swim, and surf ski events. These surf ski events were known as “around the cans” races (approximately 450 meter races) and continue to be named thus at lifesaving competitions. In tandem with the growing worldwide enthusiasm for marathon kayak and canoe paddling in rivers and lakes in the late 1950s, came the thrust for endurance races at sea. In 1958 in South Africa, off the groundswell created by the first Umhlanga to Pirates race in the Durban Bay (1957), the Kwazulu Natal South Coast celebrated the first Scottburgh to Brighton race. It was for many years the longest ocean race in the world ‑- a distance of 46.6 kilometers.20
While this was going on, John Whitmore was making epoxy and polystyrene surfboards. He started supplying the likes of Baron Stander and Barry Edwards with these boards in the mid-1950s. During this time, he took to exploring the East Coast of South Africa, pioneering surfing in places like Mossel Bay, Port Elizabeth and East London and discovering surf spots at places like Buffalo Bay and Jongensfontein. 21
On the more inhospitable and wilder West Coast north of Cape Town, the fledgling Cape Town surf crew ‑- with Whitmore at its head – also made forays with their Whitmore Surfboards. They would spend weekends partying at the Darling Hotel (about 90 kilometers from Cape Town) and surfing at Yzerfontein and further up the coast to Kommetjie and Elands Bay ‑- first ridden in 1957. 22
Dick Metz, Surfer/World Traveller, 1959
A momentous Cape Town day came in 1959 when Whitmore crossed wakes with American hitch-hiker/surfer Dick Metz. They would quickly become firm and lifelong friends. 23
“In order for you to understand the depth of my relationship with John,” Dick Metz wrote Paul Botha in early 2002, “it will be necessary to go back and give you some of my history and our meeting in Cape Town. I am certainly not a professional writer, so please bear with me on my ramblings:
“I grew up in Laguna Beach, a small beach town between Los Angeles and San Diego, which happens to resemble the coastline, the weather, and the lifestyle in and around Cape Town. In fact, many people from Cape Town live here, including Shawn and Michael Thompson and Derek and Mark Jardine, along with many others. In the early 50’s, during the Korean War, many of us were in the military stationed in Hawaii. As a result, Bruce Brown, Walter Hoffman, Grubby Clark and many others got to know each other and surfed together from 1951 to 1953. All of us being rabid beach people and having a similar mentality, we conned our way out of front line military duty into lifeguarding and other non-military activities. As a result of these early meetings, after the service the above-mentioned people, along with Hobie Alter and others too numerous to mention, moved to Laguna Beach and Dana Point, which is just 3 miles down the coast. This group soon became known as the Dana Point mafia, with John Severson starting Surfer Magazine, Bruce Brown filming his movies, Hobie manufacturing surfboards, Walter and Flippy Hoffman inheriting their Dad’s fabric company, and myself founding the Hobie Sports retail stores. Of course, there are many stories that could be told of this time with the many characters, parties, and surfing.”24
“In the mid-50’s, before I left California, Gordon Clark was working for Hobie as his foreman and I was patching surfboards part time. It was in 1956 and 57 that Hobie started working on developing foam surfboards. They played with many different chemicals and finally came up with the concept of making high-density foam in a mold. Once Hobie started making foam surfboards, the competing manufacturers, especially Dale Velzy, really bad-mouthed foam as they continued to use balsa wood. Hobie’s competitors would not buy foam blanks from Hobie and, as a result, Grubby and Hobie decided to break up. Grubby took the foam business and changed the name to Clark Foam and Hobie continued to make surfboards. At that time I became Grubby’s first employee, pouring foam blanks in a new little building. Not long after this I set out on my journey.” 25
“In 1958 I decided that I needed more than to be cooped up into a store. So I sold everything and started hitchhiking, by myself, from in front of my house to an around-the-world adventure. I worked my way from Laguna to Central America and Panama and got a ride on a French army troop ship bound for Tahiti and Vietnam. I spent the next three or four months living and touring in Tahiti and the South Seas and eventually ended up in Sydney, Australia. After spending three or four months surfing the East Coast of Australia, I worked my way to Singapore, up the Malay peninsula, across Asia and India, and boarded an Indian labor ship from Bombay to Mombassa, Kenya. I spent the next 4 or 5 months hitching through Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika. While waiting for a ride to Victoria Falls, I was picked up by a South African going to Cape Town to visit his mother.” 26
