Pottz is the man who brought cool to surfing
Words: Derek Rielly
Photos: Richard Freeman
He was a boy. Fifteen. And, over two events in the year of Reagan and De Lorean, he blew a generation back into the seventies. At the 1981 Guston 500, riding a green 5'5" Spider Murphy twin-fin with an outline of The Saint painted on the deck because his mother thought he looked like Roger Moore, Martin Potter benched Derek Hynd, Mike Savage, Shaun Tomson and Dane Kealoha.
"Can you imagine the best Dane (Kealoha) surfing you'd ever seen and the best surfing of Cheyne (Horan)? Then, all of a sudden, there's a kid combining the two?" says Derek Hynd. "I remember paddling out after desperately waging a hustling war on this little kid and paddling out in the lead with 30 seconds to go, knowing that if the kid caught anything more than a ripple he was going to smash me because he was obviously a fantastic surfer. And he did."
Tom Carroll says: "Dane was the fastest guy at that time and he was matching Dane. We were flabbergasted."
Mark Richards, who would win his third world title that year, faced Martin in the final of the second event, the Mainstay Magnum.
"I'd heard about him prior to going to South Africa that year and when I got there, all the South African guys are going, 'Wait til you see this kid surf, he’s unbelievable'. You take all that stuff with a grain of salt. But, then when I saw him surf for the first time at the Bay of Plenty, I was going, 'Holy fuck, these guys are underestimating how good he is!' There were heats I remember in South Africa and freesurfing where he looked like he was going twice as fast as everyone else. He was really searching for how hard and how high he could hit the lip. He wasn’t happy to go up and do a turn under the lip, which was the most popular turn. It was a percentage turn and not a risky turn and Martin wanted to smash the lip to pieces. Seeing him for the first time was like seeing a young surfer whose potential was greater than the hype surrounding him. He wreaked a carnage going into that final (he beat Mike Savage, Dane Kealoha, Mark Price and Shaun Tomson). And, I went into that final, in all honesty, on a mission to hassle the fuck out of him because I knew that he was going to be really hard to beat on the open face. That was in the days when there was no priority and a lot of heats were won on strategy and hustling. I just paddled out thinking, I'm just going to hassle the fuck out of this kid and not let him get a wave and then I'm going to win!"
Michael Tomson, a founder of Gotcha clothing, had begun sponsoring Martin when he was 10, beating cousin Shaun's Instinct label for the signature.
"There was no question that Pottz was going to be a world champion, no question in my mind," says Michael.
"He beat me in both events. He came out of nowhere and smacked me. It was a massive wake-up call," says Shaun. "Look up prodigy in the dictionary and you'll see the name Martin Potter. He came out of nowhere to be one of the top 10 surfers in the world. A year 10 schoolboy at 15 to make the finals of two major events, it was unheard of. It will never happen again."
By the time the tour hit South Africa in 1981, Shaun had switched from single fins to thrusters, motivated by Simon Anderson's back-to-back wins early in the year at North Narrabeen and Bells. But, competing against Martin, he wondered if he'd made a mistake. "He made me re-evaluate my equipment. He surfed rings around me. He destroyed me. But, he made me aggro and motivated. He was 10 years younger than me and it was amazing to be motivated by a 15 year old. He had a fundamental impact on my career. I started training, eating better, I got my weight down, got back on a single fin, and I had two serious runs at the world title. Because of him. He made me want to beat him. He was a massive influence on me, in a very positive way."
Matt Archbold remembers watching video footage of the Gunston 500 as a 13-year-old in San Clemente. A year later, Pottz would be lighting up T-Street and parties around town, a teenage superhero.
"He fricken made everybody else look like they were sitting still that year, made 'em look fricken stupid. And he was this 15-year-old man! A full-grown hairy man! At 15!"
The headline on Durban’s Sunday Times after Martin had skewered the world’s best read: "Pottering on the Crest of a Wave."
Brad Gerlach was a 15-year-old wanna-be pro living in Encinitas, California, when he heard the name Martin Potter.
"It was a total shock. I was, like, fuck, that guy is 15? He’s six months older than me and he got second in an ASP event? I was, what the fuck, should I quit right now?"
Eight years later, 24-year-old Martin Potter would win the world title by the biggest margin in pro surfing history, the only major record to elude Kelly Slater (who modelled his style after Martin Potter).
A fairytale, you'd think… if you believed in fairytales.
The story of Martin Potter, the surfer, begins in the southern hemisphere winter of 1975. In Ian Smith's minority-ruled Rhodesia, a spiteful existentialist war roars between the white government and communist-trained black guerillas. A civilian airliner is shot down and the white survivors massacred. The government poisons dams with cholera and food stocks with anthrax. The guerillas terrorise the peasantry. The government ramps up conscription of white boys aged 16 and upward and sends the teenagers directly into frontline combat.
Briton Daniel Potter is a 34-year-old constructional engineer working for the Portland Cement Company in Mangular, Rhodesia. He is the father of three boys: Darren, 14, Martin, 9, and Ricky, 5. The family had emigrated from Blyth in the north of England, in the spring of 1967, first to the Orange Free State, then Rhodesia three years later when the Afrikaans bias against the English was considered too heavy a weight to bear any longer.
Daniel is an athletic man who had played professional soccer for second division Newcastle back in England and who was once scouted by the owner of an American gridiron team to be their kicker while playing Sunday League in the Vaal Triangle, between the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. At work he is nicknamed "The Dolphin" for a swimming ability that is passed onto his sons. Martin, with his preternatural wedge shape, creates swimming records in butterfly and breaststroke at his school that still stand after he leaves.
For all his ambition and patriotism (Daniel is an army reservist who defends homes from terrorist attacks), the murder of a family three miles away, and the looming conscription of Darren, convinces him to flee the country. The Potters abandon their home, all their furniture and squeeze the three boys into the backseat of their Ford Zephyr, re-sprayed a classic British racing green.
For three days they drive, from Salisbury to Bulawayo to Biet Bridge and then across the border into South Africa. Finally, they head through the capital of Johannesburg and along the coast road to the port city of Durban.
