On Sunday the 22nd of March 1966, the crew of the Palm Beach Surf Life Saving Club surf-boat, “Cabbage Tree I” rowed from the calm safety of Shelly Beach at Manly a few hundred meters out and just around the corner into the twenty foot plus waves that were breaking at Fairy Bower on that day. I have written about the event before. But here we have one of the original rowers from that famous surf boat to tell the real story, exactly as it happened. Introducing the incredible Trevor Holman (and his “Cabbage Tree I buddies). Don’t miss the ABC footage of the big day at the end of the story!
Trevor: We are talking about, what was it, 1966 I think… yeah… March 66. On the Saturday we had been out at Palm Beach and the waves were coming in from the South. It was a pretty big sea and we had been out for some time. A wave caught us and flipped us… rolled the boat over and I got an oar under my ear and I thought that I had busted by eardrum. I went down to Mona Vale Hospital and they had said everything was okay so, on he Sunday, the waves were even bigger.
“These waves are too big. We’re not going out here!”
Our sweep was John Windshuttle… a well-known surfer and surfboard rider and surf member of the Manly Surf Club in the late fifties through to the sixties. Anyway, he was recruited into the Palm Beach Surf Club. So, on the Sunday, he said “Look. These waves are too big. We’re not going to go out here. We’ll go down to the Spit and train (in the still water of Middle Harbor).” We were only a few weeks away from the Australian Titles (so we had to train). I think, from memory, those titles were up on the Gold Coast. Anyway, so on the way down to the Spit we hauled the boat down to Manly. At Manly we sat on the wall for around an hour, just watching the waves, then John said, “Come on… we’ll catch a few waves at The Bower.”
Note: “The Bower” (Fairy Bower) is a special surfing spot in that it is one of the few deep-water surfing places in Sydney where a surfer can paddle out from the sheltered Shelly Beach then paddle into monstrous waves from the relative safety of a deep-water channel. When the waves get bigger than fifteen feet around Sydney, The Bower is one of the few places where a surfer can manage to get past the shore break and make it into the line-up.
I suppose there were a few hesitations… because these were very big seas… but John Windshuttle said “Aw, come on… its deep water out there… we’ll be right.” So, we launched the boat at Shelley Beach and rowed it out to the other side of Fairy Bower. There were a lot of board riders out there! Anyway, we were out there for maybe an hour… probably an hour and a half, actually… just training, catching a few waves and angling the boat towards Queenscliff so that we came off the wave as it was breaking, and we were basically catching these corners of these huge waves. We used to row straight back out back towards Fairy Bower to pick up our wave point… our take off point. We hadn’t even made it back to Fairy Bower… we were sitting in some really deep water… and Shuttle said, “oh, hang on boys, I think there is a big wave coming.” He turned the boat around and he said, “Right-oh, lift it!” So, we started to row, and I think it was Chris Branson who said, “Oh, come on John, you’ve gotta be kidding, aren’t you?” And we all hesitated… and that was the mistake.
“As it washed over the gunwales Branson was washed out!”
Had we kept rowing, I don’t know what would have happened. We might have been killed. But we stopped rowing. We actually started to back-peddle – taking the boat back up the wave a bit. It
just peaked and caught us. And as it washed over the gunwales Branson was washed out. Bobby King was rowing bow and he was washed out as well. I was rowing three in those days, though I should have been in the bow seat, and I dived for the stroke’s stretcher (where he puts his feet) and hung on and looked up and Shuttle was trying to steer this boat. We reckon… well, the surf boat is around twenty-one feet long… we reckon there was water above and below the boat. We reckon that inside the curl it was about twenty odd feet. We just got pile-driven into the deep water. As it went down, I think it twisted. The boat split… it broke in two. I think the only reason why I made it back to the surface was because I was holding on to Dal’s stretcher and I got the nickname after that as the “stick-holder” (i.e. I was saved by holding on to the only bit of the boat that was left). We came to the surface and we were spread over maybe fifty yards. Branson was out to sea. Bobby King was out to sea. Dal? I don’t know where he was. John and I were fairly close to each other. And then John started to call out. He called out all the names to make sure that we were all up and able to breath. It was the foam! There must have been a foot or more of foam on top of the water! It was hard to get a breath. You would put your head up above the foam then disappear back under the foam again. Then the Manly boat crew came out and picked us up and towed the back half of the boat back into Shelley Beach and I reckon there was probably ten foot of the back of the boat left. That was all. There was nothing else left of the boat. I believe that, a week later, there were parts of the boat washed up at Long Reef. That’s the story!
