I went on a 1970 world championships bender this week, starting with Geoff Luton’s day-by-day coverage of the event for Surfing World magazine. Unlike the 1972 world titles, in which absolute disaster was pulled from the mouth of mere disaster, the 1970 event redeemed itself, grandly, on the final day. Excellent overhead surf to wrap up the men’s division and Rolf Aurness was a popular, unanimous winner. (The women, no surprise, weren’t so lucky. Throughout the event, their heats were held with unfailing attention as to when the surf was worst, and they were shut out of that great finals day altogether—their final was held the next morning in closeouts. Sharron Weber won in ’70, won again in ’72, and was runner-up in ’68 for good measure, and yes that makes her the winningest surfer, the champ of champs, male or female, in the single-event world title era.)
What with the drug busts, the crazy all-over-the-shop collection of boards in use (see above!), and the redemptive last act, the ’70 titles IMO are the most facinating by far of all those early world title events. Most fascinating of all is Aurness himself, the 18-year-old California golden boy—son of Gunsmoke leading man James Arness—who ripped and laughed and charmed his way to the top, then flew back to L.A. and came undone in stages. Hollywood excess, drugs, a guru or two, mental illness, family tragedy, and no happy ending, as far as I know. Two years ago I was briefly in touch with a woman named Ellen who knows Rolf. He was in Boston at the time, she said, but I didn’t get many other details. Ellen had seen a post I did with Wayne Lynch talking about Rolf, and had passed it on to him; apparently he was thinking about trying to reconnect with the surf world, and I asked her to relay my interest in getting in touch, at any level he was comfortable with. “I saw Rolf last night and passed on your email,” Ellen wrote. “He is intrigued but truly doesn’t know what he is going to do. He feels that his life story since surfing is not worth telling, or is too painful. I suggested that there may be a lot of value in sharing his experiences but they have been rough. Anyway, let me know if you hear from him—I hope that you do. He can use any help and support that the surfing community might be able to provide. Such a nice guy and, as I grew up in Philadelphia, the exact opposite of the West coast surfer world, I love hearing his stories.” But that was the last I heard from Ellen, and Rolf never got in touch. He’d be 67 now, and I hope he’s out there somewhere, getting by, and I further hope that he understands for surfers of a certain age he is still remembered with the greatest affection and respect, both as a wave-rider and a person.
Here’s a Q&A Rolf did in 1970 with Steve Pezman. For the bigger picture, all the glory and the tragedy, read this piece by Drew Kampion. Here’s a new edit of the 1970 world titles (anybody out there know the song? and no fair Shazam-ing), and here’s a new edit of Rolf—the interview footage here was shot during ’70 world titles and is wonderful.
Thanks for reading, everybody. And a grateful tip of the hat to Brad Barrett for helping out with the Aurness pix this week.
See you next Sunday!