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Riding the waves of surfing history

The predecessor of the Ballito Pro surfing competition, the Gunston 500, drew huge crowds and international surfers.

The predecessor of the Ballito Pro surfing competition, the Gunston 500, drew huge crowds and international surfers.

Published Dec 4, 2021


“We were like caddies to the world stars”.

So said former pro surfer and legendary surf photographer Pierre Tostee this week, recalling the Gunston 500 surf competition, which attracted the world’s best to compete off Durban’s main beaches.

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The Ballito Pro presented by O’Neill will celebrate its 52nd edition next week at Willard Beach in Ballito, with the first event, the Durban 500, having taken place for the first time in 1969 at Durban’s Bay of Plenty.

The Durban 500 was started by Max Wetteland, Ian Macdonald, Ernie Tomson, with the first prize being R500 ‒ a sizeable prize in those days, as well as a motorbike for the runner-up and a hi-fi set for third place.

Port Elizabeth teen Gavin Rudolph collected the R500, with Durban surfer Willy Sills taking second place and Australia’s Alan Blythe in third.

Durban surfer Shaun Tomson won six consecutive titles at the Gunston 500.

Natal Surfriders Association secretary Peter Burness took over the running of the event, which in 1971 was changed to the Gunston 500. His goal was for South African surfers to be invited to compete in international surfing events by inviting the world’s top surfers to compete in SA.

In 1982, surfer Fazel Omarjee was the first surfer of colour to compete in the Gunston 500.

That year, the competition was held in Port Elizabeth, the same year 19-year-old Rudolph took the international surfing stage by storm by winning the Smirnogg Pro-Am in Hawaii ‒ the first SA surfer to win an international event.

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The next year, the event returned to Durban and was won by Hawaii’s Jeff Hakman, after which, in 1973, the founder Ernie Tomson’s son Shaun won the first of his consecutive six titles (1973-1978) ‒ a feat that has not been matched by any surfer since.

Tostee said the Gunston 500 “included icons on the world surfing stage,” including Hawaii, Australia and Brazil, among others.

“As young surfers, we would dream of competing in a world tour, and it was the highlight of the year where we would rub shoulders in the water with world champions, we would take them surfing, and if their boards got broken, we would take them to be fixed. We were like caddies to the world stars.

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“There was lots of camaraderie. We were youngsters looking up at them and then we were competing. It changed through the years ‒ from asking for autographs to signing autographs,” said Tostee, who became a pro surfer and was on the Gunston 500 podium.

From being in front of the lens to behind the lens, Tostee is the World Surf League’s official photographer at this year’s event.

By the time Tomson’s victory run was brought to a halt in 1979 by Hawaii’s Dane Kealoha, the event had become a major sporting attraction on SA’s sports calendar, attracting top surfers from around the globe.

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The Association for Surfing Professionals, the world controlling body for surfing and headed by Ian Cairns in 1983, continued to sanction the Gunston 500, with surfers deciding whether or not to compete, but with the release of Nelson Mandela, sports boycotts were resolved.

In 1992, the Gunston 500 became one of the 11 elite World Championship Tour (WCT) events, and a women’s event was included, with Neridah Falconer from Australia becoming the first women’s champion.

The early 1990s saw moves to ban cigarette advertising, and the organisers looked for other sources of funding, which included a festival around the surfing, which by 1997 had led to additional sports events such as lifesaving, jet-ski and inflatable racing, night surfing and exhibition tents. By 1997, it was a ten-day festival and drew “more than one million people”, making it one of the biggest beach festivals at the time, with similar festivals being born in California, Australia and France.

By the end of the decade, legislation was passed to ban tobacco advertising, which ended the Gunston 500. Mr Price picked up the reins with the Mr Price Pro and the launch of the Durban Beach Festival.

In 2000, Durban’s Travis Logie was the first SA surfer to reach the finals since 1986, and in 2006, Ricky Basnett from the Bluff became the first SA surfer to win the event since Shaun Tomson.

IN 2008, the event moved to Ballito and this year’s Ballito Pro presented by O’Neill kicks off next week on December 9.

In 2008, a dispute over staging a music festival on the beach saw the event move to Ballito in 2009, with the Mr Price Pro Ballito seeing Durban’s Jordy Smith win in 2010. As the surfing contest upgraded to become one of the 10 prime rates events on the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) calendar, world-class fields and big waves saw the likes of USA brothers, Tanner and Patrick Gugauskas, Ireland’s Glenn Hall, Julian Wilson from Australia and American Tim Reyes all coming to town to take home trophies.

From 2015 to 2018, Billabong took over as the major sponsor, celebrating the golden jubilee of the event, passing the baton on to global wetsuit and apparel brand O’Neill, who has partnered with KwaDukuza Municipality.

Tostee said that with surfing added to the Olympic Games this year, surfers were already looking towards the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

“Both Durban and Ballito have exceptional waves, and surfing is growing exponentially. This year’s event will showcase emerging talent, and you’ll see future champions here first,” he said.

The Ballito Pro presented by O’Neill takes place from December 9-19 with strict Covid protocols in place for contestants and visitors.

The Independent on Saturday

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