The first free surfer predates Tracks by about 70 years. His name was Duke Paoa Kahanamoku and he rode the waves of Waikiki free as a bird with his hapa-haole buddy George Freeth and others until fame got in the way, much as it would with most top surfers of their day.

Fifty years BT (before Tracks) the superbly eccentric and strangely spiritual Tom Blake worshipped at the church of the open sky (long before Nat Young co-opted the term) and surfed to the beat of his own drum, to mix a metaphor or three, for several decades. Thirty years BT, Bob Simmons did the same, inventing the skeg, riding the curl, sleeping in his car and finally washing up dead at Windansea.

Free surfers dominated the 1950s, and even into the 1960s, by virtue of the fact that there was no industry, virtually no competition and only the most bohemian and sidelined of cultures. But by the 1970s, the idea of the free surfer had taken on quite a different meaning. You had to have tasted commerciality in order to reject it, so both Midget and Nat were seen to have turned their backs on lucrative endorsements and media careers etc etc, in order, in their own very different and almost opposite ways, to live a purer lifestyle governed by their love of surfing.

Midget held out until 1972, when he abandoned his artisan boatshed in Palm Beach to blow foam in Brookvale. Nat held on in Byron Bay a little longer, finally succumbing to the lure of filthy lucre of the Surfabout in 1974, when he admittedly gave his $600 prize money to Gough Whitlam’s re-election campaign. But the die was cast. McTavish would never return to the city, and nor would many others, embracing instead an ethic known as country soul, which in turn gave rise to the term “soul surfer”.

Today surfers like David Rastovich and Dane Reynolds make very good money as “free” surfers, but the reality is that they are paid very well to exploit the commerciality of their non-commerciality. In Dave’s case, I believe his causes and his motivation are heartfelt, but there can be no denying that his sponsors tag along so that they can tick the appropriate social responsibility boxes. In Dane’s case it’s as simple as quirky sells.

Of course back at the start the same logic applied. For example, while he was “dancing for Krishna” in the surf, Ted Spencer was also a vital part of the Shane Gang, the surfboard industry’s most sophisticated marketing campaign to date. Ted was a free surfer with a profile and a salary. Perhaps truer to the ethic was his chanting buddy Charlie Bartlett (or Charles of the Sea), a good surfer and a free spirit who influenced his peers in Torquay but not much beyond. 

Down the Great Ocean Road a few hundred twists and turns, however, the first truly meaningful free surfer of the modern era was taking shape in the form of Wayne Lynch. Wayne’s precocious talent had been recognized at 14 by Brian Singer (one of his teachers), Doug Warbrick and John Witzig, to name a few, and his teen years were plagued with unrealistic expectations that slowly took a toll on an ordinary young bloke with a sensitive soul. He won a string of state and national titles, developed a slightly alt.persona and travelled the world with the groovy people leading the way and Paul Witzig’s camera all over him, but by the time he went underground to avoid the draft (not an outrageously rebellious act, as has been depicted, but a fairly normal response by 1970) he was over the whole damn star trip. 

By the time I met him in 1974, and interviewed him for Tracks the following year, Wayne had developed a cynicism that didn’t sit well with the other elements of his personality, but I found him immensely likeable and we became friends. Steve Cooney took some lovely photos of us all mucking around at the family spread at Aireys Inlet, and I remember Wayne being great company once the tape recorders and cameras had been put away. 
But underlying this, he was a true waterman, a creature of his harsh environment. This first became apparent in Jack McCoy and Dick Hoole’s short biopic, A Day In The Life Of Wayne Lynch, with The Fish living up to his nickname, diving off cliffs, boating to remote reefs and surfing cold and treacherous water alone. By today’s standards, this is not exactly extreme – ask the Shippies crew – but the film depicted a man who lived his life tuned into the pulse of the ocean, who ran by his own clock and no one else’s.

Of course you could argue that by allowing himself to be filmed doing this, Wayne was breaking his own spell, just as you could argue that his reappearance on the pro scene (where he won the biggest purse on the fledgling tour) damaged his credibility as a free surfer. But Wayne was beyond name-tags by this, and the fact that unknown free surfers all over the world wanted to be him, cemented his enduring popularity and defined his mature years career.

It hasn’t always been easy for Wayne Lynch, just as it hasn’t often been easy for all those thousands of unknown free surfers out there who value the wave over the rave. But the way he has lived his life as a surfer has inspired so many others, including this writer, that we’ll slide quietly over the bizjets and shopping centre appearances, and remember, simply, as he enters his golden years, that Wayne was (and is) the first free surfer who made a difference.