The Guardian - Obituaries - Monday 11th May 2009


Bill Bailey - "Father of British surfing"Bill Bailey played a crucial role in the development of British surfing – as a Newquay lifeguard, a pioneer surfer and an expert surfboard builder.

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Bailey was a skilled technician, whose passion for waves and ability to shape surfboards, placed him in a unique position to facilitate the growth of a new sport within the nation. A devoted waterman and a natural teacher, he encouraged people to live their lives to the full and follow their sporting dreams Many duly went on to become surfing champions, surfboard builders and architects of the surf-culture industry. Bill had a gentleness that touched the heart and he’s become known within the collective memory of the surfing tribe as ‘the father of British surfing’.

Born in 1933, Bailey 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 '50s, his involvement in search-and-rescue operations and love of the sea attracted him to the embryonic surf lifesaving club in Newquay, Cornwall, where he began building lifesaving equipment. 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 local life-saver Richard, in waves ’more than two men high’. They only caught one wave – it was big enough to dwarf the 14-foot long ski as it drove an angle towards the wave-bowl, and ultimately towards the beach, pushed by a seething mountain of whitewater. These were the antics of ocean heroes!

This progressed to constructing two hollow wooden 12-foot surfboards, ostensibly for life-saving purposes, but allowing the first experiments of standing while riding waves.

In 1962 Bailey saw the future of sufing when a visiting Californian brought the first foreign foam-and-fibreglass surfboard to Newquay. He bought it and learned to ride it, making him one of the first native surfers in Britain!

Once he started building boards in 1964 from a small garage, the opportunity to surf was available to others. The seeds of a beach sporting community were being planted.

Bailey went into partnership to set up the European Surfing Company in 1965, designed to service the equipment needs of surfings’ rising popularity.
Their ‘Bilbo Surfboard’ brand quickly took off, and from then on Bailey would always be found at the Newquay factory master-minding the process.

Bailey's RAF engineer career had instilled the philosophy, ‘There are no problems, only solutions waiting to be found.’ He applied this to the developing surfing industry with ardent fervour His hand was at the helm of the manufacture of high-density polyurethane foam, custom built board techniques, moulded surfboards, detachable fin-systems, and the commercial arrival of surfing wetsuits and skateboards in the UK.

Bilbo surfboards was the original and biggest name at the forefront of surfing’s
arrival in Britain. Simultaneously, it supplied the first surfboards for many of the earliest surfers in France and Ireland.

At the end of an intense and creative 60s decade, in which he and his wife Lil had started a family and raised two sons, Bailey changed direction in search of new technical challenge, leaving behind him beaches with thousands of surfers, where he had first found only a handful.

Fixing planes, sinking mine shafts, developing European foam production facilities filled years, before a long sojourn cruising the Meditteranean on his ketch, Punch Coco, with his wife.
In latter years Bailey returned to live with his wife on their Cornish country property, with immediate access to four generations of the Bailey clan. Here, he enjoyed the simplicity of rural home life with his workshop on-site. His hobby, as a skilled gunsmith, was to build his own crafted guns and bullets, making him a legend at his local gun club.

In the last year, flush with exhilaration, from an extended roadtrip down the west coast of North America, from Alberta to El Paso he succumbed to a second manifestation of cancer, this time in the liver. His response was to bravely time-manage his decline by putting his affairs in order before ‘the next great adventure’ as he called the imminent approach of death.

Bill Bailey, 75 years old, died on 28 April 2009, at home with his family. He is survived by Lilian and his two sons, Jason and Nick, and 98 year old father George. They were joined on the following Saturday by more than fifty people, most from the surfing tribe of the 60s, family and other friends, to lay his body in a nearby orchard to the family home.

Roger Mansfield