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The Story Behind the Surfing Pioneer Bill Bailey

Article kindly provided by Roger Mansfield

(sit and relax it’s a 10 minute read)

Bill Bailey was born in 1933, in the village of Inglesbatch in the north of Somerset, where he subsequently grew up. He first left the region as an adolescent of fourteen years to become a boy entrant of the Royal Air Force. This services career he pursued for the next thirteen years, sometimes embracing tropical postings like Ceylon (Sri Lanka) which enabled him to pursue his passion for water-sports, before his discharge as a trained engineer in the late 1950s. 

His departure from the RAF and his services interest and involvement in ‘search and rescue’ oriented him towards the embryonic surf life-saving club community in Newquay. Here he developed diverse friendships, but particularly with Doug Turner,and local boy Richard Trewhela.

By 1961, the technician-craftsman in Bill had led him to practically explore a growing interest in building life-saving support equipment. His first big experiment being the construction of a hollow wooden Australian-styled surf-ski for fellow club member Turner.

The success of this venture and Doug’s delight effectively penetrating the surf zone with this vehicle moved Bill and Richard to construct for themselves two 12ft. ‘Okanuis,  hollow wooden surfing boards, whose design had been detailed in the ‘Brown book’,  an Australian surf life-saving manual of the time.

Designing a Surf Craft

By Bill’s own statement, “This was a classic design based on Tom Blakes format, which ran from the 20s until the 60s making it one of the most enduring of surf craft designs we’ve had so far. Certainly, it was easy to use, paddling with such effect that it punched out through the whitewater without undue problem, catching waves easily and early, giving plenty of time to climb to ones feet. Great for cutting in a straight line, but seriously limited in any manoeuvrability, I can recognize now.”

Stories are told of one early occasion, when he and Richard took the double-ski out in monstrous surf conditions. Seated using paddles, swimming and pushing, they fought to get the heavy ski out beyond the biggest swells, that were ‘at least two men high’.

Ultimately they were sat outback at Fistral virtually level with the Bakers Folly, built out on the headland, with seventeen lines of waves separating them from the distant shore. 

They only caught one wave, whose face was large enough to contain the 14ft length of the ski as it drove an angle towards the bowl, and ultimately towards the beach, pushed by a seething mountain of whitewater.

Bill was also into motor cycles, and their maintenance and repair, which led to the need to develop fibreglass skills, in order to effect repairs to damaged plastic fairings. This was soon to prove a valuable insight!

The relevance of this to his beach life only became obvious in the summer of 1962, when Californian Doug McDonald came to Newquay and went surfing at Towan Beach. He rode a 9’6”  foam core surfboard shaped by Bill Bragg of California which was sheathed in a fibreglass skin and weighed only 22 lbs. 

Bill could instantly see his surfboard riding future. He extracted surfing tips from Doug the Yank, bought his surfboard and to clinch the deal, his yellow Ford van too! 

The Original Lifeguard Of Great Western

At this time Bill was employed as one of the earliest group of lifeguards on Newquay’s beaches periodically stationed during the summer tourist season on Great Western beach  He could often been found living in his yellow Ford van on the slope at the beach.

Bill’s only experience shaping had been from the alteration of a balsa surfboard. However, the skilled technician within him, had been able to adapt old skills to new techniques and newly sourced materials; so from a small in-town garage his first surfboard experiments emerged..

Bob Head, along with three other Australian water men, showed up in this same season and he started building his personal foam and fiberglass contribution to the surf equipment pool from a chicken-shed in Mawgan Porth.

By 1963 the existence of Bill as a human resource for building a surfboard was recognised by certain key individuals in the local community. He improved his own surfing ability immensely when he took off on a trip to Biaritz with the Australians. Here he learnt to ride bigger surf and enjoyed the adventure of a surfing life abroad. His limited travel budget required he sell his Bragg surfboard in order to fund his journey home.

The opportunity to dive into further experimentation with modern surfboard building was provided that winter by an order from the local council for six lightweight fibreglass rescue surfboards. They had constructively been persuaded by their own lifeguards to invest in more advanced life-saving equipment, to replace the out-dated Hicks rescue reels then being used on the towns beaches. 

With half of the money supplied as an advance, Bill was able to research and purchase the materials necessary. This included the resources to design and build a mould for the blowing of high-density polyurethane foam to produce half a blank for a surfboard. His success at this task was to prove an important ground-breaking achievement in the development of localised surfboard building in the immediate future.

By the arrival of the year 1964, the potential for the expansion of a purely sporting, rather than life-saving, involvement in surfboard riding was becoming apparent to Bill. By now he was  building Bill Bailey surfboards commercially, when he wasn’t at Great Western guarding mortal tourists from the power of the ocean. 

Ding Dong, as Bill was often called affectionately, had his little wooden lifeguard hut in a raised position on the slope above the beach. From the terrace in front of it he would survey the beach proceedings, puffing thoughtfully on his pipe. The exotic aroma of the tobacco, mixed with a whiff of the paraffin stove making the next cup of tea blended with a low stench arising from a bucket of wet, old T-shirts he used for surfing, to create the distinctive odour of Bills’ daily work station.

