Australian Peter “PT” Townend’s contribution to the sport of surfing is mighty. He helped create the world tour as we know it today. He won the IPS (International Professional Surfers) world title in 1976. He stunt-surfed for the actor William Katt in Big Wednesday. He pulled badass soul arches at Kirra and Sunset. He’s written dozens of features for surf magazines worldwide. He spent four years as the executive director and National Team coach for the NSSA. He was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1998, the Gold Coast Sporting Hall of Fame in 1999, and the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame in 2001.
Today, PT is a jaunty 65 years old. When I met him for lunch at Moonshadows, a seaside restaurant in Malibu, he was all fired up on his latest endeavor: coaching the Chinese National Olympic Surf Team Program (we’ll get to that in our next installment). He was full of stories, insights, and remembrances. Here are some highlights—
Did you ever imagine that pro surfing would become what it is today?
We were walking around in the ‘70s going, “Why can’t we be like the tennis players and the Grand Prix motor drivers and have a world circuit and make money doing this?” That was the vision that we had that ultimately created the IPS in 1976. We had a dream. We used to walk around going, “Million dollars! We can make a million dollars!” That dream came true because now surfers are making a million dollars. Forty years later it has become reality.
Thinking back on all your decades in the surf, is there a year or a session that stands out as the apex?
That year I won the world title. But I don’t think I was surfing my best then. I think my best year as a competitive surfer was ’79, where I made three man-on-man finals and won the Hang Ten in South Africa and got 2nd in the Katin. I had a phenomenal competitive year. And the year before that, too. It’s the 40th anniversary of Big Wednesday. My involvement in Big Wednesday, as Jack Barlow, put me in a different stratosphere to my peer group. There’s a scene in the film where Jack Barlow has said, “I’m going to Vietnam,” and he surfs by himself. Me in that scene was really pure. It wasn’t about competition or anything because I might die, I’m going to Vietnam, I might be shot dead and not come back. Because I missed going to Vietnam by one! I was in the next draft. So I was living with the potential that that could have been me. I could have been in ‘Nam in ’73. I’m not rich from my surfing career but what I am rich in is life. And I continue to be.
What does surfing mean to you now?
It still means as much as when I first paddled out. I don’t get in the water as much as I should or as I’d liked to, but the stoke meter is still there. As Gerry Lopez put it, “You just gotta keep paddling out.” And I’m a subscriber to that.