Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew is an Australian surfer who lit up Hawaii’s North Shore in the mid 70s with style and attitude. His exploits were recently featured in the film “Bustin’ Down The Door.” We spoke with Rabbit to learn more.
What was your life like growing up?
I had a great childhood. We built treehouses in the bush, played rugby league (football) and cricket, went bodysurfing and skimboard riding. Then I discovered surfboard riding and that was it.
Where did the name “Rabbit” come from?
There were lots of pinball parlors in Coolangatta when I was a kid. I had mastered the art of playing two machines at once. However, it required a hopping action so as not to lose control of either machine. Between that and the slightly outsized front teeth, a guy called Rodney Goober Barnes turned around one day and said, “You’re a rabbit”. And that was it.
When did you get your first surfboard?
My first surfboard was delivered to me by the Deane brothers—Wayne and Robye. They had cut a mal down to 6’8″. The year was 1967, so it was a bit revolutionary—one of the first cutdowns that properly ushered in the shortboard revolution in our part of the world. A friend of mine from high school was convinced it was a kneeboard, and used to try and beat me home from school and steal it out of my shed. He was a lot bigger then I was. I paid that board off at $1 a week for 40 weeks.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
Phenomenal. There was a bit of a story behind it. Twelve months earlier, I had been given my first go on a surfboard at Greenmount Beach. A kid named Kerry Gill had this hot shortboard—it was 8’6″—and I carried it to the beach for him right through the summer holidays. On the last day of the holidays, he offered me a go. Kerry paddled the board out the back, I swam out, he then handed the board over and he bodysurfed in. I was alone, out behind the breakers, in the blue water sitting on this majestic surfboard. Then a four foot set rolled down the point. A guy came bodysurfing toward my position. I tried to swing the board out of the way, and he surfed right into the nose of the board, opening up a huge gash on his forehead. I apologized. He cussed me out. I swam to the beach and retired from surfing.
I rode the swing featured in the movie Free Ride for a year. Then it was arranged for me to start surfing one Saturday morning. My turn came at Snapper Rocks. I caught a wave and rode the board properly. All that training and simulating on the swing served me well; I could turn and ride on the green face straight away.
Who did you look up to and admire when you were a young man?
My big heroes were Nat Young, Midget Farrelly and Peter Drouyn. I also admired Reno Abellera and Dora. However, Drouyn was probably “The Man” because I saw him surf Kirra regularly and he was a master stylist. Nat was my power hero. I also had local heroes in Harry Hacka Allen, Snake Sims and Graeme Black.
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out and why?
The North Shore of Oahu will always stand out; I had so many life-changing experiences there. I was most challenged in the waves at Sunset and Pipeline, and over many winters I have so many amazing memories. The other place is probably J-Bay; it’s just a real special place to surf and visit. The early days at Hossegor were very special—big, empty barrels and perfect September days.
Who/what inspires you?
Lots of things inspire me. The people who inspire me are my Free Ride generation friends, in particular Shaun Tomson, Mark Richards and Peter Townend. Past and present political figures have inspired me, including JFK, Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. Tom Watson and Greg Norman inspire me with their talent way into their 50’s. Ali inspired me for promoting his sport, elevating his image and being courageous out of the ring.
Kelly Slater and Andy Irons inspire me, as do the Cooley kids (Joel, Mick and Deano). Peter Garrett inspires me with his courage. Bono and Eddie Vedder inspire me to keep the faith. Guy Ormerod inspires me by being a role model. Ian Wright and the crew at GreenCell inspire me to make a difference. Dave Rastovich and Paul Watson inspire me to fight for one’s beliefs.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
I think it’s the sum of the parts—all my combined experiences, the setbacks and achievements. No one thing stands out, but perhaps it’s to really appreciate life and those closest to me.
Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
It’s impossible to not have any regrets. The big ones usually are of a personal nature, taking a course of action that I could have used with some better judgment. But one cannot look back and dwell on things; just keep looking forward and hopefully learn from mistakes.
What are you most proud of?
Definitely having a couple kids. I waited quite awhile. I suppose there was a better than even chance of not having children, but it happened and I’m quite proud of that.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
Surfing is the star around which my life revolves. For me, all roads lead to the surf; I feel most comfortable near or on the coast. I think surfing has given me a better appreciation for all things. I most definitely respect the environment, particularly the ocean and foreshore, and I think it smoothed out some of the rough patches in my character.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
Just being with my kids, watching them grow up, sharing adventures with them, watching them play sport—even just thinking about them makes me happy.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
Mick Fanning has stepped up as a representative of pro surfers, so he is leading in and out of the water. Kelly still has an enormous influence. At heart, I think he is driven to make it a better world for surfers and surfing. Young guys like Dane Reynolds are Jordy Smith are people that a whole generation aspires to be like. I think Julian Wilson, Owen Wright, Dusty Payne, John John Florence, Torrey Meister, Stephanie Gilmore, Carissa Moore and Coco Ho are among a group that will take surfing into the future.
What is your favorite board? Your favorite surf spot?
My favourite board is a 6’3” Darren Handley Design. It goes really well at Snapper Rocks—super free yet positive in the hollow section.
I have two right now: choo chee chicken (a spicy Thai dish) and salmon toro bowl (a tasty Japanese lunch plate).
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
I just listen to all kinds of music—today Pearl Jam and U2.
What causes/organizations do you support?
I support Surfrider Foundation and SurfAid International. I am also part of a surfing charity group called SAND Sippas (Surfers Against Nature’s Destruction), and KPI (Kirra Point Inc.), a group dedicated to bringing Kirra back to its former greatness. I am a member and past President of Snapper Rocks Surfriders Club and Patron of NSR (National Surfing Reserves) in Australia.
What are you most grateful for?
I am grateful for the support of my family, for having so many wonderful friends around the world, for the freedom to follow my pursuit and, most of all, for the life I am having. I am grateful for the empty waves at Kirra when I was growing up and for those epic days at Sunset and Pipe and V-Land in the 70’s and 80’s.
What’s next for Rabbit?
Now that I have moved on from ASP, it closes one chapter and opens the next. I am involved with an environmental entity that is developing a bio-reactor, cultivating algae, developing alternate waste disposal systems, low emission lights, eco-friendly bacteria for use on farms and to deal with pollution in dams—just a whole range of applications and products for the coming age. I am co-raising my children and still surfing when I can. In fact, I can right now.
Vintage photography of Rabbit Bartholomew by Art Brewer.