As they drive, Daniel promises the boys an unimaginable surprise.
"You guys are going to see something special today," he says.
"What? What?" they beg.
Eventually, the family reaches a pass in the mountains and the Indian Ocean fills the windscreen.
"That's the biggest swimming pool you've ever seen, boys!"
At the beach, Martin and Darren jump out of the car as a surfer takes off on a lefthander. Daniel winds up his super 8 camera and films Martin and Darren, both dressed in safari suits, watching the wave.
The family moves to a 30-storey apartment building called Hoffman Seaboard on the corner of Point Street and West, a one-minute walk from South Beach. Darren and Martin share one surfboard, swapping when the other falls off and the board is washed to the beach. Daniel travels in mostly three-week blocks, working on oil refinery shutdowns around Africa and in the Middle East. In the Sudan, he works a three-month stretch. At home, his days are spent with his sons on the beach or peering at dolphins through his telescope from their home on the 20th floor. It is an apparent idyll, at least on paper.
Thirty-five years later, I correspond with Daniel from his home in Kent, in south-east England, where he moved in 2000. He is 69 and sharp as a fox. I find him via Facebook.
"The apartment looks down West Street leading towards the beachfront. When the sun rises over the ocean it shines down West Street and lights up the apartment. I even made an 8mm movie of the sun and put a Fleetwood Mac song called Tusk in the background," he writes. "The apartment is one bedroom with a small kitchen, but it doesn’t matter as the family lived on the beach. Durban was easy in those days. Everybody was so laid back. You could spend a weekend from heaven and spend no money because you'd be on the beach all weekend and that made people happy and calm."
Daniel tells me he left the family in 1980 and remarried in 1981. He fathered two more children, a boy Matthew and a girl Danielle, Martin's half-brother and half-sister. He says he has seen Martin, Darren and Ricky individually since the break-up, but only years later, and never together. The last time he saw Martin was in 1995.
My emails spark an exchange between father and son. A few nights later, I receive the following email from Martin. "I just want to find out where you are at with the story, and who you've been talking to? I heard from my Dad for the first time in 14 years. Apparently someone on Facebook contacted him wanting background for the story, am assuming it was you? Can you please let me know who you are approaching? This is a lot of long-term, emotional family stuff, and it none of it's easy to deal with."
And, the next day: "I've spent the last few days dealing with the re-intro of my Dad... questioning everything, which has been hard!! My poor wife Katie has had to pick up the pieces. After all my family shit, she and the kids are everything to me and I do everything to protect us all from the shitty family past I've endured!"
When I contact his half-brother Matt, again via Facebook, the reply is simple: "I'm not sure how much help I can be because as I never saw much of Martin when I was growing up. He was off surfing around the world, becoming a 'God' no doubt."
Shaun Tomson and Tom Carroll vividly remember the overcast Hawaiian afternoon in 1982 when they saw eighties airborne glamour, piloted by Martin Potter, touch down.
"I'll never forget that day at Rocky Point," says Tom. "Me and Shaun were watching the rights and Pottz traversed this whole section in the air. It was like he did it totally intentionally and transitioned straight onto the foam. When he did that, we looked at each other and said, 'Did you see what I just saw?' It was downwind and it all seemed to make sense what he was doing. It wasn't like he was popping something cause I'd seen guys do 'em in Florida. To see Pottz do it so consistently and so clearly in front of me, there was no way my surfing married in with that. This was intentional, functional and powerful."
Remembers Shaun: "It was a north swell as Martin was surfing towards Death Rock and he was on a big board, at least 6'8", possibly 7'0". It was a narrow Hawaiian board which made the manoeuvre even more astonishing. There was no one on the beach, no cameras to capture it. I don't think Martin knew anyone was watching, but he sure instilled some fear into us with that move that day. Have you heard that old Jon Landau quote, 'I have seen the future of rock and roll?' Tom and I saw the future that day."
In December, with a flawless west swell inflating the Offshore Pipeline Masters, Martin, just 17, rode the wave of the season, of the decade, in a surf-off with Michael Ho after they'd tied for second place in their semi final. It engraved his name on the North Shore, something that looked miserably distant the year before when he’d snuck off the island after qualifying for an event that was going to be held in 20-foot waves.
In contrast, in 1982, Shaun felt compelled to paddle up to his teenage friend and say: "Take it easy, Martin. Pull back."
Mark Richards remembers the wave as "absolutely fucking massive. It was one of those massive Second Reef bombs. Martin dropped in on a board that was way too small and got the massivest barrel of all time. The beach was going crazy. It was one of those life-changing waves. On a different scale, it was like the Laird wave at Teahupoo. It was a wave that will never be forgotten by the people who saw it… in terms of a young guy paddling into an absolutely bloody massive death-defying wave at Pipe, that was on the same scale as Laird’s Teahupoo wave… the sun was out, the wind was offshore, there was not a drop of water out of place. Pottz stood proud and tall through the whole thing. It was instant respect in Hawaii. Normally, that is something that takes quite a few seasons. You go back each year and build on it but for Martin, that one wave, it was like instant respect from everyone, fellow competitors, Hawaiian competitors, locals and grizzly hardened old-style locals who hated contests. Everyone took their hats off to that ride."
"He goes out on a 6'10", right," says Tom Carroll, "and I saw this fricken set, this Second Reef set and I saw him drop in and went… oh… my… god, he just skittered off the bottom, stands in this huge thing…oh Pottz! It was too much! (Tom stands up, hobbling on his own busted stilt, spreads his legs and starts guffawing) And he had that stance… like this… haw… haw… I was stoked for him that he made it. I didn't want to see him get smashed. Oh God!"
Out in the water, Michael Ho was surfing with a cracked navicular bone in his wrist. He saw Martin was deep, but in a dreamy position for the ramp in. Would he go? Had Martin evolved enough as a surfer to grab the wave of his life or would he flee just like the previous year?
