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1930s: Corona del Mar, 1923-27

Corona del Mar, 1923-1927


During the 1920s, in California, there were small numbers of “Roaring ‘20s” surfers riding waves at a limited number of breaks from Santa Monica to San Diego, but the most popular break was Corona del Mar.  This had probably as much to do with the nightlife at Balboa, north across the channel leading to Newport Harbor, as it was to Corona’s exceptionally nice set-up, surf-wise.  The good surf at Corona was all about the south jetty.

Although not originally intended for surfers, the cement jetty at Corona del Mar was a boon for surfriders.  The 800-foot long jetty stretched from the rocks at Big Corona all the way to the beach.  When the swells were running, a surfer could launch from the end of the jetty, ride in next to it for approximately 800 feet, then climb up a chain ladder, run out on the jetty and do the same thing all over again.  Perhaps more importantly, waves jacked up at Corona unlike they did anywhere else – also due to the jetty.

In 1923, two beacon lights were installed at the jetty entrance.  These were written about in a Long Beach Press article, in December: “The two beacon lights at the end of the jetty protecting the entrance of Newport harbor are complete and have been turned over to the care of Antar Deraga, head of the Balboa life saving guards… The lights are about thirty feet above the ocean level and can be seen by all ships passing on the east side of Catalina.

“The outer beacon light is equipped with a three-fourths foot burner and will burn about 160 days.  It flashes one second and five seconds dark.  It is equipped with a sun valve for economy of operation.  The inner beacon light is equipped with a five-sixteenths-foot burner without sun valve.  It should burn 200 days.  This beacon flashes every two and a half seconds.

“The government lighthouse service will also supply the keeper here with a lifeboat for use in rescue work.  It will be in charge of Mr. Deraga, who is known as one of the most efficient lifeguards on the coast.  Before coming here he made an enviable record in Europe and has recently been made a member of the Royal life saving guards of England and given a service medal in recognition of heroic service in the English Channel and also for saving the life of an English lady in this harbor last summer.”[1]

Antar Deraga was also one of those who, along with standout surfer and Olympic champion Duke Kahanamoku, helped rescue the majority of the crew of the Thelma when it floundered off Newport Beach in 1925:

“Battling with his surfboard through the heavy seas in which no small boat could live, Kahanamoku, was the first to reach the drowning men.  He made three successive trips to the beach and carried four victims the first trip, three the second and one the third.  Sheffield, Plummer and Derega were credited with saving four; while other members of the rescue party waded into the surf and carried the drowning men to safety…

“The accident occurred at the identical spot near the bell buoy where, almost to a day a year ago, a similar accident occurred and nine men were drowned.  Two of the bodies were carried out to sea by the undertow and were never recovered.

“Captain Porter expressed the belief yesterday that at least eight or ten more would have been drowned had not Kahanamoku and Derega been ready with immediate assistance…

“The Hawaiian swimmer was camped on the beach with a party of film players and was just going out for his morning swim when the boat was wrecked.  The lifeguards were just going on duty.”[2]

There was an established record of difficulty for boats leaving and entering the Newport Channel on a good swell.  In 1927, the city of Newport voted $500,000 for a harbor expansion that included changes to the jetties.  In 1928, the city approved $200,000 for work on both the west and east jetties.  It was this later work that would forever change surfing at Corona del Mar – especially the surf adjacent to the east jetty – and be lamented by surfers who considered Corona the main surfing beach of Southern California.[3]

Surfing’s first dedicated surf photographer Doc Ball eulogized the early surf scene at Corona del Mar, when he later wrote in 1946: “We who knew it will never forget buzzing the end of that slippery, slimy jetty, just barely missing the crushing impact as the sea mashed into the concrete.  Nor will we forget the squeeze act when 18 to 20 guys all tried to take off on the same fringing hook.  And do you remember the days when you waited near that clanging bell buoy for the next set to arrive?  Corona Del Mar’s zero surf was hell on the yachtsmen but – holy cow – what stuff for the Kamaainas.  Yes!  Those were the days.”[4]

During the area’s boom-days of the 1920s, a housing development originally named Balboa Bay Palisades was created in 1923 and morphed into what we now call Corona del Mar.  During that decade, the area’s income came mostly from the Rendezvous dance hall, gambling and bootleg liquor.  The Rendezvous Ballroom was the place to be and a major destination for touring big bands of the time.  On a Saturday night the town bore a resemblance to Bourbon Street, in New Orleans, during Mardi Gras.  A number of businesses were involved in gambling.