“We arrived several days later in Livingston in the middle of the night. The South African driving woke me up and said, ‘Here we are in Victoria Falls.’ As it was pitch dark and there were only a few thatched huts in the area, I turned to him and said, ‘Where are you going?’ He said, ‘Cape Town’ and I said, ‘I see no reason to get out in the middle of the night, lets go to Cape Town. I can always see Victoria Falls later.’ For the next six days we drove straight through to Cape Town, alternating driving and sleeping. When we arrived in Cape Town the driver was anxious to see his sick mother and dropped me off at Glens Beach. Keep in mind that at this stage I had been gone from the US for a year and a half and had been in black Africa for the last 6 months. My hair was to my shoulders, I had a beard and was wearing shorts, an aloha shirt, and a pair of sandals made out of old tire tread in Mexico.” 27
“As I walked the beach I was surprised to see a lone surfer on a very small wave lose his board on the rocks. I instinctively ran down to pick up John’s board so that it wouldn’t get dinged and as he swam ashore I told him it was one of the strangest boards I have ever seen. It had a very short fin and really square rails. He said, ‘Well, what do you know about surfing?’ And I told him I had started surfing when I was 7 or 8, lived in Hawaii for several years, and probably knew more than he did. As we talked he said, ‘You must come home with me and meet my mates.’ So off we went to his house in Bakhoven. That very day I moved in with John and his entire family and lived with them for the next few months, much to Thelma’s dismay. There were 8 of us and a dog in a small bungalow and I slept on the couch. Within 30 minutes after arriving at his house, there must have been 30 people, girls, guys, surfboards, wine, and some really fine South African steaks and sausage. We all got marvelously drunk, enjoyed a great meal. I immediately fell in love with Thelma’s young sister, Patty, and fell into the fire and passed out. A good time was had by all.” 28
“This is the part that John and I marveled at every time we saw each other ‑- the events and circumstances that brought us together. All of the chance circumstances just fell into place at the right moment: I hitched a ride that I figured would take me to Victoria Falls and ended up going 4000 miles to Cape Town on a whim. A few minutes deviation one way or the other would have meant that we never would have met.
“At the time, John was selling VW’s and on his off hours, John and I toured all the surf spots in Cape Province and spent long hours discussing the similarities of Laguna and Cape Town. For me having been gone from California for so long, being in Cape Town was just like being home.
“During this time, John and I developed such a sense of camaraderie and a tremendous bond with he and his family that exists till this day. During these many conversations, I told John that when I returned home I would help him get materials that would enhance his surfboard making ability.” 29
“After leaving Cape Town on my first trip, I spent considerable time in Durban where Harry Bold, Baron Standler, and the Durban boys became close friends and remain so to this very day.” 30
“From the time I left John, it took me over a year to get home. I had been gone for three years, 1958 to ‘61. Once I got home and showed my many pictures to all my friends and, having had such a wonderful time in Cape Town, I immediately got Grubby Clark communicating with John. Not long after that, containers of Clark blanks arrived in Cape Town. And about the same time Bruce Brown set out on making the Endless Summer. He was able to retrace in 6 weeks my trip to Tahiti, Australia, and South Africa, which had taken me 3 years. Bruce was the next [American surfer] person to meet John.” 31
When Dick returned to California he got John in touch with Gordon “Grubby” Clark who had formed Clark Foam and knew more about blowing polyurethane foam than most anyone. Building surfboards using moulded surfboard blanks made from polyurethane foam meant a higher density foam than the styrene John had been making, was far easier to shape and could be glassed using polyester resins. 32
Also important for Whitmore, Metz put him in touch with his other “Dana Point Mafia” surfing buddies – people like Surfer Magazine founder John Severson and film-maker Bruce Brown. 33
John Whitmore was now married with two daughters and had traded abalone diving for the more secure job of selling Volkwagens. He started importing Clark Foam blanks from California around 1962-63 for his part-time job making Whitmore Surfboards. The VW business led to him owning the first Kombi to be manufactured in South Africa, 34 and also to inventing the South African version of roof racks for surfboards. The racks were made out of 5 centimeter aluminium pipe with clamps for the gutters. As VW’s were assembled in Port Elizabeth, John frequently drove past Jeffreys Bay and told his friends about the waves he saw breaking on the point. This lead to Capetonians Gerald “Gus” Gobel and Brian “Block” McClarty being the first to surfers to open up this world-class right-hand point sometimes just called “J-Bay.”
