Riding giants: The young surfers who turned a dream into a billion-dollar industry

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In 1975, when a gang of young pretenders challenged local tradition in Hawaii, the stage was set for surf war. Now an acclaimed film tells how this bitter conflict gave rise to a modern sport and a billion-dollar business

Tucked behind the sprawling pineapple plantations and lush sugar-cane fields of Oahu island, the North Shore – a seven-mile strip of golden sand – has for centuries been considered the sacred heart of Hawaii's surfing scene. Ever since the Polynesians landed here as early as AD300, the locals have trudged their boards down to these beaches, drawn by the spectacular coastline and the legendary waves.

But by the winter of 1976, this laid-back stretch had been transformed into the site of a bloody conflict between native islanders and a throng of rowdy newcomers – who had travelled thousands of miles from Australia and South Africa, and who were thirsty for this coast's unparalleled swell. The story of their noisy arrival in Hawaii, and the bitter feud that ensued, is nothing less than the story of modern surfing's coming of age – and it is told in an award-winning new documentary, entitled Bustin' Down the Door.

Narrated by the actor Edward Norton, Bustin' Down the Door recounts a dramatic chain of events centred around four men who were to upset Hawaiian surfing's ancient status quo: the Australians Pete Townend, Wayne "Rabbit" Bartholomew and Mark Richards and the South African Shaun Tomson. "They were part of a crew who put it all on the line to create a sport, a culture and an industry that's today worth tens of billions of dollars," explains Norton. Yet it was no easy ride – several of the pioneers at the centre of this story only just survived to tell the tale, and by the winter of 1977, two of the key players had been forced into hiding, bruised and battered, with a bounty on their heads.

It all began in the winter of 1974, with "Rabbit" Bartholomew's arrival in Oahu. A cocky small-town boy from the Gold Coast, armed with a huge helping of self-belief and a dream of conquering the world's biggest waves, Bartholomew hit the Hawaiian scene like a storm. While the local boys chose their waves carefully, avoiding the perilous 30ft pipelines that emerge from the sea here like great rolling mountains, Rabbit – who soon joined forces with Shaun Tomson, newly arrived from South Africa – was in the water from dawn to dusk, actively seeking out the meanest swells in his bid to become the self-crowned King of the North Shore.

For the traditionalist islanders, riding was a spiritual practice, an intimate ritual of bonding with the elements. But for Rabbit and the surfers who followed him, it was more than that. On the one hand, there was the sense of freedom that first drew them to the ocean – a sensation described by Tomson's cousin Michael, another South African who had made his way to the Pacific: "When you get into a deep barrel, it certainly feels like time is expanding, like life has slowed down. I felt that I could curve that wall to my will. It's a magical, magical moment."

But something else inside these men had risen to the surface: a need to conquer the planet's most extreme surf, to become the biggest and the best, and to make their mark on the history of their cherished sport. Each was prepared to risk everything to grab the attentions of the crowds who'd started to gather on the sand, enthralled by the new scene. As one of the local riders from the time recalls: "These boys had a very different approach to us: Whatever's moving, just rip it to shreds."

At first, the Hawaiians were happy to welcome the new arrivals, to share one of the few aspects of their cultural heritage left in tact since the American invasion of 1898. But the incomers' antics – in and out of the water – grew increasingly provocative, and local patience began to wear thin. "These guys drove a wedge right into surf culture," one observer explains. "They did it with machismo and a complete disregard for their own health and safety. They just threw themselves over the brink of the biggest waves, because they had nothing to lose." More to the point, as far as they were concerned, they had everything to gain.

Surfing may have begun as a means of escape from childhood poverty, but for "Rabbit" Bartholomew, it soon became his whole life. "I knew this would be the thing to take me to the top," he recalls. "I even knew I would be a world champion, though no such thing existed at the time." In order to make that dream possible, Rabbit and his friend Shaun Tomson agreed to sack off any ideas of returning to a normal nine-to-five. They made a pact to spend their lives in the water, making such a noise that the world's media would have no choice but to pay attention.

Rabbit, Shaun and the boys understood that with their good looks and devil-may-care attitude, they represented something that the kids might want a piece of. All they had to do was to hone their image, make the right steps, and fame and fortune would be in their grasp. And within a year of arriving in Hawaii, their plan was beginning to take shape.