"I look at him and ask, 'Are you going?' Cause I was going to whip around… I gave him the opportunity and he took it," says the extremely succinct Hawaiian, now 52, who ultimately won the heat and moved into the final (and won) despite Martin's 10-point ride. "Fuck," he says. "Pottz is number one over here. He is more than welcome at my house."
Michael Tomson says: "That wave was 30-foot for him. He wasn't that deep and, let's face it, it was an easy wave. But he was young. And, for a kid that young to take a wave like that, that was some serious stack!"
For all 1982's milestones, for all his influence, Martin dropped four places on the ASP ratings, from eighth to 12th. He might've been influencing performance in the water, but he was shutting down careers. And, in the brutal world of early professional surfing, this made Martin, even though he was a teenager and mostly alone on the tour, a target.
"I feel like Pottz was just a lamb to the slaughter, mate," says Barton Lynch, Martin's arch-rival in the eighties, but now one of his closest friends. "The reality of the tour back then was none of the generation before us cared about helping the next generation of pro surfers. They did care about the building of the sport. But, it was for them. We were fucking hanging around Rabbit Bartholomew and Shaun Tomson and Mark Richards and our eyes were popping out of our heads. We were around our heroes! We didn’t know that while we were mixing with our heroes they were fucking us over, preparing their next heat strategy. There would've been some serious, serious games being played with Pottz' life, with his energy and his heart by those competitors threatened by his emergence."
Yet, says Barton, considering the leanness of those early pro surfing years, it was understandable. "We were literally taking food off their table and out of their families' mouths. Every heat was critically important as opposed to today where you lose a heat and it's the difference between five and seven grand. Today, you don't win a world title you're still on 500 grand from your sponsor! Woo hoo! The consequences of a loss today are personal. It comes down to how much it means personally to you because, financially, even if you're not having shots at the world title, you're making money. It's not a matter of eating or not. Back when we competed, literally for me, the food on the table was determined by those heat wins and your ability to get to the next event. They were fighting for what was theirs too, mate. It was a very cutthroat and ruthless environment. It wasn't anything to see fights picked or people emotionally terrorised just for a heat win."
At Bells earlier that year, Martin had gone to the Torquay Hotel wearing a custom-made pink suit, a present from his mother. He and Shaun Tomson arrived just as a drinking game called Animal Thumper, led by Simon Anderson, was at its peak. Shaun picks up the story.
"They are completely twisted. Simon is absolutely motherless. They started picking on Martin as they picked on me. Martin disappears, can’t find him, and I discover him passed out at the urinal, in his little pink suit, vomit everywhere and Maurice Cole is about to piss on him. I throw him over my shoulder and walk through the pack. The Aussies are screaming at him and I get to my car and there’s no way I’m going to put him on the seats, so I throw him in the boot. I waved to the crowd as I left."
Mark Richards says it was Martin's precociousness that was his undoing: too handsome, too talented, a supernova. "He started off as a mild-mannered kid who went, 'How cool is all this', to quickly realising that people on the tour weren’t necessarily your friends, that people have ulterior motives. It's remarkable he's still here and functioning."
Martin emerged from the hazing, hyper-aggressive and hard partying; the icon of a surfing culture suddenly bold enough to shape its own direction.
"If you don't surf, don't start," challenged advertisements from Martin's sponsor, Gotcha.
"When Pottz decided he wanted to win, he could win. When he decided he wanted to party, he could party as good as anyone," says Michael Tomson.
Martin's hair grew long and into dreadlocks. Even though he didn't have a driver's license, Matin hired a Porsche, crashed it at 120 miles per hour on a canyon road outside of LA, then tossed the rental company $5000 to forget about it. Gotcha ran with Martin's rough hewn sex appeal and the company's turnover exploded to $US150 mill.
In the water, Martin's blood boiled, every heat a tightrope act between success and losing by interference. As his father Daniel explains, grace in defeat wasn't in his genes. "Martin and I used to play table tennis a lot and he, like all my kids, are terrible losers. It's always serious and someone always ends up in tears."
Marry this genetic disposition for competitiveness and his initiation into pro surfing’s vicious, but exclusive, frat, and a Martin Potter heat was a spectator's dream, death-or-glory passion and fury combined with a once-in-a-generation talent.
Brad Gerlach had two confrontations with Martin in Japan, the first in Martin’s world title year, 1989, when his watch got tangled in Martin's leash. "I was, like, 'Dude, I'm really sorry, I did not mean to do that, like, I promise!' And he was telling me, 'Your girlfriend’s a whore and fuck you and Marty (Thomas, Gerr's traveling buddy), you guys are fags!' In the middle of all that, a set comes and I did six fucking snaps in the hook and then paddled back out and… hee hee hee… I could see the steam coming out of his ears! He was still carrying on and then he paddled for this wave, missed it so lost priority, and then another bomb came and I fucking got another one. I got, like, four smoking waves. And, he was saying the lowest- class bullshit, like, fighting words. I mean, dude… hee hee hee… he's one of those guys that didn’t mind hitting below the belt, he was so fucking pissed off. I'm, like, 'Why are you so upset? You’ve got the title in the bag! You're going to win the fucking world title! What are you so worried about?' And, he goes (Gerr mock stutters), 'You're…you're… you're not even going to make the Top 16 this year.' I go, 'Well, after beating you, I got a lot better chance'… hee hee hee. So he comes in and, in front of all the media, goes to shake my hand after he's said all these things and I go (exhales sigh)…alright… and I reach my hand out and, y'know, hey, whatever, I was always a gentleman, and he did one of those handshakes where you pull it away and wipes his hair, in front of everybody. The funny thing was, a week later, we’re partying so hard in Miyazaki and Pottz comes up to me in a club with a bottle of Jack and Coke and hands it to me.
Two years later, it was Gerr's turn to chase the title. The surf was tiny, two feet on the sets. Gerr let a wave pass, Martin caught it, stomped an air and scored a nine.