Whitmore also explored the Cape St Francis point, camping on the beach in 1959. Back then, this world-class wave was rimmed by wild, open beach. John and friends could boil water from the nearby stream and catch fish with hand lines from their surfboards. They rode the reef opposite of what became known as “Bruce’s Beauties” in 1963. 35
Dick and John surfing Capetown, 1959.
The Endless Summer
“1963 was a seminal year for both John and South African surfing,” Paul Botha wrote for The Surfer’s Path in 2000. “Having imported the moulds and chemicals, he started blowing Clark foam blanks, gave up his job with VW and concentrated on making Whitmore Surfboards in his factory in Buitengragt Street in Cape Town. Through Metz he had made contact with John Severson in California who sent him Surfer magazines which he sold via subscription in South Africa, further boosting awareness of surfing in the country and providing vital information on international trends and equipment in the sport.” 36
At the end of the year, American surf film maker Bruce Brown arrived in Cape Town with Californian surfers Mike Hynson and Robert August. They were on their worldwide odyssey, roughly following Metz’s footsteps, shooting the original Endless Summer movie. John was their point man in the Cape Peninsula area, afterwards sending them up S.A.’s East Coast where they surfed Cape St. Francis Point. The Americans declared it “the most perfect wave in the world” and named the spot “Bruce’s Beauties,” after their leader, Bruce Brown. When the Endless Summer premiered in mainstream movie theatres in the surfing countries, South Africa became a destination for surfers around the world. 37
That same year, Cape Town surfers decided to form the Western Province Surfing Association (WPSA), electing Whitmore as the Chairman. Similar surfing associations were formed in Port Elizabeth, East London and Durban. 38
The following year, 1964, saw surfing become popular within South Africa. John, through Bruce Brown, brought the first surf movie, Waterlogged, to the country. A gamble of booking Cape Town’s Labia Theatre for nine weeks paid off when he sold out nine shows a day. He then went on to show the movie in Port Elizabeth and East London, with Harry Bold putting it on in Durban. 39
Soon, the metropolitan areas of South Africa joined similar communities in the United States and Australia, where surfing became the “in” thing to do. Things like the first wave of surf music to hit South Africa – the first Beach Boys album -‑ and Hollywood’s beach movies like Gidget and Gidget-like movies, everybody wanted to go surfing. “People came out of the woodwork to buy surfboards,” remembered John, who was hard pressed to meet the demand. 40
John’s notoriety grew even further when he was asked to present the country’s first daily surf report on Good Hope Radio. With offices in Cape Town, Good Hope Radio broadcast from Cape Town to East London. John gave the daily surf report out over the airwaves there until 1982 when it was taken over by his nephew Jonathan Paarman. 41
South African Surfing Association
John Whitmore’s stature within the South African surfing community continued to grow as the sport itself did likewise. Talks in 1964 with provincial associations in the other urban areas of the country led to the formation of the South African Surfing Association (SASA) in 1965. John was elected SASA’s first president, a position he filled with distinction for the first nine years of the national body’s existence. 42
The first South African Surfing Championships were staged in Durban in 1966 and “John proved he was no slouch in the waves,” Paul Botha recalls, “winning the veterans title, an achievement he was to repeat in East London in ‘67 and again in Jeffreys Bay in ‘69.