More on the Rendezvous when we get to talking about Gene “Tarzan” Smith...



[1] Long Beach Press, “Beacon Lights at Balboa Are Set,” December 26, 1923.
[2] Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1925.  The Long Beach Press-Telegram of the same date reported that Duke rescued 6, not 8.  Duke Kahanamoku, Antar Derega, captain of the Newport lifeguards; Charles Plummer, lifeguard; T.W. Sheffield, captain of the Corona Del Mar Swimming Club; Gerard Vultee, William Herwig and Owen Hale, were all those who went to the rescue.
[4] Ball, John “Doc.”  California surfriders , 1946

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1930s: Long Beach, 1910-1927

Long Beach, USA, 1910-1927


[Some great 1920s shots of Long Beach are at: Don Fleming photos and comments]

By the start of the 1930s, Southern California’s surfing epicenter was located at Corona del Mar.  But SoCal surfing had begun up the coast first at Venice in 1907, then Redondo and Huntington, spreading out from those beaches.[1]



Surfing’s evolution in the Los Angeles area can be seen in a reading of the local newspapers of the period, especially the ones around Long Beach.  Surfing in Long Beach?  It is hard to imagine today, but once upon a time – before the breakwater was built in the early 1940s and before the area’s massive landfill was undertaken – not only did excellent surf break upon its shores, but Long Beach was once considered “the Waikiki of the Pacific Coast.”  Today, despite the disappearance of the long beach that gave the city its name, some surfers still remember the old days and for those of us a bit younger, we have the newspaper record:


Long Beach Press, April 7, 1910 – “SUGGESTS USE OF SURF BOATS: VISITOR JUST IN FROM HAWAII FAVORS NEW AMUSEMENT FOR LONG BEACH

“W.P. Wheeler of Monroe, Mich., who has arrived in Long Beach to spend the summer after a winter in Hawaii, suggests that some enterprising man with a little money build and put in operation a lot of surf boats, for which Waikiki beach, Honolulu is famous.

“Mr. Wheeler says that Long Beach is the only beach he has ever seen which can compare with the famous Waikiki, and that the surf rolls here exactly as it does at that beach.

“‘When I saw those catamarans, or surf boats, operated at Waikiki,’ said Mr. Wheeler, ‘I wondered why the Pacific coast beach resorts did not take to them.  I was told while in Honolulu, by an admirer of Waikiki, that no beach on the California coast was as shallow and long as Waikiki.  Now I know that the fellow was not well informed, for the beach here is exactly like the Hawaiian beach.’”[2]


To my knowledge, the first recorded lifesaving action using surfboards in U.S. Mainland waters took place on September 3, 1911:


Daily Telegram, September 4, 1911 – “TWO LIVES SAVED BY SKILLFUL USE OF HAWAIIAN SURFERS

“One of the most novel rescues every pulled off in the surf at Long Beach was accomplished yesterday afternoon on the beach west of Magnolia Avenue when Paul Rowan of Long Beach and a stranger who slipped away before his identity could be discovered, were saved from drowning by Charles Allbright and A.J. Stout.

“The two rescuers were also nearly exhausted and were helped to the beach during the latter part of their spectacular trip by the hotel life guard, John Leonard, who was unaware of the trouble until he saw the men struggling to reach shore against a strong rip tide.

“Both the rescuers met and became close friends in Honolulu and brought Hawaiian surfboards over with them recently to try them out in the local surf.  Paul Rowan, who is a strong swimmer, was out beyond the end of the lifelines, which extend from the beach to a point beyond the breakers.  He was swimming about, enjoying the exercise when he heard a cry from a man who was nearer the shore, but just beyond the breakers.

“’For God's sake, help me.  I have a wife on shore,’ gurgled the stranger, a man of about thirty years of age, as he began to sink.

“Rowan went to his help with a swift overhand stroke and caught him just as he was sinking a second time in the strong offshore current.

“The stranger immediately grabbed hold of Rowan and held him so that he had to fight to free his arms.  Rowan was also dragged under.  It was at this point that Allbright and Stout, on their surfboards, became aware of the situation.