"Who knows where I could've gone if I'd caught that wave?" says Gerr. "Then I caught a wave behind him and I think I got a seven and I'm paddling back and for some reason he just stops in the middle of the lineup and just stares at me, staring me down, like right in my paddling path. I either paddle around or over him so I paddled right through him and he said something or other and I kicked my foot and splashed his face and when we got out the back we were talking shit. I went to take off on a wave and he fucking stuck his board under my board and put a ding in it, my all-time favorite board. I rode the wave to the beach, turned the board over and there was a ding in it, and at that point, I was so pissed. I was, like, fuck this guy, and I say 'Huh! You put a ding in my board, huh, bud?' And I go, 'How about I ding your board' and, you can see on Sarge's video (Sarge's Surfing Scrapbook), I duck-dive and he lifts out of the water a little bit. I was so close to punching him. I knew a few people on tour would be glad if I did. I was like, oh fuck, right in front of all this media, what kind of image is that going to be? So I didn't.
"And then, of course, he's saying, 'I'm fucking smoking ya! Haw! Haw! Haw’ and I'm, like, 'It's only one-foot bud.' There was so much shit talk back and forth between he and I. He’s just a hothead! A super hothead! When he gets really pissed he says things he doesn't mean… hee hee hee… fuck man … when I think back on it, it makes me laugh…"
Australia's Rob Bain remembers a spiteful heat in Lacanau, France. "It was ugly," says Rob. "He spat on me and it went over my shoulder. Pottz was like Sunny. If he lost, he’d get in the judges face and let them know so they were on tenterhooks. They were aware he was there."
"He's too small to psyche people out so he had to get that angry attitude. He's got that little man syndrome, don't worry about that, always angry…rraaaaaahhh!… snarling at people when he’s in the surf," says Matt Hoy, who found a drinking buddy in Martin when he joined the tour in 1991. "That's how they got taught by MR, Shaun and Rabbit. That's how you have to be in the water, aggressive, and they kept it going. Our generation mellowed 'em out a bit. We were, like, whoa, settle down boys. They just brought it from the older guys."
Western Australian pro surfer Stuart Bedford-Brown met Martin in 1982. For the next 10 years they traveled, trained and at a few different points in Stuart’s career even shared a house with Martin, but that didn’t dilute his ferocity.
"He was dirty at me at when I beat him at the Lacanau Pro. He was spewing, wanted to kill me, throwing his jersey down saying he got ripped off," recalls Stuart. "It was full on. It’s a love affair on tour now. I don't know how they’d handle hairy beast Pottz. He's an intimidating creature. He'd slap water in your face as you paddled for a wave, or push you deeper or say something. He wasn't dirty, but forceful."
Despite his raging need to win, for 13 of his 14 years on tour, Martin Potter never threatened a world title. He won events most years, 16 in all, and stabilised around sixth on the ratings. But, with fistfuls of money, barloads of girls and a reputation at least the equal of Occy and Curren, Martin was happy to watch the main prize be taken, in order, by Tom Carroll, Tom Curren and Damien Hardman.
And then, in the December of 1988, Australian Barton Lynch won. And, Martin Potter’s world changed.
I'm in a car. Forty-four-year-old Martin Potter fills the passenger seat. It's the Australian summer of 2010 and we're driving to a photo shoot for this story. Martin wears a long-sleeved black Quiksilver t-shirt, long denim shorts and skate kicks. His hair is grey, thinning and cut close to the skull. There are sparks of grey in his eyebrows. His eyes are bright blue and the jaw is a sawn-off square.
He is not much taller than the Spider Murphy twins he used to ride but his chest measures a staggering-for-his-height 43-inches and sprouts from a 30-inch waist. This improbably allocated mass is supported by size seven-and-a-half feet. Stuart D'Arcy says he had to put extreme vee into Martin's boards just so Martin's little feet could rock 'em from rail to rail.
In piles around Martin's tiny hooves is every single Surfer magazine from 1989, a fortuitous gift from my mother-in-law, who'd found 'em at a garage sale. He flips to a double-page Instinct advertisement of Barton Lynch at Pipeline during his remarkable final day world title win in 1988. The 20-point caption reads: Barton Lynch. World Champ. 1989. "What the fuck is this? I was the '89 world champion!"
The back-story to the rivalry is this: for a dozen years, from 1982 to 1994, Martin Potter and Barton Lynch hated each other. Barton says he beat Martin in a couple of pivotal heats early in Martin's career, once at Narrabeen and once at Lacanau, and "from that point in time, it was well and truly fucking on.
"It lit my arse on fire when BL won the world title," says Martin. "I just went, right, that's it, if he can do it, what the fuck am I doing?"
The rivalry hit its nadir in Martin's word title year when, Barton claims, Martin's manager, Peter Mansted, made a series of threatening phone calls to his Newcastle hotel room. Barton says he was so upset he rang his own manager, Dirk Cook, who dropped the phone and immediately drove the two hours from Sydney to Newcastle.
"He just said, 'Fuck', hung up, drove there, walked into the contest, went straight up to Peter Mansted and just dropped him. Bang! I was doing commentary for the event with Mark Richards and they tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Something really bad's happened. You have to come now.' And, I think: my mum's dead, my mum's dead. Fuck! I'm saying, 'What's happened?' And they say, 'Your manager has punched out Peter Mansted'. I went, 'Yeah, what's the problem? And?'"
Peter Mansted, formerly Peter Colebert, currently Peter Mansted, 53, and the owner of a Sydney-based travel biz targeting foreign backpackers, was a pivotal figure in surfing throughout the eighties. At one point, his management roster included Barton Lynch, Simon Anderson, Gary Elkerton, Richard Cram, Kim Mearig as well as two-time world champ Tom Carroll and Martin. There was chatter that Mansted's masterplan was to control the Top 16 and eventually hold the ASP to ransom or create his own rebel tour. He signed Tom to iconic Australian airline Qantas for three years and negotiated the famous $1 million, five-year 100% deal with Quiksilver (and, later, Martin’s $1.25 million deal with Gotcha.). Under his wing, Tom would win two world titles.