“He was also appointed manager of the first fully fledged Springbok surfing team, selected after the inaugural SA champs in ‘66, that competed in the ISF World Surfing Championships in San Diego that year.” 43
In his capacity as SASA President, John also organised the first local contests in the mid-1960s. He was active in helping local surf clubs form and organize and lead both the Western Province and South African Surfing Associations, both of which he chaired. 44
John traveled to California in 1966, on the first of what would become numerous visits to California over the next two decades. He got to meet and befriended further surf industry stand-outs, including Reynolds Yater, who was making surfboards in Santa Barbara, and Hobie Alter and Tom Morey, the future inventors of the Hobie Cat and the Morey Boogie board respectively. Both these products John was to introduce to South Africa in the 1970s. 45
Dick Metz recalled: “In 1966, John… brought the first Springbok Surf Team to California. John stayed at my house in Dana Point and we put the team up in a motel down the street. During his stay we reconfirmed our bond. He had already met Bruce and was doing business with Grubby [Clark] when I then introduced him to Hobie, Tom Morey, Yater, Greg Noll, Don Hansen and all the rest of the industry at that time. John immediately felt at home in Laguna, just like I had felt at home in Cape Town, and our personal relationship just became that much stronger.” 46
Back in Cape Town, Whitmore Surfboards continued to grow, offering the latest technological advances picked up in California. John was also finding other industrial uses for Clark Foam which he was now manufacturing himself. He found the qualities of polyethylene foam were ideal for heat and sound proofing and packaging. All this activity and the emergence of numerous other surfboard manufacturers around the country led John to quit producing surfboards in 1968, restricting himself to just supplying the blanks. 47
While he stood down as manager of the 1968 Springbok team that went to Puerto Rico, in favor of Durban stalwart Cliff Honeysett, John managed the 1970 team that included future international stars Shaun and Michael Tomson, Jonathan Paarman and Gavin Rudolph. A fond memory of his was sitting with Hawaiian George Downing on the cliffs at Australia’s Bells Beach doing wave counts and timing the sets, enabling the South Africans and Hawaiians to get out in giant 5 metre plus waves that they rode from outside the point right through to Winkipop. 48
Managing the 1972 team that went to the world champs in San Diego was Whitmore’s swan song. He resigned as President of the South African Surfing Association in 1973 to devote himself to a newfound love: Hobie Cat racing. 49
SA Hobie Cat Sailing Association
“I returned to Cape Town in 1968” recalled Dick Metz, “when the first Hobie Cats were developed and we made John not only a dealer but a manufacturer for all of Africa. Not long after this my Mother, who was a retired teacher, decided to fly to Cape Town and get to know this Whitmore family. My Mom invited Thelma [John’s wife] to come to California and so in the early 70’s Thelma, John, and his youngest daughter Siann came to California for a visit. Subsequently my Mom, my wife and I, as well as John and Thelma, have made numerous trips back and forth. The depth of our relationship continued to strengthen.”50
John had obtained the franchise to manufacture and sell Hobie Cats for the whole of Africa by 1971. Using the same entrepreneurial and organizing skills that saw him guide surfing from a pastime enjoyed by a handful of hardcore enthusiasts to a nationally recognised sport practised by thousands of beach goers around the country, John proceeded to popularise this form of sailing.
He became President of the South African Hobie Cat Sailing Association for 19 years, during which he staged dozens of regattas including World championships in South Africa and on Mauritius. 51 At this latter event, Whitmore even managed to get British Prince Andrew and his wife Fergie ‑- who were vacationing on the island at the time ‑- to present the prizes. This actually caused an international furore when the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) – the major body representing black Africans on the continent ‑- threatened to boycott Mauritius when it was reported that the winner and the organiser of the regatta were white South Africans. 52
The third water sport John introduced to South Africa was body boarding – better known as “Boogie boarding” in the 1970s and ‘80s. In 1971, he received half a dozen “do it yourself” Morey Boogie board kits in a container from Clark Foam. Because he was pressed with other commitments, he passed these on to fellow Cape Town manufacturer Peter Wright. Shortly thereafter, Tom Morey sold the patent to the San Francisco based Cransco corporation who could not come to terms with Wright on the distribution rights for South Africa. 53
“After the 1972 World Championships in San Diego, Cransco invited Whitmore to San Francisco where a deal was struck that saw him import the cutting and thermal welding equipment necessary for construction of the body boards. He then started manufacturing the boards at his Hobie Cat factory in Cape Town. From there, the sport spread up the coast to Durban. Even as late as the new millennium, in 2000 – at age 71 ‑- John regularly rode a Boogie board at Elands Bay, 15 kilometres from his home. 54
Whitmore withdrew from all his administrative positions in the early 1990s and gradually eased his way out his manufacturing businesses. By this time, in the golden years of his life, he wanted to rebuild a farm he had bought “because it was offered to me for a good price back in 1974 -‑ when I had money,” John recalled. He bought it with the idea of eventually moving there permanently, 250 kilometres up the West Coast from Cape Town.
