Rodney burst onto the European scene from Avalon Beach near Sydney, a tanned teenager, with a white hot style. He’d had a starring role in Bruce Brown’s “Endless Summer”. He was the 1963 Australian Junior Champion who had also won the US Junior Championships at Huntington Beach in California and had surfed Hawaii’s North Shore on a promotional visit with the WindanSea Club.
Rod had already blitzed his way through top European competition in Jersey in 1965 and was now set to take mainland Britain by storm. British summertime water wasn’t much colder than the Pacific in winter – and Rodney was amazed by the number and variety of beaches the Old Country had to offer, whether it was in Cornwall, Devon, Wales, Scotland, or the North Sea. He simply mesmerised Britain with his total command of a surfboard.
Rod was born on 27th May 1947 near Watford, London but had emigrated with his parents to Australia when he was nearly five. He’d longed to see his birthplace and as a successful teenager, fresh from the USA, he checked out Britain’s potential. Although Rod returned fleetingly to Australia to visit his parents, he had made up his mind to adopt the UK. On 6th May 1966, he got on a plane at Sydney bound for Britain and Britain got her first true surfing professional.
“It was a big event when Rod arrived”, said Doug Wilson. “He was the best surfer we had ever seen. Because of his sporting reputation, he was put on a pedestal by local surfers. He came to our factory and put forward lots of ideas about board shapes and the latest techniques from the States and from Sydney. He was a major contributor to board improvement in Britain. He would ride for Bilbo, we would give him boards, promote him and pay him to shape signature models”.
This partnership helped both surfer and Company. It also gave birth to one of the strongest and most memorable images of a new-found personal and national pride in the sport. When Rodney joined the British team for the World Contest in the late sixties, he chose a huge Union flag to cover the deck of his board. It became his trademark, and everyone wanted the Flag on his Britannia signature model. “He was high spirited and had a lot of drive to promote his own abilities within the sport. Rod was so hot, he’d give exhibitions of surfing at Watergate and Tolcarne. His technique was quite phenomenal”.
“At the time”, said John Conway, “Rod was virtually Junior World Champion, having won in Australia and California. The first time I saw him surf made me rea1ise he was special. Before he arrived, Paul Kemnitzer from California was the guy all us kids wanted to copy – but Rodney was a completely packaged, professional surfer with nose-riding, sponsorship, the lot. Doug Wilson had been importing surf movies and Sumpter’s style was as good if not better than most of the Americans we saw on the silver screen because he was more aggressive”.
“Rod was pulling off snappy manoeuvres while the Americans were all flowing nicely. Even when Rodney first went onto a shortboard he was still better than anyone over here. Rodney had the right attitude. He had a belief that he could win anything and would go out in any surf, small or large, and treat it like a heat in a competition. Every wave would be ridden to the beach with lots of style and finesse. Other guys would say the surf was crappy and wouldn’t bother but Rod would be out there”.
Such professionalism steamrollered lesser athletes when the competition heat sheets were posted. If you happened to draw The Man in an early round, your hopes at a shot at the final were pretty much over before they began.
“Sumpter was already high up in the competitive stakes”, said Chris Jones, “and he brought new ideas about boards into town. Everybody used to have these reverse fins on their boards which were made out of wood and looked like big dinner plates. He brought in the idea of the Sumpter cut-away skeg which was more like a dolphin’s fin and surfed wonderfully”.
Rod linked his sport with cine-photography, recording the first film images of British surfing to show at local halls all over Europe. Those early efforts with girlfriend Simonne Renvoize included “With Surfing In Mind” and “Come Surf With Me”, They contained classic images of those early, empty summer waves, coupling them in a double bill with top-notch American and Australian surf movies like “A Life in the Sun” and “Evolution”.
‘Gopher’ was so good, the European Surfing Company went on a promotional tour to Biarritz in the autumn of 1965, along with Doug, Bob Head and another Aussie surfer called Dennis White.
“Once he got on that board, he was marvellous, in a class of his own. He was both fluid and aggressive at the same time, with a smooth, elegant, functional style which seemed right for every kind of surf. You would never see that sort of riding now because thrusters dictate a different style. Rodney was so hot, people would come from all over to watch when he was in competition. He was simply outstanding, world class. A lot of people tried to copy him – but there was only one Rodney”, said Doug. Rodney certainly had it all. He could walk the board with sure and certain moves, produce a cat -like arch in fast, steep sections of the wave, effortlessly trim for maximum speed, head-dip and tuck into tubing sections without getting his hair wet and then pull-out with a swift and graceful sweep.
Impact on the game
The impact of Sumpter as that integrated professional lasted throughout the sixties and well into the seventies. He competed for Britain at the San Diego world contest in 1966 (when he came fifth, beating top Aussie Midget Farrelly); at Puerto Rico in 1968, both as part of the Irish team and as an independent surfer; and for Britain again at the Bells-Joanna event in 1970. In every contest, he drew praise and respect.
Rod took the switch to shortboards in his stride and beat younger surfers on the new equipment for some years after surfings ‘Big Bang’ of 1968, when board lengths dropped dramatically. The Man still showed the surfing world what it meant to be that determined professional who heard a different drummer.
He would spend some years away from the sport in the 1970’s and 80’s. But Rod made a remarkable comeback in his forties to qualify for the amateur British team in the longboard event for the world contest in Japan in 1990. Fittingly, his old friend and former world champion, Nat Young, started his second rise to fame at the same time during what became a longboard revival which continues to this day. Although Rodney was disappointed with his Japanese performance, coming 7th overall and just missing out on the final, his dedication and effort to return to mainstream competition stood as a fine example in a sport which demands persistence and grit.
These days, Rod runs the telephone surf report service SurfCall with daily reports for all regions of the UK. He is also busy shaping his classic Britannia Model surfboards in Newquay.