Before his book came out in 2008, Donald Paarman gave me a copy of the manuscript to read. I read it in one sitting, and I remember thinking along the lines of, ‘This ou has had one helluva life.’ I also remember him telling me that there was quite a bit that he had to leave out, just because there were people who might be hurt by the words. It was hard-hitting, but it wasn’t an exposé – Donald didn’t kiss and tell. He had that level of sensitivity.
His life story is one of an extremely talented and gifted surfer – he represented South Africa as a Springbok surfer three times by the age of 17. Donald was just 14 years-old when he earned his first cap, an incredible achievement yet to be repeated. That was in 1966, when he was selected to represent his country at the World Championships in San Diego. Donald was also a troubled soul battling along substance abuse and addictions. With relative candour Donald relayed his life, the good and the bad, in the autobiography, called Lunatic, Surfer or Destiny.
Born into a Catholic family and a close relative of John Whitmore, Donald grew up right on the beach in Bakoven and started surfing in the early 1960s. Winning the first contest he entered at age 12, he went on to become the country’s best teenage surfer of the Sixties. He was elected to the Surfing Magazines International Hall Of Fame in 1966.
Donald decided to stay on in Australia after the 1970 World Surfing Championships there, marrying a New Zealand girl, hanging out with the surfing icons of that era, before returning to his homeland seven years later.
Back in South Africa Donald went through life with wild-eyed wonder, but got a little marred with suburbia and excesses, before cleaning up his act and hitting the surf again.
He was a regular out at Supers on his big yellow board, and could be found flying down the line on his backhand, still enigmatic with his white hair and beard, racing down to the Impossibles section with a smile on his face.
As the oldest out of one of the strongest surfing families in South Africa, Donald led the way in his youth when it got big, when it was a heavy session, and when things looked a bit challenging – he never backed down and always had a relaxed way of dealing with the ocean. Donald had it all – small wave skills, big wave prowess, tube riding talent and competitive nous – and was the emerging talent out of Cape Town who had the surfing world at his feet. In 1977, when Donald was 25, Shaun Tomson won his world title. Donald was of comparative skill and competitive excellence, but his surfing path was way different to our first professional world champion.
For the last couple of years Donald lived in Wilderness and surfed Vic Bay as often as he could. He had his take-off spot, and he got his waves. Calm and relaxed in the water, Donald would wait for the wide-swingers and hook into them on his yellow board, always stylish and relaxed.
“From Johnny and myself and the rest of the family, we would just like to thank everyone for their condolences, and for the support during this difficult time,” said Roger Paarman, who spent the last week by Donald’s side. “It’s obviously very sad in his passing, but Donald was a fighter till the end, and we’re proud of his achievements in life and of the legacy that remains.”
Donald passed away on Sunday 1 October from lung cancer. He was 65 years old. He had a helluva life.