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McTavish, Bob


Cheerful Australian surfer and surfboard designer; inventor of the vee-bottom surfboard, and a key figure in the 1967-launched shortboard revolution. McTavish was born (1944) in Mackay, Queensland, the son of an accountant, and began surfing on a 16-foot plywood paddleboard at age 12, not long after moving with his family to the south Queensland city of Brisbane. At 15 he dropped out of high school, and two years later he moved to Sydney and began shaping boards; he eventually worked for most of the major Sydney-based board manufacturers of the period, including Larkin Surfboards, Dillon Surfboards, and Keyo Surfboards.

Although McTavish later became one of the first surfers to renounce competition, he was Queensland state champion in 1964, 1965, and 1966; finished third in the Australian National Titles in 1965 (behind national surf heroes Midget Farrelly and Nat Young); and was runner-up to Young in the 1966 Nationals. Small and barrel-chested (5'5", 140 pounds), McTavish was a fast, dynamic, arrhythmic surfer, keeping board and body in motion at all times. "Because there's so much going through his mind," former Queensland champion Russell Hughes said, "the guy is never still on his board."

McTavish and Young, along with California-born kneeboarder-designer George Greenough, had formed the core of the "involvement" school of surfing by mid-1966, and were all looking to ride more actively in and around the curl. As the garrulous McTavish explained, the idea was to "use the power part of the wave, [and] to maneuver really fast without any loss of speed." The average 9'6", 25-pound board, McTavish knew, was far too bulky to allow this kind of riding. What Greenough was doing on his low-volume kneeboard—that was how McTavish wanted to ride, but standing up.

In the fall of 1966 he helped Young design Magic Sam, the thinner, lighter longboard Young used to win that year's World Championships; in early 1967 McTavish began working on a  new easy-turning bottom design, and in March he produced the first vee-bottom—a fat-tailed nine-footer with a deep vee-shaped keel through the back third of the board—that he nicknamed the Plastic Machine. He built a series of vee-bottoms over the next seven months, each getting progressively smaller and lighter, dropping all the way down to 7'6" and 14 pounds.

McTavish flew to Hawaii in December to compete in the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational, held at Sunset Beach. For the bigger Hawaiian surf, he'd made himself a nine-foot vee-bottom; riding it for the first time during his opening Duke match in 12-foot surf, McTavish showed flashes of brilliance, but also wiped out often, didn't advance, and was laughed at by old guard North Shore crew. McTavish and Young then rode their vee-bottoms to great effect a few days later in eight-foot surf at Maui's Honolulu Bay, and footage of their rides was used in the final sequence of Paul Witzig's The Hot Generation, an Australian-made surf movie that introduced the surfing world to the high-performance possibilities of the shortboard. McTavish did some more design work the following year (much of it for California's Morey-Pope Surfboards), but short surfboard development over the next few years was for the most part done by Americans, particularly Dick Brewer of Hawaii.

In the early '70s, McTavish got married for a second time, became a Jehovah's Witness, moved with his new family to the north coast of New South Wales (he eventually had five children), and had little to do with the surf industry. In 1977, once again ahead of his time, he began writing articles for surf magazines extolling the virtues of both the longboard and the midrange board.

McTavish returned to the surf design vanguard in 1989 by introducing Pro Circuit Boards—molded-plastic replicas of the boards used to top pro surfers. The business failed, but molded boards would catch on toward the end of the following decade, by which time McTavish had created a line of best-selling longboards; his boards were eventually licensed and distrubted worldwide by SurfTech and Global Surf Industries. 

McTavish appeared in about 10 surf movies in the '60s and early '70s, including The Young Wave Hunters (1964), The Hot Generation (1968), Fantastic Plastic Machine (1969), and The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun (1970).

Australia's Surfing Life magazine selected him as the "Most Influential Shaper of All Time" in 1992; four years later he was inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame, where the still-nimble 51-year-old disarmingly spoke of himself during the awards ceremony as "just an old toymaker." 

Bob McTavish: Stoked!, an autobigraphy, was published in 2009; the sequel, More Stoked!, came out in 2013