“Allbright grabbed Rowan, who was dizzy from his forced immersion and placed him on his surfboard.  Stout did the same for the stranger.  Just then a succession of big breakers came along and the two men, with their burdens, coasted magnificently inshore against the rip tide.

“The peculiarity of the Hawaiian surfboards was to a large extent responsible for the effectiveness of the rescue of both the stranger and his first rescuer, Paul Rowan.  The boards are made of the beautifully grained koa wood of the Hawaiian Isles and are six feet long.  They are three inches thick and eighteen inches wide.

“Both Allbright and Stout are expert surfboard riders and for years coasted on the foaming breakers which run in on the beach between Diamond Head and Honolulu.  There the mountain high breakers travel at great speeds for a distance of nearly half a mile.  Yesterday they were riding the breakers with the greatest ease in front of the Virginia Hotel and a large crowd was watching them as they stood up on the boards and coasted rapidly ashore.  The rescues yesterday were probably the first of the kind.  The success of the men with their boards may result in the general use of the same type at the beach.

“Both Allbright and Stout made light of the incident, and from information supplied from other sources it was learned that they frequently make similar rescues out in the Hawaiian Islands.”[3]


Long Beach Press, February 26, 1921 – “NOVEL SURF BOARD AND CANOES MADE

“Surf-boating has made such an appeal to visitors to Long Beach during the past year that Victor K. Hart, manager of Venetian Square; and T. Bennett Shutt, local building contractor, have completed arrangements to manufacture surf boards and surf canoes here in quantity.  A temporary factory has been opened and twenty of the surfboards and a dozen canoes are now being built.

“Erection of the flood control jetties has checked the ocean currents to such an extent that splendid surf-boating is now to be enjoyed on the west beach.  The surfboards under construction here were designed by Hart and Shutt and are said to be lighter and different in shape to the Hawaiian island boards.”[4]



One of Long Beach's first surfers was Haig (Hal) Prieste, who won an Olympic diving medal at the 1920 Olympics.  There, he met Duke Kahanamoku and accepted an invitation to visit him in Hawai‘i, where he took up surfing and became an honorary member of the Hui Nalu:


Long Beach Press, May 3, 1921 – “LOCAL BOY TO ENTER BIG MEET IN HAWAII

“Haig Prieste, Long Beach boy and former Poly High student, winner of third place in the Olympic games diving contests, leaves Friday for San Francisco en route to the Hawaiian islands, where he will enter the junior national high diving contest which is to be a feature of a big aquatic carnival to be held in Honolulu.  Prieste will be the only swimmer to enter the meet from the mainland, a special request for his presence having been made by the swimming officials at Honolulu.

“Following his appearance at Honolulu, Prieste may continue to the Antipodes where he has been requested to enter a number of contests with the best of the Australian swimmers and divers.  Whether he will make this trip or not depends upon contracts which he has with motion picture concerns.  Prieste formerly was connected with Mack Sennet and with the Rollin and Gasnier studios doing ‘dare devil’ stunts in comedy productions.  He has achieved quite a reputation locally as a sleight of hand entertainer in addition to his prowess as a high diver.”[5]


Daily Telegram, August 15, 1921 – “HAIG PRIESTE HOME FROM THREE MONTHS OF HAWAIIAN TOUR: HAS MAMMOTH SURFBOARD GIVEN HIM

“Haig Prieste, Olympic diving champion, returned to Long Beach with a ukulele, an oversize surfboard and an interesting story of three months in the Hawaiian Islands.  He intended to remain three weeks when he left as the only American entrant in the Hawaiian carnival staged in the latter part of May.  The charm of the islands, the determination to master Hawaiian surf board riding – and the ukulele – and an opportunity to gather a couple of spare diving championships kept him several weeks overtime.

“He won the junior national high diving title and the springboard diving championship of a half dozen islands.  He brought with him the Castle and Cook trophy and several others of lesser significance.  He was the guest of honor and an honorary member of the Hui Nalu swimming club, the leading aquatic organization of the islands.

“Prieste and Duke Kahanamoku palled around together at Hilo for a time.  Prieste astonished the natives when he learned to ride the gigantic surfboards standing on his hands.  ‘It's the greatest sport in the world,’ he said today.

