Sidney Robert Cooper (1937-2020) or as we surfers know him BOB COOPER, or, simply, Cooper…or even ‘Coops’….an icon of surfing lifestyle, the original beatnik, flamboyant and oozing style and cool, Cooper brought something to
Australia in the 1960s that was an invaluable contribution to our surfing history.
I first heard from Cooper around 2005 when I received an email from him which simply stated ‘I like your book and I don’t like surfing books.’ There was no ‘Hello Andrew’ and no sign off, but I knew it was the man, the ever mysterious Bob Cooper, and we became friends.
In my mind Cooper was a recluse and definitively avoided 'surfing media’ of all forms, in his purist beatnik heart he was old school and knew that talking about surfing was one step closer to ruining his dreams of empty beaches and the social outcast lifestyle he lived and breathed. In fact, it would be difficult to find a surfer more famous for his dedicated commercial-anarchy towards surfing 'the sport'….yet ironically, even despite his best efforts it was surfboard shaping which eventually led to the mainstay of his working life and boy did he make some fantastic surfboards…right up to the last breaths of his flamboyant
and ever-giving life.
On first talking to Cooper I had that sense of a caring father-like figure and he was that for many….obviously his growing brood of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren felt that and Cooper offered a sense of solace and comfort that are hard to put into words….both within parts of the surfing tribe, and beyond into general society, but moreso within his extended family network and his Christian nature of wanting to aid the less fortunate.
Cooper was part of the bloodline of surfers at Malibu in the 1950s and learnt his surfboard making trade off one of the best in the business, Dale Velzy (1927-2005) and later Rennie Yater (1932), the Santa Barbara pioneer of the ’spoon’ design.
Knowing my history, somewhat, I was fascinated with the motivation Cooper had to leave California way back in the late 1950s and, eventually, relocate to Australia. Turns out this was pretty simple;
Bob Cooper : 'Civilisation. People. You know they have their rights to property and privacy and to not have their sense of respectability disturbed by half clad people living in tents on beaches…stepping on the ambers of cooking fires that were buried in the sand and burning their feet, they would go to the cops or something. Pretty soon you get ordinances and things about where you can park what you can do. There is no free access to the beach in California anymore. There is a parking meter or a situation where you have to conform or you can park 6 blocks away and walk. When we went to the beach, you could drive from Malibu to say Palos Verdes and you could see the beach, now you can’t. You have to drive down through a gate, where you have to have an annual pass, there is a gatekeeper, and they have prongs where if you try and back out, your tyres blow out…all that stuff is really insulting if you never had to deal with that. Chemical toilets, regulators parking, regulated camp grounds…and here is this thing we used to utilise so freely and it meant freedom…now it is all gone over there. Totally gone. And you know, it is creeping in here, in Australia, too. It is an over usage situation. That’s why I came up to Noosa. To me, Noosa is the end of the road. This is where the surf effectively stopped and the road along the beach stopped. It’s the end of it. And I thought, well maybe it will last a little longer up here and you can take the ferry and go across to the island and get a little whiff of what it used to be like. Now they are expanding the freeway coming up this way and it feels like I am going to die at just about the right time!' (laughs)
Poetically it was Coopers motivation to draw a line in the sand and make his move. Arriving in Australia in 1963, Cooper was a novelty. HIs strong Californian accent and his connection to many of the greats in California, and his skill as a surfboard designer, afforded him an instant status as he mooched about the Sunshine Coast with crew like Hayden Kenny, Bob McTavish, Kevin Platt, Algie Grud, Russell Hughes, and the ‘other' American expat, the innovative George Greenough. Those early days on the Sunshine Coast put some serious bricks in the wall for Australian surfing history and Australia’s place in world surfing via our surfboard designs and approach to the waves… indeed it was these men that helped lay those foundations, big time.
Cooper returned to California and perhaps his most talked about surfboard design ’The Blue Machine’ (1967-68) was created under the Morey-Pope label in Santa Barbara. Cooper’s work gathered the interest of Michael Cundith
and Richie West, both of whom also relocated to Australia; Cundith establishing the ‘Wilderness Surfboards’ name in Angourie, Australia and eventually ’Sky Surfboards’(Byron Bay) and a lifetime of shaping top level surfboards. Richie West shaped some of the finest surfboards out of the Cooper Surfboards sheds in Coffs harbour. Cooper led the way. Paved the path. Many followed. By 1970 Bob Cooper was a permanent resident of Australia, living and working in Coffs Harbour; geographically well off the beaten track of surfing popularity, just as Cooper liked it.
Cooper was a beautiful surfer and while he won a comp or two, his passion was more in the lifestyle, much like his good friend Miki Dora. Cooper was well liked in Australia, I remember having lovely conversations with his friend Midget Farrelly (1944-2016) about the early days in Australia and there is no question the importance of Bob Cooper in Australia’s evolution with surfboard shaping and the lifestyle in general. Cooper’s beatnik attitude was infectious at the time.
More recently in our surfing culture there was a trend towards asymmetric surfboard designs, as made popular in the modern context by Ryan Burch and others. Talking to Peter Drouyn, who had ridden asymmetric short single fins
in competition in the 1970s I wanted to find out where his inspiration came from. Drouyn suggested it was Midget Farrelly. Talking to Midget, he suggested his inspiration was from Bob Cooper….where did that come from? Cooper said ‘Rennie Yater.’ These trends, even modern ones, usually have an ancient tale behind them and it is surfing’s duty to respect and admire our forefathers. I believe Joel Tudor says it well on his Instagram account (@joeljitsu) when he utters the words ‘love them while they are here, respect them when they are gone.’ Indeed. And while many of these greats have left us and the lineage to the past is now mostly written in books, films and magazines….let’s not forget Cooper’s first words to me ‘I like your book and I don’t like surfing books.’
Amen and thanks Cooper for your incredible input to our surfing way of life, our knowledge in Australia and the ripples of stoke you sent through our watery planet…..
*best wishes and condolences to his wife (Wils) and the extended Cooper tribe....
*Bob Cooper interviews are in the Switch-Foot books….and a more personal interview in the Acumen book.
*My favourite photo of Bob Cooper, taken by the late Russell Hughes...or course a SURFER would need to be operating a 35mm still camera to capture 'the moment' of ten toes over.