In the late 1970s, Rob “Wedge” Francis helped his mates bucket water out of a disused pool in Pymble, Sydney, with an old rubbish bin.
After that, he said Australian skateboarding “went vertical”.
“We just kept throwing ourselves at it until we figured out the physical mechanics of throwing yourself up a wall,” he said.
More than 40 years since they were strapping sandpaper to their boards for grip, the skateboarding culture Wedge and his mates helped forge, has evolved into an Olympic sport.
But the heart and soul remains the same and these 60-something blokes still skate, albeit with a few injuries.
‘Everything else disappears’
Wedge said when he first started skating in 1975 it was a “craze” but yet to find itself in popular culture.
“We didn’t know what it was. It certainly wasn’t defined,” he said.
“Skate culture wasn’t even a word until 20, 30 years later.”
Without the skate parks or bowls commonly seen today, he said “if you wanted to skate it, you pretty much had to create it”.
“Everything else just disappears,” Wedge said.
“We skated on the street, the local service station, there was a spillway, then we found a roof of a toilet block.”
Taking inspiration from American skateboarding magazines, Wedge and his mates began to shift towards a more competitive, and dangerous, form of skating more commonly seen today.
Pymble pool sparks ‘brain explosion’
Matthew Thomas was at a skate contest in Sydney, featured in Youth Group’s music video for Forever Young, in the mid-1970s.
“They were all riding super flex [decks], and we were on wooden boards,” Mr Thomas said.
“It wasn’t skateboarding as we knew it.”
Mr Thomas said he then discovered Pymble pool which took days just to “figure out how to skate”.
“That was a brain explosion of the most profound order,” he said.
‘Almost unrideable’ pool drives evolution
Melbourne-based skater Chris Hatten said Pymble pool’s reputation grew, even if “by today’s standards, that pool is almost unrideable”.
“With five-foot of vert and three foot of transition, that means you need to go up to the top, your acceleration down is phenomenal and then you’ve got to change direction, 90 degrees, instantly,” Mr Hatten said.
Matthew Thomas said it pushed skaters to modify and develop new boards.
“You couldn’t buy anything. They were not in shops. I imported a board from America,” he said.
“We used to stick sandpaper on to the boards to give it grip.
“Wedge turned up with an incredible board where he scooped it out — I think he made the first concave board.”
Even with the innovation, Pymble pool proved too difficult and Mr Thomas said it “finished my skating career”.
“I did my spine. I ended up having spine surgery,” he said.
Competitions and camaraderie
More purpose-built skate bowls were built and competitions held, including the 1979 Australian championships won by Wedge.
“Maybe the top three of us that were vying to win the competition … I’d be coaching my mate so he could beat me,” Wedge said.
“Everyone looks after each other. There’s a whole bunch of unwritten rules. No one tends to snake each other.”
Wedge said he achieved the “dream job” and became a professional skateboarder but the broader culture took decades to develop.
Wedge now runs the Moss Foundation, a charity which will be auctioning art at the Gold Coast’s Mint Art House Saturday evening, to fund new water wells in Africa.
“The mix of art and skate, it’s a caring culture,” he said.
“As opposed to girls and women having to go to a muddy pond to find water for their family, we’re helping reduce disease but also empowering girls to go get an education.”
Catharsis and mateship
Mr Thomas said the separate skate cultures that emerged in Sydney and Melbourne 40 years ago helped shape today’s scene.
“Two cultures developing in exactly the same way,” he said.
“When you go to a bowl or a skate park, there’s a pecking order and there’s a respect and there’s a passing on — it’s never ending.”
Mr Hatten said after going their separate ways, he finally caught up with old skate mates like Wedge about 15 years ago and has remained close since.
“Catching up with all those guys again, was the most cathartic thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
“Their skate styles were the same as they were 30 years beforehand.”
Wedge said he was still as keen a skater but takes care.
“When you get to the big bowl and drop in, every time could be your last, especially when you’re in your 60s,” he said,
“I skate to stay on now. You’ve got to respect it.”
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