He finally achieved this dream in 1997. Over the course of the next three years, he only returned to Cape Town three times – and then it was only so he and Thelma could visit dentists and doctors. During this time, they grew vegetables for personal consumption and John kept himself busy in his workshop. He took to making knives, laminated model surfboards, and occasionally wooden row boats.55
“How It’s Never Ever Gonna Be Again”
In his later life when John was often affectionately addressed as “Oom,” he bemoaned Cape Town’s high density population and Mankind’s wrecking of the planet in search of the almighty Dollar ‑- or Pound or Rand. He looked back with regret that “Bruce’s Beauties” are now no longer so perfect due to the housing constructed over the dunes. He hated to see the seas so polluted. 56
Along with some regrets at the way things turned out, John had “dozens of wonderful stories about being the first to ride numerous now famous spots,” remembers Paul Botha, “the antics he and his fellow explorers got up to, feeding themselves from the ocean, partying and surfing, escorting Bruce Brown, O’Connell and Wingnut around while making the SA segment of Endless Summer 2, overseas trips and characters he has met and befriended.” 57
“I’m glad I was born when I was,” Whitmore declared in 2000. “I got the best of it before mankind destroyed it. I’ve had a very satisfying career and I wouldn’t change it for all the tea in China. I have a large circle of friends who pop in occasionally and buy a couple of knives, which pays for the petrol, liquor and cigarettes.
“‘My farm extends for 5 kilometres, up to the skyline, and Thelma and I enjoy the bird life and the peace and quiet. Touch wood, I’m financially sound so -‑ I have all I need.” 58
John Whitmore was fond of telling interviewers: “I’m not telling you how it used to be, I’m telling you how it’s never ever gonna be again!” 59
In December 2001, The Oom passed on:
“Cape Town ‑ The man considered the father of surfing in South Africa, John Whitmore, has died at the age of 73.” So began an obituary for Whitmore on Cape Town’s News 24.
“Whitmore, who held national colours in surfing, and managed the national surfing side on many occasions, was also a president of the Surfing Association of SA and of the Hobie Cat Sailing Association.
“He built the first Hawaiian shape-surfboards in this country in the 1950s from canvas stretched over oak frames, before progressing to balsa wood ‑- precursors of the modern fibreglass-foam boards.”60
“He also presented a popular surfing programme on Radio Good Hope for years, and built up a huge following of young surfers who followed the sun and the waves on his recommendation each weekend.” 61
The News 24 obituary continued:
“The colourful Whitmore retired to Eland´s Bay on the West Coast five years ago and died on his farm Koopmansdrift on Monday after a six-month illness from lung cancer.
“He leaves his wife Thelma, three daughters, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“A memorial service will be held at the popular Peninsula surfing spot Glen Beach at a date still to be fixed in January.” 62
Anthony “Ant” Heard,63 a South African surfing pioneer, wrote about the memorial service:
“About 500 people gathered at Glen Beach this morning to pay homage to the man revered by many as the grandfather of surfing in South Africa. Whitmore, 73, died after a short illness on his farm near Elands Bay, West Coast, one of many surf spots he pioneered.
“They came in their hundreds to Glen Beach ‑- from ho-daddies to lighties -‑ to pay their respects, in a unique and watery way, to the legendary South African surf great, John Whitmore.64
“It was a meshing of generations in a single, sad cause; and it was duplicated in Durban, where Baron Stander organised a surf wake; and in other spots on the coast.
“Whitmore died recently of cancer after a valiant battle, showing the casual courage of someone undaunted by a monster ‘blackie’ heading his way. The beach gatherings were the South African surfing community’s way of saying goodbye.
“The Glen break was wilder and more towering than ever, the rip sucked towards the rocks. Nature seemed to be adding a powerful eloquence to the remembrance of John.”65
“Standing there on the beach, there were longboarders, goofies, Atlantic-side gremlins, Corner hot-doggers, the heavily-dinged from Kom Inner, and a few survivors of Sunset or Dungeons.
“The surf community turned out in force early in the morning (Saturday 12 January), as a furious summer Atlantic storm made way for a burst of sunlight. And, with the active surfers, of course, were the surf widows and widowers and the sons and daughters and the parents; those co-heroes of surfing who now do time onshore while the surf is up ‑- and who take refuge from the south-easter or north-wester in the shelter of cars, and flick the car lights when it is really time to go.”66
“There were reminiscences by those who had known this remarkable man ‑- stories about how he befriended a Californian surf hitch-hiker in 1959, Dick Metz, who dived in and saved John’s board from the Glen rocks, and became a house guest of the Whitmore’s at Glen Beach for months.
