Commanding pro surfer and surf contest organizer/promoter from Perth, Western Australia; world-ranked #2 in 1976; founder of the Association of Surfing Professionals. "He's a strong-minded son of a bitch," fellow Australian and 1978 world champion Wayne Bartholomew once said of Cairns, "a brilliant politician, and an absolute monster in big surf."
Cairns was born (1952) in Kew, Victoria, the son of a mechanical engineer. He was raised in Melbourne and Sydney, and began surfing at age 12, a few months before moving with his family to Perth, where he soon earned a reputation for charging fearlessly into the powerful reef waves around Margaret River. Cairns won six Western Australia state titles, three in the juniors division (1967–69), three in men's (1970–72); in 1970 and 1972 he competed in the World Surfing Championships.
Cairns was Australia's most successful first-generation international pro surfer, and did especially well in Hawaii: he won the 1973 Smirnoff Pro and placed third in the Hang Ten American Pro; in 1974 he was runner-up in the Duke Kahanamoku Classic; in 1975 he won the Duke (held in 25-foot surf at Waimea Bay) and placed second in the Smirnoff.
Cairns was cofounder of the Australian Professional Surfing Association (APSA) in 1975, which consolidated the nascent Australian pro events into a domestic circuit; the following year he won the APSA tour and finished runner-up to fellow Aussie Peter Townend in the International Professional Surfers (IPS) circuit—the newly formed world tour created by Hawaiians Fred Hemmings and Randy Rarick, with input from Cairns and Townend. By the end of 1976, the two Australian surf champions had become cofounders and business partners in the Bronzed Aussies, a swaggering and often-ridiculed surfing promotions group best remembered for the matching black velvet jumpsuits Cairns and Townend wore to contest banquets.
Cairns was regarded, along with Hawaii's Barry Kanaiaupuni, as the era's premier power surfer. Riding from the tail of his board in a plain upright stance, the rangy and well-muscled Australian regularfooter (6' 2", 190 pounds) carved trenchlike turns at favorite breaks such as Sunset Beach and Haleiwa in Hawaii. "I've got such a powerful bottom turn it's berserk," the steely-eyed surfer once said. "It even surprises me sometimes."
He competed on the pro tour into the early '80s, never again finishing in the year-end top 10, but winning the 1977 World Cup, the 1978 Pro Class Trials, and the 1980 World Cup, all held in Hawaii. He meanwhile gained a reputation as an articulate and passionate supporter of professional surfing, contributing as much as anybody to the form's original structure, while sometimes alienating himself to rank-and-file surfers with quotes like "Competition is the essence of surfing." Cairns was also considered a turncoat by flag-waving Australians following his move to Huntington Beach, California, in 1979. Along with Peter Townend, who also moved to Huntington, Cairns further aligned himself with American surfing by signing on as the head coach for the National Scholastic Surfing Association, and helping the group's top surfers to victory in both the 1980 and 1984 World Amateur Surfing Championships.
Backed by California-based surfwear giant Ocean Pacific, Cairns led a successful revolt in 1982 to overthrow the IPS and replace it with the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP), with Cairns serving as executive director. Cairns and Ocean Pacific had one year earlier debuted the Op Pro, America's biggest and richest surf contest, in Huntington Beach. Cairns resigned from the ASP in 1986 and moved back to Western Australia after spectators rioted and looted during the final day of that year's Op Pro.
Cairns returned to Southern California in 1991 and again worked as a contest organizer, first as executive director of the Professional Surfing Association of America and of ASP North America, then as founder of the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington, and owner of U.S. Surfing. He also branched out into surf media (as executive producer of Surf the Planet, a 26-part Fox TV cable series), and as founding shareholder in Broadband Interactive Group (BIG) and sports promotions (as founder of Beach Games). Cairns became president of BIG in 2002, overseeing the Gotcha surfwear label, as well as the teen-oriented Bluetorch media company.
Cairns was inducted into the Western Australian Sporting Hall of Fame in 1985, the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame in 1993, and the Huntington Beach Walk of Fame in 2010. He appeared in more than two dozen surf movies, including Splashdown (1969), Fluid Drive (1974), Free Ride (1977), Wizards of the Water (1982), and Bustin' Down the Door (2008); he also worked as a stunt surfer for Gary Busey in Warner Brothers' 1978 surf epic Big Wednesday.
A surf coach as of 2012, Cairns also wrote a "Power Rankings" column for Surfline in 2010, dissecting the performances of the ASP's top performers.
Cairns has lived in Laguna Beach, California, since 1991. He's been married twice—the second time to Alisa Schwarzstein, a member of the Cairns-led NSSA National Team, and women's world amateur champion in 1980—and has four children.