Shark Girl Kim McKenzie

Kim McKenzie, a strong willed, powerfully built Australian asked for her first surfboard in 1962 at the age of eleven. When her parents got her a 9’2 Hayden Kenny, she began surfing the mouth of the Mooloolaba river, before the rock wall was built.

Kim’s youth was spent admiring and hanging around people like Bob McTavish, who worked for Hayden Kenny at the time, and George Greenough, who would frequently fish with her dad. She left school at fourteen and went to work fishing with her father, serving as the deckhand on the trawler. In 1970, her father won a government contract to cull sharks along the Sunshine Coast, later passing the gig on to his daughter, who, at 21, became the youngest shark cat skipper in Queensland. With a lack of sponsors available to women at the time, Kim balanced her career of being out at sea with the women’s competitive surfing circuit.

Her first contest was in 1968 for the Queensland state titles. Held at Snapper Rocks, she closely bonded with World Champ Phyllis O’Donnell and Josette Lagardere, a former American champion who was calling Queensland home at the time. By 1972, she competed in the amateur World Championship in San Diego, placing 6th. The following year she won the Australian national title at Margaret River, then defended it at Burleigh Heads in 1974.

An amateur photographer, Kim recently began sharing her photographs of the '70s women's surf scene, a community that’s often skimmed over in surf history, via her Instagram account. These stories of the formative years of women's competitive surfing were collected from Kim over email throughout the year 2017.

“This photo is from Mooloolaba beach in 1968 just after the Australian championship in Sydney. No rock walls at the mouth of the river. No name brands yet, mothers tried to make board shorts and bikinis.”

“Photo of Phyllis O’Donnell, Kula Sunn, and Josette Lagardere, friends for life, taken in 1970 at Bells Beach. It was Kula's first World’s, freezing conditions for a Hawaiian! Phyllis represented Queensland. The teenaged Hawaiian Sunn sisters, Anella and Kula, spent a year renting a house at Rainbow Bay, close to Josette’s flat.”

"Josette Lagardere and Phyllis O'Donnell, surfing photographs from the '70s."

“I took this photo in 1970 at Coolangatta. Phyllis O’Donnell poses with Peter Townsend and Peter Drouyn at Snapper Point, Queensland. I have memories of Peter Drouyn with great style in and out of the surf, always a great looking human with gifts of brilliance.”

“By the time I went to the World Championship in 1972 in San Diego I was a shark contractor. I had been at sea since I was eleven years old and left school at fourteen to become a professional fisherman, catching prawns 700 miles away from home during the night. Trawler lights would shine on the shark fins; thinking about falling overboard was beyond scary. I earned the money to fly to the World Championship.”

“I spent many years around boats, this one was handmade by my father and built in our back garden. I happily played the role of his deckhand.”

“This photo was taken by the Australian government back in the ‘70s. I was a young pro fisher working on the government’s shark meshing program for the protection of swimmers and surfers along Queensland after shark attacks occurred. Always controversial and even more so today.”

“I remember going to sea daily from a young age and getting the feel for the long, dark nights and seasickness. I surrendered to my life at sea knowing the dangers. If a shark got caught in a net or on a drum line it was dealt with, and for a professional fisherman these nets were for the protection of the humans and local beaches.”

“I went off to the World Championships in 1972 with our top team including Michael Peterson, Peter Townsend, Wayne Bartholomew, Terry Fitzgerald, Gail Cooper, Ian Cairns, Mark Warren, Col Smith, and Simon Anderson. It was my 21st birthday. I remember being dropped off by the taxi and noticing a surfer girl standing on the edge of a diving board wearing a bikini in the pattern of the American stars and stripes. Everyone was watching this girl performing on the diving board. Turns out the cheeky girl was Jericho Poppler. Jericho stayed in the same room as Gail Cooper and I, she was so popular that the phone never stopped ringing. Jericho has been a legend since the moment she arrived on this planet.”

“I got to surf against the best and met Linda Davoli, Debbie Melville, Becky and Blanche Benson, Evie Black, Sharron Weber, and Laura Blears, whom I battled with to get to the finals and lost by a point.”

“A photo I took of our digs on arrival to San Diego. Terry Fitzgerald and his curls of wildness.”

“This is the grand finals for the women’s 1972 World Championship in San Diego. Note the size of the waves. Goofyfoot Sharron Weber won.”