By 1989, however, Martin was his sole client, Mansted's erratic manner enough to either alienate or scare off the rest of his team. "Pottz really needed someone to guide him and to focus him," says Tom Carroll. "You can't do that stuff alone, there's no way, you need someone who's going to be there 110 per cent the whole time and to guide you through the shit that's constantly coming at you. It's insane thinking to think you can do it alone. Colbert did a big job there in guiding Pottz and myself."
"Pottz had Mansted as his manager because he didn’t have his family around him and he needed someone to help him make decisions so he could concentrate on surfing and training and winning," says Brad Gerlach. "He was one of the first guys that was a rock star. They really need someone to pull the reins in."
Despite everything that followed, Martin acknowledges his role in his win.
"Out of all the bad, he did get that fire burning inside me," he says.
For a time, Mansted also managed Stuart Bedford-Brown and Stuart saw, close-up, Mansted’s influence.
"Mansted brought million-dollar contracts to the sport. Mick and Joel wouldn't be getting near the money they're getting paid now without Peter Mansted. The industry was a real cartel and they were dictating to the surfers while they were making millions. Mansted came in and rattled the cage," says Stuart. "He instilled in Pottz and Tom the work ethic necessary to win a world title. Pottz could've been a Cheyne Horan and got seconds and seconds, but Mansted said, 'Okay, mate, train it up, put your own spin on it and do it better than Tom.' And, he did."
Shaun Tomson says Mansted helped Martin’s self-confidence. "He taught a wild man that if even if you want to put your foot to the floor, at least learn to take it off going around corners."
Mansted, with his dreams of owning pro surfing gone, was driven by one thing in 1989: to prove to the surfing industry that he was still a kingmaker.
For five years, Martin Potter's world title trophy was squeezed between two bottles of Jack Daniels and a Dave Eggers NSSA cup at the Cream Café in Hossegor, France.
Martin had presented the café's owner, Max Chu, with the cup for taking his dog Oscar when he moved back to Australia from France in 2004. "If the trophy wasn't there, it'd be in a box somewhere," says Martin.
Martin is even dismissive about his own performance. "I didn't do airs. I just surfed on the wave, like they wanted me to. I surfed as boring as all those other fuckers out there and ended up winning a world title. Figure that out! Thank god they changed that shit. And the next year I went back to the way I surfed and I got 15th in the world. Bizarre."
But, talk to anyone else who saw Martin's lightning war, four wins from the first six events, six wins from 11, and you'll understand that this was a year that mattered. Nineteen eighty-nine would be remembered for the brutality of Martin's wins and of his overpowering superiority.
Says Rob Bain: "Damien Hardman had to fight like a boxer to win. Barton, everything had to go right at Pipe, but for Pottz, it was his destiny. He would get the winning wave and he'd win the closet heats. As a competitor, what can you do?"
Derek Hynd was a 32-year-old journalist for Surfer magazine in 1989. Two years earlier, he’d begun would become an annual review of the Top 30 (later the Top 44). At the foot of each entry, a prediction was made of the surfer’s world title chance. For Martin Potter, from 1987 to 1994, it was No Chance.
In Martin's world title year, his entry is: "Still regarded by many as the world's best freesurfer. Very fast. Very stylish. Very powerful. Doesn’t need to prove a thing. The World Title is almost superfluous to his career. He doesn’t need it and his sponsors don't demand it."
"The world title was a big sigh of relief, a fuck-you to all those guys who wrote me off," says Martin. "All those guys who said, you're never going to do it… it was nice to look 'em in the eyes and say, 'Sucked in, motherfuckers'. And, the sweetest one was Derek Hynd. I got to rub his face in it after all those years of world title chance, no chance. And, he went straight back to that the year after. In 1990, he wrote another article saying, 'Martin Potter, no chance. He's only seeing shit through one eye so he's only getting half the picture.'"
Did he speak to you about it?
"Never! He's too scared to talk to me, mate."
Derek Hynd, for his part, is happy to admit he got it wrong. But, remember, for 13 out of the 14 years, he was right.
"Listen, that call about no chance, I mean (Derek makes a long guttural sound), I'll swallow that one and spit that one out and say I really stuffed that up," says Derek. "However. The pleasure… the pleasure… of seeing an athlete going way beyond what he had done before, achieving what he looked liked achieving back in '82 was one of the highlights of my career as an observer even though it was a bad call from my part."
Why did he label Martin a no chance for the world title for his entire career?
"He was hanging with the wrong people, hanging with destructive people, socially destructive people… absolutely. When Pottz didn't have his sycophants holding onto him, I thought he was just such a fantastic and pure athlete who could really see clearly. Eighty-nine, for whatever reason, really began with kind of a fresh perspective of what was going to be achieved, not what could be achieved. For all of Mansted's… um… ummmmm… vagaries, he was a great motivator. His input cannot be underestimated, either."
At the fourth event of that year, the Coca Cola Surf Classic at Manly, Derek wrote about literally bottling the moment. "As Martin Potter devastated his third ride at the Coke Classic Final, I grabbed an empty bottle, swished it through the air and jammed the lid back on – the moment trapped… I'd just seen a sloppy, piss-weak righthander ridden as completely as possible, and with only 12 minutes of the final gone, I was driving home to Newport with Potter's immortal moment rolling all over the red vinyl passenger seat."
Tom Carroll describes a moment in 1989, watching Martin surf in Zarautz, Spain, when he felt a surprising emotion toward his old friend. "I felt really, really envious. I would've loved to've been in that position again. He smashed everyone so hard. And, at that time, I was finished as a competitor."
Tom says the entire pro surfing machinery, the judges, the magazines, the journalists, even his opponents, were drawn into Martin's slipstream. "He only had to walk down the beach and people would be, 'Ohhhh, fuck!' Once you’ve got that lead, the energy is so powerful that, literally, everyone wants you to do it. I've had that feeling and the roll is on. You’ve got to really fuck up to lose. You have to look like an idiot to get a bad heat. Pottz had it in 1989. He couldn’t do a thing wrong."
