First Session at Byron Bay: From Logs to Shortboards and Back Again

Matt Rode

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Updated 593d ago

Our First Session series peels back the legend on the first surfers at various famous spots from across the globe. We've already covered Teahupoo, Waimea, Anchor Point, Cloudbreak, Bali, J-Bay, Puerto Escondido, Mundaka, Hossegor and Jaws. Let us know in the comments if there is anywhere else you'd like us to shine a spotlight on.

The world’s best waves have a variety of interesting histories. Some were pioneered by luminaries of the sport, while others came to our attention through huge swells or other momentous events. But not many can date their discovery back as far as Byron Bay.

Australia’s unapologetic centre of bourgeois hippie surf culture (an oxymoron if there ever were one), Byron is a tiny coastal town in New South Wales that has gone mainstream in a big way, with more surfers (both locals and blow-ins) than you can shake your 5'9" shred stick at. But the waves in and around Byron Bay weren’t always crowded. In fact, for the first 40-years or so, they were only surfed by a handful of lifeguards and carefree watermen and women.

A guide to Byron Bay HERE

Duke Kahanamoku famously brought surfing to Australia in 1914 during a goodwill world tour as a famous Olympic gold medalist. His first surf demonstration at Freshwater Beach in Sydney captivated the coastal country, and over the next 5-10 years surfing began to spread around the continent.

Inspired by Duke and the growing Australian surf movement, a few of the lifeguards in the Byron Bay area started paddling out in the late 1920s and sampling the rollers at The Pass, Main Beach, Wategos, and Tallow Beach.

Duke carrying his board up the beach at Freshwater in 1914.

Duke carrying his board up the beach at Freshwater in 1914.

Over the next three decades, a fledgling surf culture began to spring up around the area. These were real-deal hippies who weren’t afraid to camp in the local bush in an attempt to live their surf dreams and escape the quickly developing Gold Coast of the 1950s.

But Byron Bay remained a relatively unknown surf zone until Bruce Brown released Surfing Hollow Days in 1962. As soon as that film was released, everyone in the world suddenly knew about the waves at Byron Bay—and in an era that was still dominated by traditional longboarding, The Pass quickly became a hot commodity.

Ironically, what was originally a logging destination became ground zero for the shortboard revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was largely fuelled by the eccentric musings of a young George Greenough, who was one of surfing’s early renaissance men.

George Greenough on his surf mat.

George Greenough on his surf mat.

Although he eschewed standup surfing as early as 1961 (in favour of kneeboards and surf mats), Greenough’s impact on the point breaks in and around Byron Bay—and, eventually, the surf world at large—can’t be overstated. He is credited with innovating in-the-barrel surf photography, the first shortboard fin, and, perhaps most importantly, the entire shift from longboards to shortboards.

Greenough’s performance on his kneeboards in Byron Bay and on the nearby points of Lennox Head and Broken Head opened the eyes of the world’s best surfers to what was possible on a shorter board. Almost overnight, half of the world’s longboards had been cut in half and a quantum leap in performance was under way. Over the next 10-years, longboarding was almost entirely abandoned in pursuit of the deeper tuberides, tighter turns, and more aggressive, in-the-lip surfing that was possible on shortboards.

Ironically, it was the rebirth of traditional logging and the resurgence of “retro” shapes and aesthetics in the early 2000s that kickstarted Byron Bay’s second explosion in popularity and population. While the local surf community had grown steadily between the 1970s and 1990s, it was the hipster logging movement that once again reinvented the area and turned it into one of Australia’s fastest-growing surf scenes.

Today, Byron Bay is ground zero for anyone looking to live their laid-back surf dreams—a far cry from the empty lineups of the late 1920s, when Duke’s impact first trickled up to Cape Byron.