Sean Doherty: “Girls Can Be Grommets Too!”, Pam Burridge in 1979
COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY | BOOK EXCERPT
The following is an excerpt from Sean Doherty's new book – Golden Days: The Best Years of Australian Surfing – which tells the story of Australian surfing through the lives of the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame members, one year at a time from 1963 to today. We jump in with the story of our 1990 World Champ, Pam Burridge, when she was a 13-year-old Manly grommet in 1979.
“Girls Can Be Grommets Too!”
The full page story in the March 1979 issue of Tracks was remarkable in a couple of ways. It was a full page story on a girl who surfed, for starters. This was 1979. Lineups around Australia were patrolled almost exclusively by blokes in nut-hugging, scallop-legged boardies. “Chicks don’t surf” was a mantra for teenage boys. Girls in bikinis outnumbered girls on boards a hundred-to-one, so a girl scoring a full page in a surf mag was pretty remarkable… but even more remarkable was the girl herself. Blonde, tanned and with a high voltage smile, 13-year-old Pam Burridge was already a star in the making.
However it was the surf shot at the bottom of the page, taken at Avalon, that drew you to it. Pam zooming out of the page, her tiny McCoy board throwing sparks, eyes down the line, top teeth biting bottom lip in anticipation of the next section. She’d spent hours that summer up at North Narrabeen sitting on the beach watching Col Smith surf, taking notes. The way she held her front hand like a kangaroo paw and the way she surfed behind that front arm, that was all Col Smith.
Here was a teenage girl who didn’t surf like a teenage girl. This girl could really surf and the guys knew it. "When I started, they used to think I actually was a guy and I got a hard time," said Pam in the Tracks interview. "I guess they thought I was just another little trog in their way." Now at 13 things had changed. Her cuteness was simply cover. Pam was a bigger surf rat than any of the boys on Manly Beach and she’d arrived at an important time. Women’s surfing was struggling for any kind of recognition, but suddenly here was Pam Burridge whose only problem in the years ahead would be too much recognition. At just 13 the papers were already calling her, "the Great Blonde Hope".
Pam, like many kids of her generation, wasn’t born into a surfing family. The Burridges lived at Clontarf, 15 minutes up the hill from Manly Beach. Instead of the surf, Pam was thrown in the pool. Pam’s elder sister, Donella would compete at the 1984 LA Olympics in synchronised swimming, but despite Pam being a natural in the water she hated the whole idea of water ballet. Pam had a rebel streak. The pool was uncool. Pam despised team sports and was hard wired to do her own thing. "That was one of the appeals of surfing for me, that individual nature of it. At school I could only play netball and I hated netball. I fucking hated it. So when surfing came along I dropped everything else."
Pam enrolled in the Warringah Shire Council’s surf school at Freshwater. The school was run by a guy named Bill McCausland, who’d become a guiding figure in Pam’s career but for now "did all the talking and told all the jokes". He also had some handy offsiders working at the school. "Nat Young worked there as a coach for a while," recalls Pam. "So did Mark Warren and 'Wicko', Tony Hardwick. No such thing as accredited coaches back then, just surf stars." Pam got good, quick. By 13 she was the one doing the coaching.
Pam fell hard for surfing. "Mum and Dad – mostly Mum, God love her – would drive me to the beach before and after school and on weekends. She'd drive off and grab some shopping or something and then come back. She'd wave this big towel for me to come in… and that was my cue to look the other way and keep surfing. 'Sorry Mum, can't see you.’" Pam surfed before and after school. On the weekends she spent eight hours a day in the water. "I’d surf a rip bowl and just go into pure fantasy land. I didn’t like sitting still, so I could catch waves in a rip bowl, be carried straight back out, then catch another and another. You’d paddle back out and there’d be another wave there and you’d just spin and go. I’d do this for hours."
Pam’s remembers her first custom board. "It was a Barry Bennett. It was right when the lawyers from Lightning Bolt started to enforce the cease and desist with anyone using lightning bolts on surfboards – they were on the deck of pretty much every single board being made at the time. So, I ordered my board with the lightning bolt and of course when we got it, the lightning bolt had the big Barry Bennett diamond in the middle of it. Legally it wasn't a 'lightning bolt'. I remember I really loved that board."
For a young girl surfing on her own, Manly Beach was a wild savannah. "I had to keep my head down," Pam remembers. "Like every grommet, I had to keep my head down. Grommets were always getting a flogging, and as a grommet you knew your place. I was a full tomboy though. That's how I got away with it… in disguise. I think I might have been 12 when one of the local rippers on the beach come over to me and said, 'Hey mate, you should get a haircut.' I'd been surfing out there with this guy for a year and he didn't even know I was a girl! I don’t think he’d ever seen a girl surfer and wouldn’t know what one looked like."