“Prieste says that the expert Hawaiian surfriders are able to ride for three-quarters of a mile on their boards.  They have grown up with a surfboard in one hand, and by learning the formation of the coral reefs and the various currents, they are able to pilot their boards for great distances in a zigzag course.  The waves bowl them along at a speed of 35 miles per hour.  There is a great knack in catching the wave at the proper angle, Prieste says.  Unless the board is pointed diagonally at the correct angle at the correct moment both board and rider will be dumped on the coral floor of the ocean.  Prieste spent from 8 to 10 hours in the water each day.”[6]


Press-Telegram, December 31, 1926 – “BEACH GREATEST

“Board surfing has been growing in popularity year by year.  While most of the boards used are short and only for the surf after it has broken, yet there have developed some who have learned to ride the waves while they are still huge and green without any white water.  Some of the beach guards have mastered an art before confined to the surfing beaches of the Hawaiian Islands.

“Even some of the Long Beach girls have become proficient in this exciting water sport.”[7]


Early California tandem surfing:


Press-Telegram, March 18, 1927 – “TWO DARE DEATH

“A special exhibition of fancy riding on surfboards will be performed by Elmer Peck and Miriam Tizzard at Alamitos Bay.  Peck has attained national stunts that he has performed in all parts of this country as well as in the waters off Hawaii and the South American republics.

“Miss Tizzard is a local girl and though she has only been under Mr. Peck's direction for two weeks he regards her as one of the most apt pupils that he has ever trained.  He says that she is perfectly at home on the elusive surfboard.  Special stunts in which the two combine will be a feature of the program offered.”[8]




[1] Based on the movements of George Freeth, “The Father of California Surfing.”
[2] Long Beach Press, April 7, 1910.
[3] Daily Telegram, September 4, 1911.
[4] Long Beach Press, February 26, 1921.
[5] Long Beach Press, May 3, 1921.
[6] Daily Telegram, August 15, 1921.
[7] Press-Telegram, December 31, 1926.
[8] Press-Telegram, March 18, 1927.

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1930s: Australia, 1920s

In February 1920, Claude West used his board to rescue a swimmer at Manly.  The rescuee was the Australian Goveror-General, Sir Ronald Mungo Fergerson, who presented his rescuer with his silver dress watch, in appreciation.[1]

A newspaper report of the “Australian Championships” at Manly, March 1920, records the results of a surfboard race:

1. A. McKenzie (North Bondi)
2. Oswald Downing (Manly)
3. A. Moxan (North Bondi)[2]

A similar newspaper report of the Bondi Championships, April 1921, records the results of a surfboard race as:

1. A. McKenzie (North Bondi)
2. A. Moxan

Other starters were Oswald Downing  and Claude West (Manly).[3]

By 1921, the Surf Life Saving Association printed their first handbook.  It probably formed the basis for subsequent publications later entitled the “Handbook of the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia.”

At the Australian Championships at Manly in 1922, the board event results were:

1. Claude West (Manly)
2. A. McKenzie (North Bondi)
3. Oswald Downing (Manly)

West, who had apparently dominated the demonstrations, was soon to retire.[4]

Oswald Downing was an early board builder and a trainee architect who had drawn up his own surfboard construction plans.  These are possibly the plans printed in the 1923 edition of The Australian Surf Life Saving Handbook.[5]

In celebration of Collaroy SLSC's victory in the Alarm Reel Race at the Australian Championships at Manly in 1922, swimmer Ron Harris’ family commissioned Buster Quinn (a cabinet maker with Anthony Hordens) to make a surfboard.  Quinn made the board from a single piece of Californian Redwood at the Dingbats’ Camp.  Before it was completed, however, Harris’ father died and the family left Collaroy.  Chic Proctor acquired the board in Harris’ absence and it remains in the clubhouse to this day as the Club’s Life Members Honour Board.[6]

With growing numbers of surf board riders, the Manly Council considered banning surfboards altogether, in 1923, in the interest of the public safety of bodysurfers.  This idea was forgotten when one day at the beach, three city councilors witnessed a rescue of three swimmers in high surf by Claude West using his surfboard.  Reversing their position, the Council commended the use of surfboards as rescue craft.[7]

