Bugs is the color of surfing.
As electric as the act of riding waves is, it would all seem dreadfully uncharged without a character like Wayne Bartholomew. Regardless of his hat -- from Kirra master to professional pioneer to wily competitor to promoter to environmentalist to head of the ASP -- he is vital to the sport.
Great surfers are born, but Rabbit was self-made. Matt Warshaw summed him up best in a Surfer's Journal profile with three words: struggle, achievement, style. This is as true for his approach into the vortex of a macking Pipe beast as it is for his life. He got the nickname "Rabbit" because he was a speedster on the soccer field -- in the penniless days when he had to scrounge for food.
He began surfing at Snapper Rocks, but the story starts when he moved to Kirra at age 13. Rabbit became synonymous with Kirra, and some (including Bug himself) argue that, thanks to his formative years at the famed Gold Coast pointbreak, no one in the world has logged more tube time than he has. By the early '70s, he was cleaning house on the Australian circuit, clashing with hometown rivals Peter Townend and Michael Peterson.
Rabbit burst onto the international scene in the winter of 1975. A few years earlier, he had made his first visit to Hawaii's North Shore, an annual pilgrimage he hasn't missed since. That winter, the status quo was rocked by the surfing of Shaun Tomson, Mark Richards, Ian Cairns, Townend, Rabbit and a few others. Hawaii was no longer the exclusive domain of locals; the crew had, in Rabbit's words, "busted down the door." Tuberiding was taken to new levels and was documented by Bill Delaney's Free Ride -- shot mainly from that season.
Professional surfing was still a dream in those days, but Rabbit had the vision and the personality to sell it. His tactics, confidence and flair made him a top-rate competitor for professionalism's first decade. He was crowned world champion in 1978, remained in the top five for seven consecutive years and came within a whisker of regaining the title in 1983. His image was David Bowie meets Muhammad Ali -- pure rock-and-roll flash -- and it gave the tour the drama it desperately lacks today. Rabbit was consummately professional, but he never let it get in the way of having fun.
Not knowing how to exit pro surfing with the grace that gave him one of history's most stylish kick-outs, he slid down the ratings until 1986, then spent a few years in limbo. By the mid-'90s, he had become surfing's global ambassador after running a series of classic events at Kirra and fighting to save our world's oceans. He has served as mentor for countless souls, including Gary Elkerton, Chappy Jennings, Sunny Garcia and his own adopted son, 1998 World Junior Champ Dean Morrison. And he continued to compete up to nearly the half-century mark, winning world titles in both ASP Masters (1999) and ASP Grand Masters (2003) divisions.
In 2008, a new film and book project called Bustin' Down the Door would revisit the Free Ride generation influence more than 30 years after Bugs and his cohorts invaded Hawaii. But perhaps his greatest gift to pro surfing went on behind the scenes, as he served as President of ASP International from 1999 through 2008. Under his direction, the WCT changed tacks from staging events in huge cities with questionable surf, to putting the world's best surfers in the world's best waves, effectively creating what's now known as the "Dream Tour." Proof that, as long as Rabbit's around, surfing will always look a little cooler.