As the lifeguard of Great Western, he had become the center of a microcosmic surfing society on the beach slope, which, itself, was the main hub of identity for the embryonic surf community growing in Newquay town.

He surfed and was admired for his home-grown skill. He was warm and generous with information. He explained all about waves and surfboards and people learnt quickly from his counsel.

A Surf Tribe is Born

Bill often had occasion to talk to local young boys about the ocean, during which he was heard to state, “ You will know which wave to catch because the wave will talk to you.”

And in a wider context he would explain, “We might call our planet Earth, but never forget that it’s really two-thirds water.”

Here was a tribal philosophy starting to manifest itself in simple terms. A different perspective on a relationship with the ocean which would profoundly effect the lifestyles of the new up-and-coming generation of young surfers.

For the luckiest he would build a surfboard, but only if they had the right attitude and sufficient ocean swimming skill. He was, after all, a dedicated lifesaver and to provide a board for someone not ready for the experience he viewed as improper practice.

With the arrival of the 1965 season the concept of a European Surfing Company had been given operational form, with the aspiration to fulfil the expanding public need for access to surfing equipment. 

Bill and Bob had decided to build surfboards together under the name of BILBO

A partnership, between a British surfer and an Australian surfer to build surfboards, that would act as a template for future cultural and business collaborations between these two surf nations for decades to come.

Once the BILBO era had taken off, Bill was always at the Pargolla Road factory, at the heart of the production action; shaping boards, creating new plugs and moulds, engineering fitments, designing new surf equipment features. 

He thrived on the innovation and the productivity of this industrial scene, so far from his previous long summer days watching the ocean as a beach lifeguard.

His acquired discipline from his earlier life as an engineer in the RAF had instilled in him the philosophy, “There are no problems; only solutions waiting to be found,”

He applied this to the developing surfing industry with ardent vigour, creating a moulded fin and box system, superior foam blowing compilations and refined moulds for the process, organizing fibreglass cloth rolls specifically manufactured for the task, enabling the production of Britains first viable commercial, moulded-surfboard, introducing laminations in translucent colours, encouraging the refinement of wetsuit design for surfers needs and launching the production of Britains first commercial skateboard.

When hot local, junior surfer, Chris Jones appeared, fresh from the Newquay Grammar School, looking for a work opportunity he was channeled in the direction of the shaping bay. Bill meticulously apprenticed him to learn all the elementary and refined skills to become a shaper/surfboard builder.

Within a couple of years Chris had become a main production shaper and one of the most respected surfers in the country, at the same time.

It was a winning formula for Bill’s  number one apprentice, which ultimately proved to be his life-long working commitment.

He, also, enabled young, bellyboarder Roger Mansfield to become a surfer when he gave him borrowed access to use of a small paipo (5’ twin fin) board in1963. Bill watched over and advised this 11 year old, they all called ‘The Grem,’ as he grew in size and experience year by year; his parents soon buying him his first surfboard, a custom Bill Bailey at £27. Subsequently, he accessed free surfboard exchanges, as he became a Junior surfing champion and the youngest member of the newly created Bilbo Competition Team.

The sixties had been an intensive, creative decade for Bill. His own life had undergone many transitions including embracing the growth of a family life with two young sons.

With his departure from Bilbo at the end of the 60s, it marked the end of his commercial surfboard building, but not his fascination and technical development of the manufacture and use of  hard foams. 

For a while he took interesting but demanding work opportunities, repairing Canberra planes at RAF St Mawgan, shaft-sinking at Wheal Jane tin mine and repairing aircraft for the Sultan Kabous in Oman when it was a war zone, resulting in the loss of five work colleagues, when they were machine-gunned to death.

Ultimately, Bill left his family on their farmstead country home in Cornwall, when he had the opportunity to launch a new commercial project producing polyurethane foam on an industrial estate in the outskirts of Paris.

This lasted several years, after which he transferred to the island of Corsica for the next four, to develop a Polyurethane-Polyester factory developing new practical uses of these chemical materials.

If that seems like a lot of work, it was! 

Flush from the sale of some land in Paris, he and his wife Lil, were blown around the Mediterranean Sea, on their 45ft ketch, ‘Punch Coco’, for the next seven years.

They enjoyed a simple, self-sufficient life, living on-shore in Turkey for a considerable amount of that relaxing period.

In 1996, Bill’s father was ailing and his brother dying, so they returned to their country home in Cornwall to attend to family affairs and pursue a creative retirement as their grandchildren grew taller.

Bill Bailey is a gentle and fair man whose personal discovery of surfing allied to his passion and capability to solve technical problems placed him in a unique position to facilitate the growth of a new sport within a nation. 

He is a proud waterman, a skilled technician and a natural teacher, who befriended young talent and nurtured them to pursue their self chosen direction to become surfing champions, surfboard builders, foam blowers, surfing teachers and surfing’s men of words.

Undeniably, others did such things to0; but later and to a lesser consequence.

For these reasons he has become known, within the tribe, through the passage of the years as “the Father of British Surfing!”

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