At the 1924 the Australian Championships at Manly, the surfboard display was won by Charles Justin “Snowy” McAlister of the Manly Surf Club.  As a kid, he had watched Duke ride in 1915.  Thereafter, Snowy soon began surfing on his mother’s pine ironing board.  “I used to wag school and rush down to the beach with it,” he recalled.  “I got away with it a number of times, but she eventually found out because I would come home sunburnt.”[8]  The pine ironing board was followed by a self-made plywood board and his first full size board, a gift from Oswald Downing.[9]

Later, Snowy made his own solid redwood board.  “I used to go into the timber yards in the city and buy a ten by three foot piece of wood about two  feet thick (sic, inches?), which I had delivered to the cargo wharf beside the Manly ferry.

“I’d lug it home, then carve it, varnish it overnight and try it out the next morning.

“We were getting murdered in those days.

“The boards had no fins.

“We’d go straight down the face of the wave instead of riding the corners as the Duke had done.  When we saw him do that we thought he was just riding crooked.”[10]

Starting out on an impressive competitive record, Snowy McAlister won board displays in Sydney in 1923-24 (Manly), 1924-25 (Manly), 1925-26 (North Bondi) and 1926-27 (Manly, second Les Ellinson).

His record at Newcastle was even more outstanding, with wins in 1923-24, 1925-26, 1927-28, 1930-31, 1931-32, 1934-35 and 1935-36.  All these victories were on solid boards.  He competed to 1938 and then made a comeback at the 1956 Olympic Carnival, Torquay.[11]  Snowy was the nation’s unofficial national surfboard champion from 1924 to 1928.  He visited South Africa and England on the way to the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928, accompanying another Manly Surf Club member Andrew “Boy” Carlton.[12]  Following the introduction of the Blake Hollow board to Australia in 1934, Snowy turned to the surfski as his preferred wave riding craft.

Another noted surfer of this formative period in Australian surfing was Adrian Curlewis.  Around 1923, Curlewis bought a used 70 pound board from Claude West, so he could surf regularly at Palm Beach.  This board was replaced by one of similar design in 1926, a board built by Les V. Hind of North Steyne for five pounds and fifteen shillings, including delivery.[13]  Curlewis became a noted surf performer, becoming somewhat of a star thanks a photograph printed in an Australian magazine in 1936.[14]

Sir Adrian Curlewis was born in 1901.  He graduated from Sydney University and was called to the Bar in 1927.  He served in Malaya in World War II and was a prisoner of war from 1942 to 1945.  He held the Presidency of the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia from 1933 to 1974, his position as sole Life Governor of that Association from 1974, and his Presidency of the International Council of Surf Life Saving from 1956 to 1973.  Curlewis served as a New South Wales District Court Judge from 1948 to 1971, retiring at the age of 70.[15]  Perhaps because of his early board riding experiences and long association with surf lifesaving organizations, he was a noted 1960s opponent of the growth of an independent surf culture centered on wave riding.[16]

At Coolangatta, boardriding continued to expand during the 1920s.  Basic competitions (using a standing take-off) were organized and riders included Clarrie Englert, Bill Davies, “Bluey” Gray and later, Jack Ajax.  Bluey Gray, in fact, wrote to Hawaiian and Californian surfers in an attempt to learn more about current developments in the sport.  Problems in sourcing suitable redwood saw “Splinter” Chapman, one of the coast’s top riders, use local Bolly gum to build boards.

North of Coolangatta, the first full-sized board was probably owned by John Russell of the Main Beach Club, circa 1925.[17]

Circa 1925, Sydney rider Anslie “Sprint” Walker surfed at Portsea, Victoria.  When he encountered trouble transporting the board between Portsea and home, he solved the problem by leaving his board at the beach, buried in the sand.  The board was eventually donated to the Torquay Surf Live Saving Club, but was later destroyed when the club house burnt down in 1970.  Sprint solved this problem, too, by building a replica from Canadian redwood with an adze, the way it had been done originally.[18]

The North Steyne Surf Life Saving Club promoted their 4th annual carnival, scheduled for December 19, 1925 at 2:45 p.m., with a flyer printed by the Manly Daily Press.  The noted “Surf and Beach Attractions” included: “1200 Competitors, 18 Leading Surf Life Saving Clubs Participating - Surf Boat Races, Thrills and Spills, Board Exhibitions, All State Surf Swimming Champions Competing.”[19]

