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Far from being some sort of terrifying new lo-cal breakfast cereal or diet refreshment, Coolite was the secret weapon that powered an explosion of youthful surfing talent in Australia through the 1970s and early '80s. Amusingly, it also held close association with another great Aussie icon: beer.

Coolite is a type of polystyrene beaded foam originally used to make the fabulous device known as an Esky - a large beer cooler carried by Aussies to outdoor social events.

Sometime in the late 1960s a Sydney-based foam manufacturer named Frank Hordern found he had an excess of Esky-type foam. Prompted by his pre-teen daughter's love of the beach, Hordern approached Sydney surfboard maker Shane Stedman to ask if it might be any good for making cheap boards for kids. Within a month, Shane-labeled Coolite boards were flooding through department stores across beachside cities, and other industrial foam makers quickly followed suit.

Young surfers-to-be (or more accurately, their parents) could buy a Coolite board -- basically just a molded chunk of the puffy lightweight foam -- for a fraction of the price of a conventional urethane foam/glass/resin board. They were about five feet long and several inches thick, very simple in design, with rounded noses and tails, and often with a couple of thin runners down the bottom instead of fins. A major attraction of the Coolite was that it could be ridden inside lifeguard-patrolled areas, where Mom and Dad could feel safe about little Johnny's chances of survival.

By 1972, Sydney and Gold Coast beaches were full of 10-year-old kids hurtling down three-foot closeouts on their Coolites, scrambling to maintain control of the superlight, finless wonders. Surf legend Midget Farrelly actually signed off on a Coolite model called a "Midget Farrelly Pro Champ" with a rubber fin set into the board. The things bred awful cases of stomach rash from constant rubbing against the squeaky, stiff foam, until the kids realized T-shirts might not be a bad idea.

In hindsight, it was all a bizarre contrast to the supercool proto-hippie surf scene then playing out on the NSW north coast, where -- conventional wisdom now has it -- Australian surfing was being re-created by Nat Young and the Morning of the Earth film crew. In fact, the surfers of the future, Tom Carroll, Cheyne Horan, Damien Hardman, Gary Elkerton and the like, were spending four hours a day and eight on weekends learning to ride one of the least stable pieces of surfing equipment ever invented. The Coolite's fast-twitch, almost uncontrollable bounciness was a perfect grounding for the high speed hypercontrolled surfing approach of the late-'80s pro scene.

Great as they were for learning, Coolites didn't permit the next step -- graduation to a fiberglass model. Many a grommet was broken-hearted after an amateur attempt to reshape and glass his Coolite; the styrene foam reacted badly to polyester surfboard resin, and would dissolve into a horrid white paste. Only years later would US East Coast designer Greg Loehr figure out a system of laminating Coolite-style foam with styrene-friendly epoxy resins.

The Coolite fell out of favor through the late 1970s, replaced eventually by bodyboards as a start-up tool. Terry Fitzgerald of Sydney-based Hot Buttered Surfboards has started making 'em again in the past couple of years with considerable success. -- Nick Carroll, July 2001