Surfing for Pam was never social. It was never a scene. Pam had been the only surfer in the whole school at Balgowlah Heights Primary, and one of just a handful at McKellar Girls High. On Manly Beach, Pam was on her own. "I was a bit of an outsider. I didn’t really have a surfing crew. My friends didn't surf. My girlfriend group at school, nobody surfed. I can barely recall seeing other girls surfing at the time. I wasn’t really hanging out with anyone and I didn't really know anyone. I didn't even know anyone's name. I'd surfed at Manly every day for five years with this same guy on this same yellow board, but I didn’t know his name and I’d never talked to him. But that was also my personality. I was a bit of a boundary rider. I developed this kind of individualist identity around surfing. 'I am a surfer and I’m different.’"
One of the few people Pam would talk to was an old bloke in a white terry towelling hat, who’d sit on the wall at North Steyne and point out where he reckoned she should surf. Pam for the most part was blissfully unaware of Manly Beach’s status in Australian surfing, and it didn’t click for a while that the old bloke in the hat had once been the Australian champ. "Snowy would tell the story from time to time, you know the old story of Snow and the last wave he surfs all the way to shore standing on his head. The wave washes back, he's still standing on his head, and the judge comes down, taps him on the arse and says, 'You won, mate.' So the story goes. In hindsight I was like, wow, Manly was a pretty significant place to be surfing and growing up, but as a kid I had no idea."
The 1978 Coke Surfabout however was hard to miss. Pam took days off school to watch what would become, in time, one of the most fabled surf contests ever held in Australia. "North Steyne was just pumping," she recalls. "I don’t think I’d ever seen it that good. I remember the crowds being down there and I remember the girls were surfing in that contest too, which was pretty incredible back then." Amongst the women’s field were Pam’s two favourite surfers – Margo Oberg and Lynne Boyer – who she’d never seen outside of surf magazines. "Margo and Lynn sort of seemed inter-changeable for me because they were both world champs. They were the girls, but I couldn't quite relate to them because they were Hawaiians and riding these big waves." In her Tracks interview Pam recounted seeing them surfing at the Coke. "I like Margo’s surfing the best. She was unlucky to get beaten in the Surfabout – she sat too far inside."
Pam had started surfing contests at 12. "My first competition was with Manly Pacific Boardriders, which was probably on its last legs at that point. I won the girls division and made the Manly Daily." What really put Pam in the spotlight however was competing against the guys at the ’78 Golden Breed Pepsi Pro Junior, held up the road at North Narrabeen. The Pro Junior was a big deal, attracting the best grommets from all around the country, but for the girls they were scratching to get the numbers to fill heats. Organisers had put out a call for “junior geniuses of the juice”. One of the girls who responded and would surf against Pam was 14-year old Nell Schofield from Bondi, who a couple of years later would star in Puberty Blues where girls really couldn’t surf.
At Narrabeen the girls’ heats were barely noticed, but Pam also surfed against the guys. She finished fifth from six surfers, but the fact she hadn’t finished last drew as much media attention as if she’d won the whole contest. Pam by this stage was regularly surfing against the guys simply for the competition. It was great for Pam’s surfing, while at the same time soul crushing for the egos of the guys she managed to beat. Pam summed up their responses as, "Somewhere between aggression and embarrassment, depending on how well I knew them."
But 1979 was the year it all clicked for Pam.
In February she won the Moovin’ On junior series, sponsored by Moove flavoured milk. She backed that up by winning the NSW Women’s Title. She was just 14. Her star was rising, and she was offered a spot on the McCoy surf team. "My surf idol at the was Cheyne Horan, and he was surfing McCoy boards at the time so riding for McCoy was a pretty big deal for me." Geoff McCoy made Pam a new board – just the third surfboard she’d ever owned – and Pam was off and running.
While women’s surfing in Australia was struggling for any kind of profile, 14-year-old Pam Burridge was everywhere. "I was getting write-ups in the Manly Daily and the Sydney papers. My parents – mostly Mum – told me you've got to do the press stuff if you want to get sponsors and get noticed. I didn't really want to do it. I was really shy, so I had to be coerced a bit, but I got used to it." Pam recalls a TV crew turning up to interview her about working as a surf coach. The interview never happened. Pam was stung by a bluebottle, Pam’s Mum thinking it might not have been an accident.
Pam soon lost her coyness. In summer ‘79 she signed on to do a campaign for surf brand Crystal Cylinders, who were huge. There were ads in surf mags but also TV ads as well. Pam was suddenly on television sets and movie screens right around the country. Pam became the face of the Australian summer and was paid thousands of dollars. She talked about buying an MG when she got old enough. "It happened so quickly," she remembers. "And it just seemed to never stop from that point. I was pretty stoked, but I think my ego got a little wild there for a time."