Stuart Bedford-Brown says the most endearing aspect of Martin's world title year was his common touch. "He was the people's champion. I've never seen anyone win a world title like that. He trained hard and he partied hard, too. He'd party with 'em at night and they loved him for it. He was never too big for his supporters. Next day, he'd go down and blaze everyone out of the water. He was an unstoppable force. He was a bull."
Stuart is also quick to point out Martin’s generosity, estimating he lay down more cash in the eighties than any other surfer on tour. "Pottz was rolling in it. He was winning everything, had the big contract… he was so generous with everybody. He’d pay for everything."
This quote makes Matt Hoy hoot with laughter. "He was hanging around guys like Tom Carroll and Damien Hardman. They're the biggest tight-arses in the world so he had to pay! He had no choice!"
As for Stuart, "He's a tight-arse, too, I forgot about Browny. He's one of the tightest–arses in the world. So, Pottz, had to pay every bill! That's why everyone's saying he was so generous, no one else would put their hands in their fucking pockets!"
Derek Hynd says the Martin Potter of 1989 would've stopped even Kelly Slater. "Had Slater been five years younger, he wouldn't have won his world titles because Pottz would have stopped him… The whole marauding psychology of winning in the lineup without a wave being caught was there with Pottz when he wanted it. Every moment of every heat, he had a head on that was far heavier than head you've seen with Curren."
And how did Barton feel, as defending world champion, to see his title go to his archrival? "I didn't give a fuck, mate," he roars. "That said, it was ironic that I had to hand it over to Pottz who was my biggest rival, the guy that I had the most run-ins with. We had a lot of bad blood between us in that short period of time. You look at that and there's a lot of growing you have to do out of those situations."
At the start of the 1989 season, Martin was dealing with the most important contract negotiation of his life. The way Martin and Mike Cruickshank tell it, Gotcha’s VP of Marketing, Mark Price, a South African who'd known Martin since he was 12, didn't exactly have their prize team-rider's best interests at heart.
"I knew he was jealous of Martin's success and he was holding him back within the business at Gotcha," says Mike. "When Martin was going to win the world title, Mark wanted him to finish second so he wouldn't have to pay him the bonus. He said that straight to me. He goes, 'God, oh man, I hope he doesn't win so we don’t have to pay the bonus but we get all the exposure out of the race.' At that time, the bonus was 50 grand. It was a good chunk of change."
"Mark Price was jealous," says Martin. "And, jealousy's one of the deadly sins, it's a curse. Mark Price always wanted to be a top pro surfer and I think he was good enough too, but he just didn't have that finishing blow, so he chose a different path and went into the corporate side and he made more money than I could ever imagine, right, but still was jealous of the fact that I was the guy who was going to win a world title."
Was it the size of the potential bonus that freaked him?
"It wasn't the bonus, it had nothing to do with it," says Martin. "It had everything to do with his own jealousies, own insufficiencies to be a successful pro surfer. He started working for Gotcha after his pro career was over and watched the rise of me, getting all the publicity, getting all the attention and then on the way to winning a world title. I think the bonus thing was an excuse to vent some anger. It was an avenue where he hoped I didn't win because he didn't win. Maybe I'm wrong, but that's how I saw the whole thing. My bonus was 50 grand, come on, what’s that? What's 50 grand? The company's making hand over fist, the ads we were making were the best, we had the best team in the world, and I was the world champion. What fucken else do you fucken want? It was jealousy. And, he was making five times more than I was while I was at the top of my game. He was making that much more money off Gotcha than I was. So I don't know what the jealousy thing was or why he didn't want me to succeed."
Stuart Bedford-Brown calls it a little differently. He says Martin was promised a multi-million dollar, multi-year contract at the start of 1989, but it was never signed. "He was told, if you can bring a world title to Gotcha you'll get the multi-million dollar contract you deserve… but no ink was put on that contract. Pottz was Gotcha. And he got royally rooted. He made one mistake. He didn't get MT’s signature."
We all know our ability to collect, store and retain information is fluid. Go to a courtroom to see the same event described a dozen different ways. Martin’s contract negotiations happened 21 years ago. And, the memories of the players involved reflect it.
Mark Price, now President of surfboard company Firewire USA, is quick to return my call and is eager to talk about the Potter years with Gotcha. As to the jealousy accusation, he hoses it down with the fact that he'd quit Gotcha by November 1989 (although he remained on a $1500 a month retainer to stop him working for rival companies), one month before Martin's world title win.
"Pottz is referring to me?" asks Mark, hurt and surprise in his voice when I repeat the charges. "What's he saying? That's… that's… amazing, man. I'm sorry that those guys carry those thoughts and that's their recollection. I think that my track record in building Gotcha's team and fighting to keep Cheyne (Horan) on the team and fighting to preserve Pottz's contract speaks for itself. The Cruickshank thing I can totally understand. Cruickshank and I had a checkered relationship. And, it's so ironic that he would make that statement because the biggest problem I had with Shank, and remember I was his boss and he was our surf team manger, was Cruickshank had a massive chip on his shoulder about the types of salaries that the top guys were getting. Remember, he came through as a professional surfer when there was very little money in the sport. And, that clouded his judgment as to what athletes were worth and what companies should be paying them."
Responding to Stuart Bedford-Brown's claim that Gotcha didn't honor Martin's contract, he says: "That's not my recollection. I vividly remember some of the sticking points, however, some of the shouting and the yelling during his contract negotiation. I remember at one point, Mansted grabbed Pottz and said, 'We're leaving, this is over', and walked towards the door and I ran to the door, slammed it shut, stood in front of it and said, that nobody is leaving until we work this out. Pottz was always a little uncomfortable with that side of the business, but to his credit he was in the room. And, we did, and there's no way we would've done that for a one-year deal. It was at least a four-to-five-year deal. But, I cannot remember the specifics."
Mark also adds that, despite the big numbers, ultimately, he believed Martin was worth whatever package Gotcha could assemble. "To me it's all about what the market will bear and what the individual brings to the table. And there are a lot of pro surfers out there that kids wanna surf like. But there are very few pro surfers that kids want to be like. And, if you've got one of those guys, they're worth their weight in gold. And that's the fact of the matter. Pottz was worth his weight in gold."