We strapped the back of the boat onto the boat trailer and towed it back to the Surf Club… and the committee were not impressed. We were meant to be on the Spit training for the Australian titles and we had been out at Fairy Bower and we had written the “Cabbage Tree” off. It was a Climber build boat, the “Cabbage Tree I” (Climber was one of the best surf boat builders in surf boat competition) and we had written it off! I think the previous year this boat had come third place in the Australian titles so there were a few bad moments back at the club. The Committee held an enquiry and they cleared us of being stupid and reckless and damaging club property on purpose. The date was Sunday 22nd of March 1966!
The whole thing was televised. An ABC film crew had been on the headland at Fairy Bower and they produced a recording of it.
The boat crew was Bob King. Bob King was stroking. I was second stroke. Chris Branson was second bow. Dal Wilson was in the bow seat. John Windshuttle was our sweep. It was a bit of a combination of the A Crew and the B Crew mixed in together because a couple of the guys couldn’t make the Sunday training.
Me: This wasn’t one of the regular waves that was coming through on the day?
Trevor: Yes. This was a rogue wave. We had been catching waves in the ten to fifteen-foot mark, I suppose. That was fine. But this thing came out of nowhere. It was huge. It really was. As I said, the boat was standing on its nose in the curl of the wave so that wave had to be at least twenty-foot high, inside the curl! We were sucked over the falls!
Shuttle (John Windshuttle) was a bit of a hero in the eyes of his crew. We would do anything for him. His nickname was Boltar… who was one of the characters from the Price Valiant the Viking movie and cartoon. When we went to England in 1968, we gave him a beaten copper helmet with ram’s horns on it and he wore that in the back of the boat when we were doing demonstrations in Cornwall and Wales. It was an extraordinary sight. We went into Tintagel Beach in Cornwall and a fella with a broad Cornish accent come up and said “Eh… where you come from?” We said, “Australia, mate!” He said, “Eh… you rowed all the way?” We had Prince Phillip and Alexander Downer, who was the Australia High Commissioner at the time, presented to us. We had a wonderful time in my rowing history with Palm Beach from about 1965 to about 1971.
Windshuttle put Palm Beach on the map
Palm Beach had always been known as wimpy club members… there was never any surf at Palm Beach! We didn’t hold the S.L.S.A. (Surf Life Saving Association) in very high regard back in those days. Shuttle changed the culture of the club in the early and mid-sixties. Now Palm Beach has about seven boats and thirteen crews! So, in the years that followed his reign as the senior sweep Shuttle was a huge mentor to new guys who wanted to sweep. He did an enormous amount for a small section of the club (the rowers) and he put Palm Beach on the map! Palm Beach Surf Club is now one of the strongest boat rowing clubs in Australia. He wasn’t held in all that high regard by the management committee. These boats, at the time, were worth a huge amount of money and Shuttle didn’t win any friends when he lost one. The boat was a very valuable, ultra-light, performance boat built by Climber at his boat shed in Manly. We had some extraordinary times!
At was an extraordinary week-end. They were huge seas! I suppose in hindsight we were a little bit foolhardy to go out, but we had some terrific fun until the big wave came and then it was all over red rover.
Shuttle has now passed away. Chris Branson took his own life in 2004. He jumped off the cliff at Queenscliff Headland. He was a very highly respected Queen’s Counsel. He was way too intelligent to race surf boats with us. But after he left Palm Beach, he went on to win Australian titles with Warriewood and Freshwater again in the seventies. He was a real character. I miss him very much. Even today I miss him very much! He was a terrific guy.
Thanks, Trevor, for filling us in on the details of this extraordinary event and sharing a bit about your amazing crew mates!
Check out the ABC footage of Trevor and John’s big day out right here. The narration comes from Nat Young’s History of Surfing video. While John swears that this was not the wave that wrecked the surf boat (despite Nat Young’s commentary), and that this was really only one of the tiddler waves that they caught on the day, it still kind of sets the scene for what the Palm Beach boys were up against. Someone appears to have gotten their dates a bit confused too but who cares!