Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bill Bailey (1933-2009)

[ From: "Bill Bailey - Expert board builder known as the 'father' of British surfing" Obituary By Roger Mansfield, GUARDIAN, May 11, 2009 ]

Bill Bailey, who has died aged 75, played a crucial role in the development of British surfing. As a lifeguard at Newquay in Cornwall in the early 1960s, he became a pioneer surfer and expert in surfboard building, setting up the first surf company in Britain. A natural teacher, he encouraged people to follow their sporting dreams; many who congregated around his lifeguard's hut or bought his boards in those early days went on to become champion surfers, teachers, writers and surfboard builders. Bill was known by many as "the father of British surfing".

He lived in Inglesbatch, Somerset, until he joined the Royal Air Force aged 14, where he trained as an engineer and enjoyed some tropical postings, during which he developed his passion for watersports. When he left the RAF in the late 1950s, his involvement in search-and-rescue operations and love of the sea attracted him to the embryonic surf life-saving club in Newquay, where the local council had taken on several full-time lifeguards to cope with the increasing numbers of tourists on the town's beaches.

Bailey began building life-saving equipment and his first big project, in 1961, was an Australian-style hollow wooden surf-ski, designed for two lifeguards to use with paddles. He tested it, with a local life-saver, Richard Trewhela, in waves "more than two men high". They only caught one wave - but it was big enough to dwarf the 14ft-long ski as it drove an angle towards the wave-bowl, and ultimately towards the beach, pushed by a seething mountain of whitewater.

They next constructed two hollow, wooden 12ft surfboards, ostensibly for life-saving purposes, but which also allowed the first experiments in standing while riding waves. In 1962 Bailey saw the future when a visiting Californian brought a foam-and-fibreglass surfboard to Newquay. He bought it and learned to ride it, making him one of the first native surfers in Britain. In 1964 he started building boards himself from a small garage, and in 1965 he went into partnership to set up the European Surfing Company, designed to meet the demand caused by the fast-rising popularity of the sport.

The company's Bilbo surfboard brand quickly took off, and from then on Bailey would be found at the Newquay factory, shaping boards, blowing foam and designing new surf equipment. His former career as an RAF engineer had instilled in him the philosophy: "There are no problems, only solutions waiting to be found." He applied this to the developing surfing industry with fervour. He manufactured high-density polyurethane foam, created detachable fin systems and produced the first moulded surfboards; the company also marketed the first surfing wetsuits and skateboards in the UK.

In those days, Bilbo was the biggest surfing name in Britain, and also supplied boards for many of the earliest surfers in France and Ireland. At the end of the 1960s, during which he and his wife Lil had two sons, Bailey changed direction in search of new technical challenges, leaving Britain's beaches with thousands of surfers, where once there had been just a handful.

He worked for a time repairing Canberra jet bombers at RAF St Mawgan, near Newquay, and sinking shafts at Wheal Jane tin mine, near Redruth, before moving to France where he set up a factory producing polyurethane foam. Bailey and his wife then spent a long period cruising the Mediterranean on his ketch, Punch Coco. In later years they returned to live on their Cornish country property, with four generations of the Bailey clan close by. Here, Bill enjoyed the simplicity of rural life, with his workshop on site. His hobby, as a skilled gunsmith, was building hand-crafted guns and bullets.

In the last year, flush with exhilaration from an extended road trip down the west coast of north America, he succumbed to a second manifestation of cancer, this time in the liver. His response was to put his affairs in order before "the next great adventure", as he called the approach of death.

He is survived by Lil, his sons Jason and Nick and his 98-year-old father George.

• Bill (John Michael) Bailey, surfer and entrepreneur, born 27 September 1933; died 28 April 2009

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