The Australian Surf Life Saving Association promoted their annual surf championships, scheduled for February 27, 1926 at 2.30 p.m., with a flyer printed by the Mortons Ltd. Sydney.  It emphasized: “Surf Boats, Surf Shooting and Surf Board Displays by Real Champions.”[20]

In the late 1920s, Collaroy SLSC member Bert Chequer manufactured surfboards commercially and 15 shillings cheaper than North Steyne builder Les Hind.[21]  In the early 1920s, Chequer had been captivated by the likes of board riders such as Weary Lee, Chic Proctor and Ron Harris and made his first surfboard at 17 using a design similar to Buster Quinn’s.  As the years progressed, Chequer refined Quinn’s design, producing a board which was held in high regard by many other board riders in the Club.  Dick Swift requested he build him a board (the board is still in the Club house) and with delivery of the board a flood of similar requests came his way.  So, with this development and little work in his father’s building business to keep him busy, Chequer decided to try his hand at commercial surfboard building – one of the earliest such enterprises in the country.  The cost of a Chequer board was £5 which included delivery.

Chequer bought his timber from Hudson’s timber merchants where it was kiln dried before delivery. While he preferred cedar, its expense meant that he was forced to use Californian Redwood.  The board was crafted from a single piece of wood, meaning that Chequer’s small workshop was usually a sea of wood shavings.[22]  A board took just two days to build and was totally shaped by hand.  Once shaped, the board was coated with Linseed oil, before two coats of Velspar yacht varnish was applied.  In his initial experimentation with the varnish on his own board, the yellow finish it gave off prompted the board to be known as the “Yellow Peril.”  Boards were usually intricately marked either with a name, the initials of the owner, or with the Club emblem.[23]

Chequer was soon supplying individuals and clubs up and down the New South Wales coast and as far away as Phillip Island in Victoria.  While the business was relatively successful, there was a downside for Chequer.  Because he was a surfboard manufacturer, making money out of what was now regarded as a piece of life saving equipment; the Association claimed he was no longer an amateur by their definition.  He was therefore prohibited from surf life saving competition between 1932 and 1936.[24]

In the late 1920s, T.A. Brown and A. Williams used a corkwood board from Honolulu at Byron Bay NSW.[25]

Eric Mallen purchased a cedar slab that was once the counter of the Commerical Bank, and had it shaped into a fouteen foot board by Jack Wilson.  Proving to be too unwieldy, the board was later cut down, decorated and named “Leaping Lena.”  On large days, Eric Mallen would leap off the end of the large jetty that ran out from Main Street to save paddling.[26]

On Sunday, April 26, 1931, a belt and reel rescue attempt at Collaroy in extreme weed and swell conditions resulted in the death of Collaroy SLSC member, George “Jordie” Greenwell.  Even though the use of the reel was questionable in thick weed and high swell conditions, the inability of Greenwell to release himself from the belt was the main reason for his demise.  Despite demands on the SLSA’s Gear Committee, the “Ross safety belt” – designed to ensure the lifesaver from just such an entanglement – did not become compulsory for member clubs until the 1950s.  Greenwell was posthumously awarded the Meritious Award in Silver, the SLSA’s highest honor.[27]

While Greenwell’s drowning resurrected the debate on surf belts, there were two more immediate and positive developments from the drowning.  The first was an intensification of Association trials using waxed line to see if it would “overcome the difficulty of seaweed.”  The other was the Association's endorsement of the use of surfboards as life saving equipment.  In the Greenwell drowning itself, the surfboard had proved its usefulness in surf with a high seaweed content.

In the 1920s, surfboards had been used by a number of clubs as rescue apparatus.  While the line and reel remained the predominant rescue technique, the surfboard rivaled the surf boat for the number of rescues accorded to it each season.  Such use, however, had been against the wishes of the Association and lifesavers like Manly’s Claude West were reprimanded for their use.

