Smooth, tightly drawn regularfoot surfer from Sydney, Australia; winner of the 1964 World Surfing Championships, and runner-up in 1968 and 1970; long regarded as the brilliant but bitter patriarch of modern Australian surfing.
Bernard Farrelly was born (1944) in Sydney, the son of a taxi driver, and spent the first nine years of his life living in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. He began surfing at age six, on an 18-foot hollow plywood paddleboard, and from 1962 to 1970 he was arguably the best competitive surfer in the world. He won the 1962 Makaha International, then regarded as the unofficial world championship, and upon his return to Australia the 18-year-old Farrelly became a nationwide sports hero; he responded by dyeing his white-blond hair black in order to regain a measure of anonymity.
The diminutive Farrelly (5' 8", 145 pounds; "Midget" was a no-brainer) rode in a bowlegged stance, and as Australia's Surfing Life magazine would later describe it, was already possessed of "superhuman elegance." He was predictable from one move to the next, but so refined and graceful that his performances never seemed rote. After winning the Australian National Titles in 1964, Farrelly went on to take the inaugural World Championships, held in small but shapely waves at Sydney's Manly Beach. Farrelly later discredited his performance, saying he "just felt sick of it all," and that he "more or less took it easy and was probably a little lazy."
Farrelly was by then more comfortable with his role as a surfing leader. He'd been instrumental in the formation of the Australian Surfriders Association, and in 1964 helped launch the International Surfing Federation, to oversee subsequent World Championship events. "Surfing with Midget Farrelly," his Sydney Morning-Herald column, was reprinted in newspapers across the country, and he was featured in a national ad campaign for Philishave electric razors.
Farrelly repeated as national champion in 1965, but failed to make the finals in the 1965 World Championships, held in Peru, and watched from the beach as his 17-year-old protégé Nat Young, also from Sydney, finished runner-up. Young went on to win both the national and world titles in 1966; Farrelly—regarded by many in the Australian surf media, and probably by Young as well, as yesterday's news— was generally made unwelcome in what was being billed as the "New Era."
While the exact origins of the Farrelly-Young feud are unclear, and the details of its escalation are all but forgotten, by 1967 the onetime friends had cultivated a near hatred for each other, with Farrelly eventually calling Young a "brazen, conniving, ruthless megalomaniac," and Young describing Farrelly as "a whinging Pom." Farrelly had cause for grievance as he placed ahead of Young in both the 1968 and 1970 World Championships (and won the 1970 Gunston 500 in South Africa) but was nonetheless viewed as Australia's champion of the past. Furthermore, his significant contribution to late-'60s surfboard design was almost completely overshadowed by the work of Bob McTavish, the Australian designer who, along with Young and Californian George Greenough, is generally credited with inventing the short surfboard. Farrelly Surfboards was founded in 1965 in Palm Beach, and the following year saw the release of the lightweight, easy-turning Midget Farrelly Stringerless model (sold in America by Gordon and Smith Surfboards); Farrelly continued over the next few years to produce some of the sport's most progressive boards.
Farrelly meanwhile seemed to go out of his way to present himself as the grim outsider: the epigraph to This Surfing Life, his 1965 book, reads, "When you're comfortable, you're dead." In 1969 he put himself in a tiny minority within surfing by speaking out publicly against drug use. While Farrelly stayed active in the sport—in 1972 he founded the Sydney-based Surfblanks manufacturing company, an ongoing business—he seemed to do so in a bubble. By the early '90s, he was convinced that the late-'60s surfing era was nothing less than "the beginning of the end of sanity" as well as "a waste of time," and that Nat Young and a compliant surf media had "thrown vinegar" into what had been a pure sport.
Farrelly appeared in more than a dozen surf movies including Cavalcade of Surf (1962), Midget Goes Hawaiian (1963), The Young Wave Hunters (1964), To Ride a White Horse (1968), and Pacific Vibrations (1970). He was Australia's top vote-getter in International Surfing Magazine's 1966 Hall of Fame Awards. The Midget Farrelly Surf Show, a 10-part series made by ABC in Australia, aired in 1967; How to Surf, his second book, was published in 1968.
Farrelly was inducted, along with Nat Young, into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame in 1986; in 2007 he was inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach. Making a rare venture into surf society in 1999, Farrelly agreed to participate in a novelty contest featuring the five surviving finalists from the 1964 World Championships. He placed first.
Farrelly died in 2016, age 71, of stomach cancer.