Pam got her first taste of rock stardom. Bill McCausland was also doing surf reports for 2SM at the time, and the radio station organised touring American rocker Eddie Money to head over to Freshwater and go surfing with him. Eddie got to the beach and immediately had eyes only for Pam. In return for the surfing lesson, Bill got tickets for Eddie’s show at the Hordern Pavilion where he was supporting Bill’s favourite band, Santana. Bill and his wife took Pam along, the three of them scoring front row seats. Bill, also a photographer, got a backstage pass to shoot the gig. As he snapped away, Bill watched Eddie Money walk to the front of the stage, lock eyes with Pam and sing Two Tickets To Paradise to the 14-year-old. Bill bravely took her backstage after the gig. Through the smoke Eddie zeroed in on Pam, while Eddie’s entourage was busy zeroing in on the tour stash. Bill looked around in horror and remembered assuring Pam’s Mum he’d look after her.
In May 1979, Pam travelled to the Gold Coast to surf in the Aussie Titles. Held at Duranbah, Pam finished fifth against the best women in the country, winning a legrope and a boardcover. It was the biggest contest she’d surfed, but she distinctly recalls the women’s heats being thrown out amongst a merciless weekend crowd at D-Bah who surfed straight between them like they weren’t there. "It was huge, but we were clearly an afterthought to the men's."
The Australian Surfriders Association ran the sport nationally but the women had long regarded it a boys’ club. The blokes got the best waves. The women got what was left. The women got shitty surf and no billing. "I don’t even know if it was a conscious thing," offers Pam. "I’m sure the guys in charge probably never even thought about what was happening with the women, which I suppose was our point."
In a bold move the women broke away. The Australian Women’s Surfing Association was formed, the AWSA running as a rebel organisation to the ASA. Every top female surfer in the country jumped ship. "At first they were happy to be rid of us," recalls Pam of the ASA’s attitude. “'Go do your own thing. Off you go, have a play, whatever.'" Pam recalls it being "very political at the time" but with the significance of what was really happening – and her role in it – sailing over her head. She was still only 14, and 14-year-old surf rats had little time for anything else. Pam was too busy surfing to realise she now really was “the Great Blonde Hope” of women’s surfing in Australia.
The first AWSA contest was held in August 1979 at Newport Beach, sponsored by CBC Savings Bank. Pam won by a single point from Wollongong’s Sharon Holland, who’d finished seventh in the professional ranks the year before in between shifts at her dad’s trucking business. The AWSA event made all the Sydney papers. The women’s lib storyline got more column inches than the actual surfing, but their point was being made loud and clear.
The following year the AWSA held their first standalone Australian Titles on Pam’s home beach at Queenscliff. Pam – still just 14 – beat a field of over 50 women from around the country to win her first Australian Title. The contest was as much a statement as it was a surfing contest. The matriarchs of Australian surfing presided. Phyllis O’Donell judged, while Pam was handed the trophy by an elderly lady in a tweed coat and bowls hat. "That was the first time I’d met Isobel Latham," recalls Pam. "She was living in Foam Street up in Freshie at the time, and she’d been invited to be one of the patrons for the new association. There are these fabulous photos of me getting my trophy from her wearing my Sea Folly sausage-leg trackies. All very cool." In the years ahead, Pam and Isobel would become close. Pam would name her daughter Isobel. Her son meanwhile would get the middle name Snowy.
Pam’s 1980 Australian title doesn’t appear in the record books. The official ASA Australian Titles that year would be held in South Australia with just a handful of women competing. After the AWSA Titles in Queenscliff the women met to discuss the idea of re-affiliating with the ASA. The reason for the meeting was the upcoming amateur world titles in France. The AWSA women weren’t eligible to go. "We thought, shit, we need to be able to go to world titles." The women met on the beach at Queenscliff but voted to keep doing their own thing. Gail Austin, the AWSA founder told the Sydney Morning Herald, "We reckon that in the past two years we’ve done more for women’s surfing than the ASA achieved for us in their 17 years.” The AWSA wound up the following year, but by then they’d made their point.
Pam’s win at Queenscliff, while it didn’t get her to France did earn her an invite to surf in the 1980 Hawaiian pro events. "I was talking with Geoff McCoy and ordering boards to go to Hawaii and my mum asked him, 'How much time do we need in Hawaii?' Geoff answers straight up, 'Six weeks.' I just went, 'Yes!' Mum was in shock. In the end we compromised and stayed for four-and-a-half." By competing in the Hawaiian pro events, without it really clicking at the time, Pam Burridge officially became Australia’s first female pro surfer. She was still just 15. Her world would move quickly. By 16, she’d finish second in the world.
But for now, the Great Blonde Hope still had to scrap to get a wave on Manly Beach. "It wasn't a place for any kind of weakness," recalls Pam, "especially if you were female. There were Agronauts everywhere and I’d still get dropped-in on mercilessly. Cold to the bone. I'm Aussie champ by then but I had to fight for my waves. No one was giving an inch. If a guy dropped-in on me, I developed a habit of surfing right up behind the bloke and saying nothing, but just surfing right on their heels. They'd finally look around and there you were, not saying anything, just smiling. It really gave them the shits."
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