“It was Metz who helped open John’s business to the import prospect of Clark foam, branded boards and boogies. Whitmore was able to put surfing on the map with these and other contacts ‑ and always employing his meticulous professionalism and sense of perfection. The rest is history.
“There was mention of John’s indomitable grit and sense of optimism, not only while ill and apparently refusing chemical relief, but how, when told of someone’s death, would show no sadness, but would comment that death is just part of life. He had a way of inspiring others.” 67
“On the beach, the surfers, old and young, stood out in the crowd, with their wide shoulders, as if propped by giant coat hangers. The relative fitness of Whitmore’s own generation, now in their seventies, was obvious. The familiar Cape surf names were in evidence, Paarman, Strong, Menesis, to mention but some. There was special music, and some tears.” 68 The special music was a song composed by his song-writing son-in-law Andre de Villiers specially for the wake. 69
“And,” continued Ant Heard, “after the people had had time to remember John and the vast amount he did for young and established surfers, the time came to commit the wreath to the waves.
“Towering Jonathan Paarman ‑- whom I shall never forget in the cusp of a massive wave years ago at Kom Outer, his board a shaking leaf in the high wind as he took off right in front of me ‑- gathered the wreath and took it gently to the beach, placed it on his board and ‘hit out’.
“He was followed by a dozen surfers there to join the ‘paddle-out’. It was perilous getting out, and the MC and others expressed some concern, but these were Glen surfers, he announced reassuringly. They deftly ducked under the pounding white water and made their way far out, right past the treacherous rocks.
“The wreath was consigned to the very waves which, years ago, I had seen John tame, using his powerful style. It was no ordinary wreath. It was bulky, beautiful. It was kelp.” 70
“He faced the reality of his impending demise with the dignity, courage, humour and strength that typified his life,” wrote Paul Botha of John Whitmore’s later days of cancer battle, “refusing intravenous drips, tubes and complicated medication while preparing himself for the ‘most incredible journey and adventure.’
John’s ashes were scattered on the vlei at his farm Koopmansdrift, bound to return to his beloved ocean with the winter rains.71 He wanted his going to be unembellished, writing his own death notice that he insisted his family insert in the newspaper and no other. It read simply, “Whitmore, John. Gone.” 72
Note from Paul Botha to Malcolm:
“Thanks for your efforts on behalf of the Oom, whose contribution to the expansion of surfing on the Southern tip of Africa is the story of a remarkable man whose pioneering spirit, energy and enquiring mind introduced the joys of riding waves to tens of thousands of South Africans. It’s a tale all surfers should be aware of.”73
Email received from Ooom’s daughter:
“Hi Malcolm - My name is Sian Lilford (nee Whitmore) , I have just been doing some ‘web-surfing’ and read your article on my late father. Thank you for providing such a wonderful summary of his life. I am currently living on the Northern Beaches in Sydney Australia. I emigrated here with my husband and two daughters a mere two weeks after Dad passed on. It was an incredibly difficult time for us.
“I was fortunate enough to be able to be with Dad for the last month of his life. He died surrounded, and being nursed by his family. His last wish being to die in his bed on the farm. We spoke very deeply before his death and he was very content that he had lived life to the fullest and had a ‘full innings’ as they say in cricket. To leave your home so soon after losing someone so special was tough and I take great solace in reading about his life on the web.
“I guess I just wanted to thank you for honouring Dad with this article.
1 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
2 See Botha, Paul. Email to Malcolm, 24 March 2002. “The word ‘Oom’ is the Afrikaans language equivalent of ‘Uncle’ and was used by all on sundry when speaking of John. Other names used for John were ‘JJ Moon’ due to his profile which its distinctive forelock and beard, and ‘Doyen’ because he was the foremost exponent of surfing in the early days of the sport in this country.”
3 Botha, Paul. Zag, March 2002.
4 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
5 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
6 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
7 Botha, Paul. Zag, March 2002. Paul has this happening in 1949, but it had to have happened after 1953, when the photo was first released by the Associated Press. Of course, it could have been another photo, but this one is the one that first grabbed international attention.
8 Botha, Paul. Email to Malcolm, 28 October 2002. “I feel reasonably certain that the image John referred to was the one you have identified. However, he made numerous mentions of this being what inspired him to ride waves and it seems strange to me that he would get the date wrong by as much as four years on such an important element in his introduction to surfing. Perhaps Dick Metz would have a better idea of what picture it was – he and John would certainly have discussed it on a number of occasions.”
