Ultimate Renegades | Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew & The Invention of Professional Surfing

How a cocky Australian laid the groundwork for today's professional surfing scene

We’ve teamed up with Jeep, who are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, to shine a spotlight on some of the ultimate renegades from the world of action sports – past, present and future. Here Billy Wilson tells the story of Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholemew. This brash Australian, who combined undeniable skills with an in-your-face attitude, arguably did more than anyone to make surfing the professional sport it is today.

“Surfing’s very own Muhammad Ali.” Photo: Flame/A-Frame

Is it possible to contemplate the image of Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew dressed in board shorts, aviators, and a silk Everlast boxing robe, without concluding that these are less interesting times for professional surfing? In its present incarnation, watered down and neatly packaged for a mainstream audience, pro surfing is perhaps just a little too professional: lacking in colour, lacking in theatre — lacking, essentially, in characters like Rabbit.

But then to say that surfing’s not as interesting as it once was is itself not very interesting, indeed the same could probably be said of most sports. It is also, in this context, ironic, because professionalism was precisely what Wayne Bartholomew tried so hard to introduce to surfing, and because today’s world tour bears his paw prints in almost all of its particulars. Rabbit’s generation, and Rabbit in particular, didn’t so much change the game as start playing a new one altogether.

He was surfing’s very own Muhammad Ali — less talented, perhaps, and not quite so adept at dodging punches, but with all of Ali’s famous front and audacity, and possessed of the same competitive drive and work ethic. Fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee, surf like a rabbit.

“Rabbit’s generation, and Rabbit in particular, didn’t so much change the game as start playing a new one altogether”

Actually, it was football that he played like a rabbit, his speed and skill — together with his prominent front teeth — earning him the nickname before he’d even set foot on a surfboard. I imagine him as a fleet-footed winger or elusive attacking midfielder, probably well versed in the great Australian art of sledging; just the kind of player defenders like to try and take lumps out of. The moniker stuck, and was often used instead of his real name to caption early photos of him that appeared in surf magazines. People began to wonder who was this mysterious “Rabbit” character was. Rabbit was determined to let them know.

Stylish, flamboyant, always performing for an audience, real or imagined, he surfed more like a dancer, which perhaps he got from his mother, a dance instructor. Rabbit was 11 when his parents separated, whereupon he moved with his mother and four sisters to Snapper Rocks, where he learnt to surf. He also learnt to steal wallets from tourists on the beach, supplementing what little money his mother earned; he and his sisters were living in what he later described as “desperate poverty”, and he was now the man of the house. But Rabbit was determined to make an honest living, and professional surfing was about as close to one of them as he was ever going to get, never mind the fact that it barely existed yet. “Once I found surfing, my life changed,” he recalls. “I knew I could be a world champion — even though there was no such thing as world champion.” And so Rabbit’s objective was always essentially twofold.

He surfed as though performing for an audience because such was his temperament, but also because his livelihood depended on there one day being an audience. By the early ’70s he had already accrued a prodigious amount of tube time at the long right-hand point breaks of the Gold Coast, and was placing highly in regional and national junior events; by the mid-‘70s he was challenging for the Australian national title alongside Michael Peterson and Peter Townend, and had established himself as a major player on the world stage — but still the stage wasn’t quite big enough. There had in fact been several world championships in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, but these were single, isolated contests, the champion decided over several days at a single location. The various yearly events dotted around the world, meanwhile, weren’t yet integrated within a tour-like structure, and the prize money barely covered the cost of travel.

Rabbit was one of the first surfers consistently to take on Pipeline, the North Shore’s premier wave, on his backhand. Photo: Merkel/A-Frame

Rabbit’s solution was to surf not just as well as possible, but as loudly as possible too. He became the charismatic frontman of a new group of Australian and South African surfers who outperformed the hitherto dominant locals in the large and powerful waves of Hawaii, and who did so with attitude and swagger and a keen sense of their own brilliance. When he wasn’t in the water demonstrating this brilliance, Rabbit was busy reminding people of it in the magazines, championing his cause in a series of outspoken interviews and outlandish photoshoots that channeled Jagger and Bowie as well as Ali.

He wrote regular articles too, the most famous of which appeared in a 1976 issue of Surfer, entitled ‘Bustin’ Down the Door’ in reference to the newcomers’ emphatic emergence on the scene. Rabbit felt its tone was sufficiently respectful, but for many Hawaiians, already angered by Rabbit and co.’s bullish behaviour, the piece constituted one slight too many.

Immediately upon his return to the North Shore that winter, the unsuspecting Rabbit was ambushed in the Sunset line-up, knocked out — losing, fittingly enough, his two front teeth — and forced into hiding, death threats hanging over his head. Were it not for the intervention of Eddie Aikau, who managed to conciliate the island’s more violent elements, he might never have safely reemerged. It was, as Bartholomew recalls in the eponymous 2008 documentary that details the article’s fallout, “a very ginger-footed Rabbit” that stepped out of his hiding place and back onto the beaches of the North Shore.

Ginger-footed and toothless, but also, in another sense, triumphant, for by this point all the cheerleading was starting to pay off. A world tour, together with the IPS, surfing’s first governing body, had been willed into existence, and that same winter its first champion (Peter Townend, also high on the North Shore’s Public Enemy list) was crowned. “To actually make a living from what we were doing, I didn’t think it was possible,” South Africa’s Shaun Tomson later said. “Rabbit did. And a lot of us were carried along by his momentum.”

Tomson himself became the second IPS world champion the following year, and in 1978 a fully recovered Rabbit became the third. The IPS couldn’t afford a proper trophy and his prize money for the year amounted to just $7,650, but it was a living and it was honest, and even if it was only barely either of those things, it was nonetheless professional surfing, and it was not a bad gig.

“I knew I could be a world champion — even though there was no such thing as world champion”

Twenty years later Rabbit rejoined the world tour, this time as president of the ASP, which had succeeded the IPS. Again, he brought with him radical change.

Rabbit Bartholemew wearing a contest vest with Smirnoff sponsorship in an early event.

At a time when crowd numbers on the beach took precedence over quality of surf, it was Rabbit who, in the face of significant opposition, developed the notion of the “Dream Tour”. Less of the “shitty beaches in the middle of summer” (Rabbit’s words), more of the world’s very best waves breaking at their very best: it’s a dream that for most people endures as the ideal to which pro surfing should aspire.

At the end of his 10-year presidency, explaining his decision to retire, he said he was now at “the height of my popularity in the surfing world”. In one sense it was a boast, but it was also true, and underscored too by a new note of humility: a knowing reference to his time as persona non grata. Brodie Carr, CEO of the ASP at the time, lamented Rabbit’s departure, describing him as the “soul of ASP” — a description that may help us to understand both why the organisation now bears different initials, and why things seem a little soulless in his absence.

The Jeep Ultimate Renegades

We’ve teamed up with Jeep, who are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, to shine a spotlight on some of the ultimate renegades from the world of action sports – past, present and future. In this second installment of the series we shift our attention to surfing, asking big wave surf legend Andrew Cotton to pick out his ultimate renegades.

Renegades of Surfing

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