During the 1929-30 season, the Collaroy Annual Report recorded rescues performed using surfboards, noting two such.  The following season, four surfboard rescues were recorded.  The figure was probably much greater, in reality, due to the fact that surfboards were often used to assist tired swimmers before they got into actual difficulties.  While confined almost exclusively to surf club use, surfboards were usually only used by members who were not on patrol duty.[28]

The data in club annual reports demonstrated to the Association that most clubs saw surfboards as useful rescue craft.  Within the Association, individuals such as Greg Dellit, Adrian Curlewis and Bert Chequer (who had joined the Board of Examiners) began to champion the surfboard.  Eventually, interested parties agreed that surfboards should be trialed so their usefulness could be gauged.  These trials were held in the swimming pool of the Tattersals Club in Sydney.  The trials confirmed the usefulness of surfboards as flotation devices in multiple and lone lifesaver rescues.  The fact they mostly went over rather than through sea weed was also noted.[29]



[1] Wells, page 152.
[2] Galton, Barry.  Gladiators of the Surf: The Australian Surf Life Saving Championships – A History, ©1984, page 29.  Published by AH & AW Read Pty Ltd., 2 Aquatic Drive, Frenchs Forest NSW 2086.  Soft cover, 122 black and white photographs, Australian Championships Results, Index.  Geoff Carter wrote: “A detailed work true to its subtitle, mostly concentrating on contest results, with some background information where appropriate.  Surfboats feature throughout the book, with occasional surfskis and boards.  Photographic highlights include: old and modern surfski (‘Snow’ McAllister and Michael Pietre), page 8; Australian S.L.S.A. team at Outrigger Canoe Club, Honolulu, 1939, p. 64; Hollow boards at North Bondi, 1947, page 74; Duke Kahanamoku at Torquay, 1956, page 108; US-Hawaiian team members (with paddleboards), Torquay, 1956, page 112 (incorrectly captioned ‘first of the malibus’).”
[3] Galton, 1984, page 29.
[6] Brawley, (1995), page 48.
[7] Harris, pages 55-56.
[8] Wells, p. 159.  Snowy McAlister quoted.
[9] Galton, p. 35.
[10] Wells, p. 159.  Snowy McAlister quoted.
[11] Galton, p. 35.
[12] Wells, pp. 159-160.  England AND South Africa?
[13] Brawley, 1996, p. 55, Reference: L. V. Hind to A.Curlewis, Curlewis Papers, SLSA Archives.
[14] Maxwell, 1949, p. 239.
[17] Harvey, p. 8.
[18] Wells, p. 153.  See also Snow McAlister, Wells pages 159-160 and Sprint Walker, “Solid Wood Boards and Victorian Surfing,” Tracks Magazine circa 1972.  Reprinted circa 1973 in The Best of Tracks, page 191.
[24] Brawley, 1995, pp. 95-96.
[26] Harvey, p. 8.
[27] Brawley, 1995, p. 91-95.

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1930s: Australia, 1910-20

Australia, 1910-1930


It is still a common misconception that surfing in Australia began in 1914-15, with the visit of Duke Kahanamoku to New South Wales; with the surfing demonstrations he gave at that time.  In fact, Australia’s surfing roots go back as far as the late 1800s, before legal rights to swim in the open sea had even been won.[1]  This was because “In Australia,” emphasized the Australian authors of Surfing Subcultures, “the origins of surfing were based on body surfing rather than on traditional board riding... the early Australian settlers – mainly of English origin – found no native surfing tradition to encourage or restrict either body or craft-based surfing, as was the case in Hawaii.”[2]

Australian surfing’s Polynesian connection came in the form of Alick Wickham and Tommy Tana.  In the 1890s, Alick Wickham, a native of the Solomon Islands, became an important influence on Australian swimming when he demonstrated a “crawl” stroke that was later exported to the rest of the world as the “Australian crawl.”[3]

Around the same time another South Sea Islander, Tommy Tana – a youth employed as a houseboy in the Manly district – was body surfing at the beach there.  Tana hailed from the Pacific island of Tana, in the New Hebrides, which is now called by its traditional name of Vanuatu.  He amazed onlookers at Manly Beach and inspired others to dive in.  His style was studied and copied by Manly swimmers like Eric Moore, Arthur Lowe and Freddie Williams.  Williams soon became the first local considered to fully master bodysurfing.  Later on, Freddie Williams became a public figure when he made the first publicized rescue of another swimmer at Manly Beach.[4]

After the turn of the century, Alick Wickham shaped the first surfboard in Australia.  Hand carved from a large piece of driftwood found on Curl Curl beach, this board was so bad it actually sank.[5]  Wickham’s knowledge of stand-up surfing using a board was obviously quite limited and is a testimony of how far surfing had fallen in such Polynesian locales as the Solomon Islands by the late 1800s.