9 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000. Whitmore quoted.
10 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
11 Botha, Paul. “History of South African Surfing” at www.wavescape.co.za/top_bar/history/history.html.
12 Botha, Paul. Email to Malcolm, 28 October 2002.
13 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
14 Botha, Paul. Zag, March 2002.
15 Botha, Paul. Zag, March 2002.
16 Botha, Paul. Zag, March 2002.
17 “History of the South African Surf Ski,” www.surf-skis.com/Surfskis.html.
18 “History of the South African Surf Ski,” www.surf-skis.com/Surfskis.html. Gabie Botha quoted.
19 “History of the South African Surf Ski,” www.surf-skis.com/Surfskis.html.
20 “History of the South African Surf Ski,” www.surf-skis.com/Surfskis.html.
21 Botha, Paul. Zag, March 2002.
22 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000. See also Botha, Paul, Zag, March 2002.
23 Botha, Paul. Zag, March 2002.
24 Metz, Dick. Letter to Paul Botha, January 2002.
25 Metz, Dick. Letter to Paul Botha, January 2002.
26 Metz, Dick. Letter to Paul Botha, January 2002.
27 Metz, Dick. Letter to Paul Botha, January 2002.
28 Metz, Dick. Letter to Paul Botha, January 2002.
29 Metz, Dick. Letter to Paul Botha, January 2002.
30 Metz, Dick. Letter to Paul Botha, January 2002.
31 Metz, Dick. Letter to Paul Botha, January 2002.
32 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
33 Botha, Paul. Zag, March 2002.
34 Botha, Paul. Zag, March 2002.
35 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
36 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
37 Botha, Paul. Zag, March 2002.
38 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
39 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
40 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
41 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
42 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
43 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
44 Botha, Paul. Email to Malcolm, 28 October 2002.
45 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
46 Metz, Dick. Letter to Paul Botha.
47 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
48 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
49 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
50 Metz, Dick. Letter to Paul Botha, January 2002.
51 Botha, Paul. Zag, March 2002.
52 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
53 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
54 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
55 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000. Paul noted John and Thelma marrying in 1951.
56 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
57 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
58 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
59 Botha, Paul. The Surfer’s Path, “John Whitmore: The Doyen,” Issue 20, October/November 2000.
60 News 24 Obituary, December 2001.
61 News 24 Obituary, December 2001.
62 News 24 Obituary, December 2001.
63 Botha, Paul. Email to Malcolm, 10 November 2002. “Ant (Anthony) Heard is one of the pioneers of SA surfing. He started out with the South Beach crew in Durban, going on to become a newspaper editor who fearlessly challenged the ‘apartheid’ system and incurred the wrath of the former white government. He now lives in Cape Town and handles some sort of PR/speech writing function for the current SA President.”
64 Botha, Paul. Email to Malcolm, 10 November 2002. “A Ho-Dad was an early term used by SA surfers to describe ‘posers’ – those who wanted to be part of the surfing scene without bothering to surf themselves. Also used by non-surfers to speak disparagingly of surfers, as in ‘just a bunch of peroxided ho daddys that hang out at the beach.’
“A ‘lighty’ is an SA term for a ‘lightweight’ and used to refer to smaller or, more commonly, younger people than the commentator, i.e. ‘their opinion doesn’t count, they’re just a bunch of lightys,’ OR ‘when I was a lighty, gas only cost 35-cents a gallon.’”
65 Heard, Ant. John Whitmore obituary, 12 January 2002.
66 Heard, Ant. John Whitmore obituary, 12 January 2002.
67 Heard, Ant. John Whitmore obituary, 12 January 2002.
68 Heard, Ant. John Whitmore obituary, 12 January 2002.
69 Botha, Paul. Zag, March 2002.
70 Heard, Ant. John Whitmore obituary, 12 January 2002.
71 Botha, Paul. Email to Malcolm, 10 November 2002. “A ‘vlei’ is an Afrikaans word meaning shallow body of water, or lake, that occurs naturally and may dry up in the dry season. Not used to describe a man-made ‘dam’ or a major lake.”
72 Botha, Paul. Zag, March 2002.
73 Botha, Paul. Email to Malcolm, 28 October 2002.
74 Email to Malcolm from Sian & Dennis Lilford, November 28, 2002.
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