“I took this photo of Jimmy Blears and a very young Michael Ho at the 1972 World Championship in San Diego. It’s the final and it's very tiny surf. The fish pictured here was the board of the day, Jimmy won the title with that board. Cher and Steve Pendarvis are in the background cheering Jimmy on. Cher helped Mike Sheffer create this legendary fish by drawing the template and making the fins.”

“I love this photo of David Nuuhiwa that I took during the 1972 World Championship. Such a super star.”

“Hawaiian Jerry Lopez on the beach in San Diego, 1972.”

“Jericho Poppler with Joyce Hoffman by the trophies for the 1972 World Championship in San Diego. Very much enjoyed the time in the surf catching waves together, both in competition and as friends.”

“The waiting game, and often the mind games, of a major surf competition. Debbie Melville Beacham and Joyce Hoffman in San Diego, 1972.”

“The ‘70s were all about women busting down doors for the future of all women. This photo of me was taken by Marty Tullermen at the 1974 Australian National Title held at Snapper Rocks, Queensland.”

“Phyllis O’Donnell, Josette Lagardere, and me at the 1974 Aussie titles.”

“The 1974 Aussie titles at Burleigh Heads, I had my back-to-back wins in 1973 and 1974.”

“A photo of the crew by Jericho. From left to right is my sister Vicki, Rell Sunn, myself, and Judy Trim around 1975. Trimmy was an icon in Sydney, she was such a super hot surfer from 1968 to 1974. She won the 1968 Australia title at fourteen years old. Trimmy lived a wild, colorful life back then and is quite the legend -- up there with Peter Drouyn and Michael Peterson. She added so much to Aussie surf history.”

“Here’s a photo of the 1975 Smirnoff Pro Am. There’s the beautiful Rella Sunn. I was pleased I got her on her way.”

“The 1975 Smirnoff Pro Am was the first time the women were invited to compete, it had always been a male’s competition. This particular contest was a huge challenge for the world’s best big wave riders, it was held at Sunset Beach and sometimes Waimea Bay if it was breaking. Rell and Fred Hemmings negotiated the event, then Rell and Jericho talked sponsors into the idea of including pro women. Women's liberation was very strong in the ‘70s and we were pushing against a long established mindset that was very hard to break. I was the back-to-back Australian champion from the previous two years and was fortunate enough to receive an invite. I was surprised to learn we would never get to surf against the other women, but that our individual scores would determine a winner. So the women paddled out with the men's heats. Not my sort of concept.”

“There were four men to one woman per heat. Jeff Hakman lent me his spare gun. I paddled out into the channel for my heat with Jeff Hakman, Michael Ho, Rory Russell, and Wayne Lynch at Sunset Beach. It was about 12-14 ft during my heat, it was a rising swell. The following day Waimea Bay was breaking 30ft plus. I had never rode a gun before. I remember running hard with the gun to push through the wild shore break in front of a thousand people.”

“Michael Ho and Rory Russell in the 1975 Smirnoff Pro Am. That’s two of the lads in my heat, I joined them after I took the photo.”

"I remember Rell and Jericho talking about how important it was for women to be involved and to prove ourselves worthy. That meant women had to paddle into some big waves. Margo Oberg ended up winning the event in 1975.”

"Sports Illustrated took this photo of me in the channel while paddling out to the take off zone. The challenge was to not choke or wimp out. I was 26 years old. I liked to surf big waves, I was comfortable with size.”

“Rell and her Gerry Lopez Lighting Bolt. Rell, Jericho, and myself were invited to the Coke contest in Sydney. It was truly humble beginnings. I remember how hard it was for Rell as a single mom to get herself sponsored. Rell and Jericho were very much the forerunners there, they were beautiful ambassadors to help promote women in surf. Rell was a full-time diplomat for her island of Hawaii. We packed up my youngest sister Vicki’s old station wagon with a roof full of ‘70s surfboards and luggage and surfed our way down the coast.”

“Rell and Jericho with friends by the stand, it was all about protecting others while at Rell's beach.”

“The pro surfers of the mid ‘70s were all super women. From left to right: Margo Godfrey, Jericho's board (she is taking the picture), Lynn Boyer, Becky Benson, and Rella Sunn at the Hawaiian Masters Pro in 1977. The contests were the first steps for women. We organized our own competitions and sourced sponsors, the contestants did the judging. Somehow it all worked. We all had the same goal to get more girls into surf contests and establish professional surfing around the world.”

Follow more of Kim's adventures on her Instagram here

Words by Chelsea Slayter