In the summer of 1975, after much begging, Rabbit, Shaun and another Aussie by the name of Mark Richards managed to bag a rare invitation to audition for a place in Hawaii's Smirnoff Pro. One of the few organised competitions at the time, it was the Holy Grail for ambitious surfers. Here, there'd be photographers and journalists from the many niche magazines which had popped up. It took several pleading letters to the competition's organiser, local surfing legend Eddie Aikau, to earn their spot. But once in, the newcomers proved worthy competitors. In fact, they cleaned up. "In 1974, we couldn't get into most events," says Rabbit. "In 1975, we won everything." Finally, the media began to take notice.

When they returned victorious to their homeland for the winter, the Aussies were met with a hero's welcome. There, their waggish charm and care-free lifestyle had captured the imagination of a new generation. The American-born nine-times world champion Kelly Slater, who was just a toddler at the time, explains their appeal: "These guys were it: they'd developed modern-day tube riding. They were unbelievable."

But before long, as he now admits, Rabbit's generous self-belief grew to dangerous proportions: "In one go, we got all the contests, magazine covers, the centre spreads." In 1976, riding high on this new-found fame, he wrote an article for California's Surfer magazine on what it was like to conquer the Hawaiian scene. Rabbit took the opportunity to defend his side of the growing divide between the radical movement to which he belonged and the traditional riders of the North Shore, who had come to resent the intruders' very vocal presence on their turf. Full of bravado and charged with adrenaline, Rabbit's piece was laced with provocative comments – including the claim that any development in the sport was down to him and his comrades. Soon news of his boasting reached Hawaii – and there a number of aggrieved surfers prepared for his return.

When he arrived back on the island the next year, Rabbit headed straight to the North Shore. But just as he started to ride the waves he'd dreamed of all winter, he recalls, the water began to clear. Minutes later, he looked across to the beach where his gaze was met by a terrifying sight: a line of men as far as his eye could see in black shorts, blocking the shore. Finally, from either side, four guys started to paddle towards him.

The vicious beating Rabbit received in the water that day was just the start of a violent spate of attacks. Having barely regained consciousness and with several teeth missing, he returned to the small room in which he was staying, to be told by the friend who was putting him up that if he continued to stay there, his home would be burned down. With nowhere to turn, he was forced to shelter for weeks in the bushes – until he and fellow Aussie Pete Townend (who both by now had contracts issued against their lives) finally managed to rent a small apartment inland.

"It was like the Wild West," observes Bernie Baker, a local journalist who himself received several violent threats just for writing about the conflict. Shaun Tomson, too, was attacked every time he went to the beach: "I got cold-cocked [knocked out] in three separate incidents," he recalls. "I was told I was going to be killed. I went into town, I got a shotgun, stuck some shells in it, and slept with it by my bed."

Rabbit, meanwhile, was public enemy number one: "It was a weird thing: my dream of pro-surfing was being formed at that moment, and here I was with no future." But then, after several months in hiding, there was a knock on his door. Eddie Aikau, the local surfing legend, was standing before him. Eddie told him: "There are men with knives and guns who want to kill you. This has gone too far," Rabbit recalls. Aikau told them to wait until he came back for them.

Three days later, he returned and escorted the boys to a conference room in a hotel, where the self-appointed mediator had called for a "trial" to take place. When they got there, the petrified duo were faced with 150 angry men. After being given the chance to put their side of the story to this unofficial court, Rabbit and Townend were told that their "colonial attitude" had deeply offended the "Aloha culture of this land".

After hours of deliberation, the verdict was announced. You can enter the surf meets, the boys were told, and you can come back to the North Shore. We'll do our best to protect you, but there can be no guarantees.

It was, in fact, several months before Rabbit dared return to the North Shore. The following year, in 1978, he finally won the world title he believed he was born to hold – but it took some serious consideration to get to that point. "My life had changed irreversibly. The 'Rabbit' Bartholomew from the winter of 1975 was finished. My choice was either to flee or to risk death, but I knew I couldn't run. I told myself: this is my dream. If you run now, you will have popped your own dream."

'Rabbit' Bartholomew, Pete Townend, Mark Richards and Shaun Tomson all still work in the billion-dollar surfing industry they helped to create.

'Bustin' Down the Door' opens at selected cinemas from 4 September

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