Throughout the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, competitive surfers followed what they called the “gypsy tour,” a string of global contests that were not bound by a governing body or points leading towards a world title. A lot of fun, I’m sure, but a far cry from the professionalism we know today.
This shifted with the birth of the International Professional Surfers (IPS) in 1976. Founded by Hawaiian surfer Fred Hemmings, the IPS borrowed from golf and tennis—there was a series of events held around the world, surfers accumulated points along the way, at the end of the season the surfer with the most points was crowned world champ. It was an effort to make professional surfing a more viable career path. It was also an effort to make it more accessible to the masses.
“All of us had this dream that we could make a living being surfers,” said 1977 world champion Shaun Tomson. “But they call that time the ‘Bustin’ Down the Door/Free Ride period.’ Man, the ride wasn’t free! We had to pay for it—and pay for it with blood!”
The first events of the IPS world tour were held on the North Shore in the winter of 1976. Suddenly there were dollars at stake, and surfers worldwide made the pilgrimage, with dreams of cracking the big time. The Aussies led the charge, with the mainland Americans, South Africans, and Brazilians all making their presence felt. The Hawaiians both hated and loved seeing so many new faces in the lineup—hated it ‘cause it meant heavy crowds; loved it ‘cause it meant the performance bar went way up.
The climax of this period took place on a single wave at Off The Wall. The waves were six to eight feet, the skies sunny, the cameras out in full force. A beautiful peak loomed. Mark “MR” Richards took off in front; Shaun Tomson took off in back. As MR swept a delayed bottom turn, so did Shaun, pulling up right behind him in the tube. The shutters clicked and cameras rolled as two of the world’s best surfers shared the same sublime blue barrel, their styles different, their eyes fixed on the same place. And when they exited cleanly, the crowd on the beach erupted, knowing full well that they’d just witnessed history in the making.