Born in Freshwater, Sydney in 1933 Joe had been around the ocean all his life. Taught to body surf at a very early age by his father and an islander called Beau Sullivan, Joe graduated to surf boards at age nine when he was given a board by a Freshwater SLSC member who had been conscripted into the army and posted overseas. Joe recalled “It was this old solid wooden board and it took me and my mate half a day to drag it to the beach and half a day to drag it back”.
Apprenticed as a carpenter Joe started making his own 16ft hollow ply boards at age fifteen because he said “to buy one they cost about a pound ($2) a foot which was about three weeks wages at the time”. Regarded as one of the best surfers on the 16ft paddle boards in the early 1950s Joe was fortunate to be on the beach at Avalon in 1956 when the visiting American team staged a display of board riding on their 9/10 ft balsa boards. Joe said “It was as if someone had turned on the light and we realised what we had been missing. After we returned from the International carnival at Torquay I couldn’t make one quick enough”.
As balsa was unavailable at the time he commenced making hollow ply versions of the American boards under his parents house. “We called them Okanui boards, don’t ask me why, it’s a Hawaiian name but I’ve no idea what it means”. Later in the 50s he worked for both Gordon Woods and Barry Bennett, shaping both balsa and foam boards.
In 1958 American film maker Bud Browne introduced surf movies to Sydney audiences. This prompted Joe to trade an 8mm movie camera that he had purchased for his time in New Guinea on a 16mm Bolex and telephoto lens, making him a pioneer of surf film making in the country. Along with his mate Bob Evans they would shoot film, edit it on a little manual editing machine and show it in surf clubs with a recording of Wagners ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ blasting in the background and charge 2 shillings a head. Some of the footage was sold to the ABC and used in the documentary ‘Bombora’ 40 years later.
In 1962 Joe moved to Coolangatta and opened a factory in Miles Street Kirra leaving his movie equipment with Bob Evans who became famous for his surf movies and was founder of Surfing World magazine. Joe’s factory in Miles Street became the epicentre of surfing on the southern end of the coast in the 60s and 70s and the list of notable surfers who worked for and were mentored by Joe in that era reads like a who’s who of surfing.
In January of 1964 at the instigation of Bob Evans and the ASA, Joe along with 8 others formed the ASAQ with the sole purpose of holding a Queensland Championship to have state representatives at the Ampol sponsored World Titles in Sydney. Joe was elected Queensland team manager and was appointed as one of the judges for the contest.
After closing his business Joe moved to Cabarita and managed the Hastings Point caravan park for 20 years. On retirement he could be found in his workshed making those fabulous 10ft hollow ply Okanui boards which were unique to Australia.
A great supporter of Surf World Gold Coast since its inception, Joe was elected Patron and has served in that position since its opening.
In 2004 Joe was inducted into the Surfing Hall of Fame in two categories for his contribution to Surfing and in 2012 was inducted into the Board Manufacturers Hall of Fame (USA).
He will be sadly missed -- RIP Joe
These kind words are from Surf World Gold Coast