Martin remembers one specific clause in his contract. "Every spot out of the top five, you lose 10-grand. So, it was an incentive to keep me up there, but, fuck, I'd just won a world title, give me a break. I came 15th the next year so figure that out."
Whatever the politics were behind the scenes, Martin's world title party at the 388-room Kahala Hilton in Honolulu was something else.
"Let's put it this way," says Michael Tomson. "I've never seen a bill for a hotel room in my life that has come close to that one. You're talking cases of Dom Perignon, not bottles, cases! It was staggering! I remember checking out the next morning and I asked for the bill to Pottz' room. Fifteen thousand dollars! For a night! I thought I'd never get that one through the company. But, I did."
Says Martin: "It was surreal. The banquet was a blur, I can't remember any of that. It was sorta, like, was…was that it? Really? A little trophy about (Martin uses his hands to illustrate a cup about a foot high) so big? Is this what it's all about. But, the party was fucking awesome. We were getting this giant silver bowl filled with Dom Perignon. But, fair enough. I fucken deserved it. I worked my arse off for this company and MT said, 'Okay, we gotta make sure this is a party to remember'. A fleet of stretch limos brought us back from the ASP awards. We had a suite and it was on."
"Michael really appreciated the win; Mark looked at it as a budget standpoint," says Mike Cruickshank.
Mark Price says Michael Tomson turned to him in the limo, in front of Mansted, Cruickshank and Martin, and said, "Hey, from Gotcha's perspective you are the one to thank for this world title."
Recalls Mark: "Not taking anything away from Pottz, but Michael was acknowledging that the reason Pottz was still with Gotcha was because of my efforts. And, there’s no way he would've said that if he didn’t mean it. And, I think it flies in the face of all these other comments those guys are making that I was the one begrudging it, all this bullshit."
Did Martin believe the world title would be a home run? That once secured, everything: money, life, love, would fall neatly into place.
"That's what I was told by my peers, by the companies I worked for, Michael Tomson, and basically it doesn’t mean shit, it doesn't mean shit to them, anyway. As soon as I won the world title, it was like, who's the next best thing? Derek (Ho) ended up winning the world title a couple years later for Gotcha as well and Derek got the same treatment as I did, he got burnt the next year. And, Machado was the next thing and all MT's money went to Machado and it was, like, sorry, Pottz and Derek, you guys are has-beens."
Martin's income, career and life went into freefall after 1989. Jon 'JJ' Jenkins, a 19-year-old Whale Beach grommet in 1994, Martin's last year on tour, remembers visiting him at his North Avalon rental. Martin was shovelling dirt around his garden and a plastic bag, swollen with Gotcha clothing, was near his feet. Martin told JJ that he’d just taken a phone call from Michael Tomson. His new contract was going to be $30,000 a year, with the proviso that he must go to Hawaii for a month each year at his own expense.
"When he left, the company was in bad shape and was unable to afford not just him but a whole lot of others including Sunny Garcia," says Michael Tomson. "And, you have to remember, that there’s a general changing of the guard every 10 years or so. And some of them don't find a second career to evolve into."
And, Mansted, who was taking a 15-to-20 per cent cut, wasn’t lodging Martin's income tax returns. By the time the Australian Tax Office got around to investigating him, Martin's salary was a shadow of his 1989 peak.
"The tax man hit me with 230 grand unpaid taxes and I said, 'But, my manager fucken was supposed to do all that shit.' And they said, 'Well, you earned the money, you gotta pay the taxes.' He fucked me. Peter Mansted ruined me. I lost so much fucken money. I ended up negotiating with the tax department and I got it down to 95 grand. But, I was paying three grand a month before I even started. And, the deal was, had I missed one payment, I was going to have to do time or whatever it was. It was fucken serious."
Meanwhile, two business ventures, Pottz Clothing and Pottz Surfboards, were bleeding money. Rumors that Pottz Clothing had secured more orders in its first season than Billabong grabs a sharp response from Michael Tomson.
"Pottz spent money on things that were clearly… clearly… opportunities to lose money! Listen. What I want to tell you is this. Do you know how to spell horseshit?"
I tell Michael I'm not sure if it’s one word or two words.
"It's one word. That's what that is. Pottz clothing, I didn't see a single garment. Billabong, god, give me a break, c'mon, Billabong weren't big then, but they certainly were an entity of consequence."
Pottz Surfboards was a partnership with Stuart D'Arcy and a third partner. From 1991 to 1997, a staggering 75-to-100 boards per week were sold, including 1000 a year to the lucrative Japanese market. Stuart says he was drawing a salary of $350 a week for 16-hour days. Later, they discovered a $350,000 debt. "It took us years to pay off," says Stuart.
Around this time, Martin's two-year marriage crumbled. Just a fistful of years after his career peak, he was broke, unemployed, divorced, and the father of a newborn daughter, Madeline. At, simultaneously the lowest and highest point of his life, Martin found an unlikely soul mate in Barton Lynch.
"We became brothers in that period. It was some of the best years of my life. We were reconciling five days a week," says Barton. "We'd both retired, both living at Whaley, both single parents as the mothers of our kids were off finding themselves again, and we both had daughters the same age. We'd have beers on the verandah of my place and just talk and reflect. I’ve always felt a bit alone in this world. I'm not a part of a clique or company or a group. There’s no one really batting for my team. And, in a lot of ways, Pottz feels like that too. I remember one afternoon and we were having some beers and reflecting on life and he goes: 'Who do I trust? Who do I turn to? Who do I have to share anything with? All of I’ve got is myself'. And I said, 'Well, you've got me, too.'"
I made a point of asking every person I interviewed to tell me what they’d like to ask Martin. Almost to a man, it was, family and his early years on tour. Ask about his Dad. His brothers. His Mom. What happened? Why is he estranged from his family? What happened in those early years on tour?
"What did Pottz have to be insecure about? It comes from your childhood," says Brad Gerlach. "It's something from in your childhood. Same with Garcia. He’s fucking pissed, too. I don't think Pottz likes being pissed. Because he's a loveable dude when he's in his natural state."
Remember, this is a man who was supporting his family, aged 15, and being shown the world by a committee of vultures.
"I trusted everyone and I they tried to burn me," says Martin. "When I turned pro at 15 and went on the tour, it wasn't like, 'Let's look after the kid', it was like, 'What can we do to fuck him up?' I remember Dane and Shaun, even MR. I was paddling out and he went straight for me and I pushed under and I literally felt the twin fins go over my shoulders. He went to hurt me and I went, 'I can't believe the guy actually tried to hurt me.' That was the game. I followed that on. That's how I was taught. So, I'm going to fucken pass it down. Whoever is going to learn from that is going to come out better at the end. It's tactics, even McEnroe. He would smash his racquet and it would fuck the other guy's rhythm up. Same deal. It wasn’t personal."
But, did he cross the line with his over-the-top aggression?
"I was gnarly, but it takes two to tango. Bainy wasn’t a bloody angel and nor was Gerr. And, I loved that with those two guys! We could go out and have the fucken gnarliest battles but still be able to walk away. That's competing! Show the emotion! Show me how fucking important this thing is to you. Snap! We want to see it! How passionate are you because… (Martin begins growling) I fucking am! Gerr wore his heart on his sleeve and maybe I did sometimes. I didn’t show it on the beach but once I was in the water you fucken knew exactly what was going on. I wanted to fucken belt you. The first couple of times I surfed against Kelly I smothered him, I fucked with him, I didn't let him catch a wave and he looked at me and said, 'Why are you doing this?' Cause I'm fucking teaching you a lesson!"
About life at home with his parents’ sinking marriage he says: "It was terrifying. As a kid, you don't know what to do about it. My big brother would help us deal with that stuff. We were dreading him (Dad) coming home. Cause we knew, things were good when he wasn't there. We went to the beach, I was at school, my Mum was quite happy and then it'd be like, she’d start to stress because he was on his way back. And then, bang, it'd all blow up. She was quite a gnarly woman to live with as well, so it wasn’t a one-way deal, which I found out later, but she was a gnarly bitch! Ha! We used to get the belt all the time if we made mistakes, the full old-school… whhhhhhack… from both of 'em. If Dad was home, it came from him, if he wasn't, Mum would just pick up shit and throw it at us. I tried to fill up my days as much as possible so I could delay going home. I'd have to go home when it was dark, when I couldn't see anymore. I'd sneak in and then… whack…'where have you been?'"
In 1980, Daniel Potter moved out for good.
"I remember Dad came home and we were asleep and it was… bang… crash… smash… yaaaaaaah!… yelling. Dad was drunk. He'd come home and smashed a plate of food around the kitchen and my Mum was screaming. I remember, my brother got up and he looked at me and he goes, 'This is it, I’ve had enough'. Darren was a really strong kid. He wasn't much bigger than me but he had a jaw that could take a massive punch and he was really strong. He grabbed my Dad and literally escorted him out the fucken door. And, he said, 'Martin, close the door when I get him out.' So, Darren got him out and I closed the door behind him and I just heard him say, 'Get the fuck out of here and don't come back!' Dad goes, 'What about my stuff?' And Darren says, 'We'll throw it in a bag and you can come back tomorrow morning. But we don't wanna fucken see you anymore.' And, that was it."
Gradually, the demons of his childhood and the darker chapters of his career are being exorcised. Martin married again, had two more kids, twins Jack and Bella, and moved to a regional beachside town on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula. After nearly 20 years of trying to find direction, Martin, with his international accent borne from a life lived in England, South Africa, the USA and Australia, has become the voice of professional surfing. He is the sport's best commentator, credible, likeable and authoritative. "I sure wish him all the best. He is a brilliant commentator. Pass on my best regards to him," says Derek Hynd.
In a neat symmetry, a story that begins with a family in ruins ends with the prodigy reunited with his father because of a reporter creeping around on Facebook. A few nervous emails turn to the first phone call in 15 years. I ask Martin how it feels. He pauses. “Good,” he says. "It feels good." A month later Martin sends me an email. "You might get a kick out of knowing my Dad now calls us every single night! Crazy!"
As well, Martin has finally recaptured his love of surfing. A coverline of Australia's Surfing Life magazine in the nineties reads: Why Surfing Shits Pottz. Now, Martin says: "I'm enjoying myself as much as I did when I was 15. I'm 44 and I did a couple of airs the other day. I surf a stretch of coastline that's uncrowded and I love surfing by myself. It's perfect. Surfing is an individual sport. You need to be out there by yourself, just to get back in touch with the ocean, how it works, what it's about. You don’t need to share that. It's for you; it's for the individual. When I'm in the water, I look at what's around me, what's happening in that immediate time. Nothing else is going through my head. There’s no stress in my life anymore. I don’t owe anyone anything. Before, I'd fall off and get really fucking angry. Now, I laugh instead of hitting my board."
Kelly Slater says: "One time, Pottz was drunk by himself in Club 15 in Hossegor when I was first on tour. He liked me enough to tell me he saw a lot in me and respected my approach. It was one of the greatest compliments I ever got."
"Pottz has had some fucken tough luck thrown his way,” says Barton Lynch. "It's just not right, mate. But, he's dealt with it in such a dignified, mature, responsible and decent fashion. He had the ability to walk from disaster with his head held high and move forward without any baggage. He conducts himself as a real gentleman. The bottom line is, his potential was fulfilled. He’s a fucking world champion. The fact is, he had a year where he was by far the best surfer in the world and around that he had 14 years where he was one of them on any given day."
"Here's what I feel," says Michael Tomson. "What I feel, is that this is one of the greatest surfers that ever lived. What I feel, is that he may not have continued his legacy for as long as he could have. He wasn't disciplined enough at the end of his period of competitive surfing. He wouldn't listen to people's suggestions for help. But, what's my feeling? I have a lot of love for that guy. I really do."