When more novice swimmers and non-swimmers started ocean bathing off unsupervised beaches, accidents became numerous and soon raised public alarm.[6]  At Manly Beach alone, there were 16 drownings in the space of 10 years.  Local government authorities and regulars at the beaches eventually came to the realization that the general public would need to be either regulated or monitored.  This realization became the driving force for the formation of the Australian Surf Life Saving movement.

By 1909, the newly formed Australian Surf Life Saving Association published that there were eleven clubs active in New South Wales.  According to the report, no lives had been lost in the previous twelve months while beach patrols had been operating.  Thereafter, similar reports were made with similar statistics even though “surf bathing” and surfing grew at a dramatic rate across the beaches of Australia.  By 1964, there would be 112 clubs operating in New South Wales alone.[7]

The first Surf Carnival was held on January 25th 1908 at Manly Beach.  Six clubs competed and the first surfboat race, with various craft, was won by Little Coogee (now Clovelly), using their whale boat.  Surf Carnivals quickly become a popular method of revenue for the Live Saving Clubs.  The revenue from gate receipts were used to purchase gear and improve facilities.[8]  Tamarama Carnival, alone, attracted fifteen thousand spectators in February 1908.[9]

That same year, Alexander Hume Ford – the man who more than anyone helped publicize surfing at Waikiki during the first two decades of the Twentieth Century – visited Manly.  He wrote, curiously, that “I wanted to try riding the waves on a surf-board, but it is forbidden.”[10]

Many writers – including myself, once upon a time – have written that before Duke Kahanamoku came to Australia and became the first one to really popularize the sport, there were no surfers riding surfboards.  This is not correct.

While assisting with the 1908 trade agreements between Hawai‘i and Australia and New Zealand, Alexander Hume Ford introduced surfing to Australian Percy Hunter, the head of the New South Wales Immigration and Tourism Bureau.  Two years later, when Ford visited Australia again in 1910, he noted that there were already several surfboards stashed at Manly Beach.[11]  This was a full four and a half years before Duke Kahanamoku visited Australia for the first time and got credited for stoking Australians on stand-up surfing.

During this time, amongst some surf lifesavers, there was an understanding of what surfboards were.  It was noted that “Fred Notting painted a brace of slabs and named them Honolulu Queen and Fiji Flyer; gay they were to look at but they were not surfboards.”[12]

In 1912, well-known Australian swimmer, local businessman and politician[13] Charles D. Paterson, of Manly Beach, Sydney, had brought a solid, heavy redwood board back with him from Hawai‘i.  He and some local bodysurfers tried to ride it, but with little success.  “When he and his mates couldn’t figure out how to ride it,” Duke biographer Sandra Hall wrote, “his wife used it as an ironing board.”[14]

Yet, Patterson and his mates were not the only ones who had attempted surfboard riding or were surfing prior to Duke’s visit.  Early in 1912, the Daily Telegraph reported on the second Freshwater Life Saving Carnival held on January 26th.  In the account of the day’s events, there was mention of surfboard riding: “A clever exhibition of surf board shooting was given by Mr. Walker, of the Manly Seagulls Surf Club.  With his Hawaiian surf board he drew much applause for his clever feats, coming in on the breaker standing balanced on his feet or his head.”[15]  Whether the board Walker rode on was a knock-off of Patterson’s, Patterson’s, or an entirely separate board is unknown.

We do know for sure that following the arrival of C.D. Paterson’s board at Manly in 1912, a small group – the Walker Brothers, Steve McKelvey, Jack Reynolds, Fred Notting, Basil Kirke, Jack Reynolds, Norman Roberts, Geoff Wyld, Tom Walker, Claude West (when aged 13) and Miss Esma Amor – all attempted surf riding on replica boards.  Some of these tried surfing before and some after Duke’s visit.  Made from Californian redwood by Les Hinds, a local builder from North Steyne, they were 8 ft long, 20" wide, 11/2" thick and weighed 35 pounds.  Riding the boards was limited to launching onto broken waves from a standing position and riding white water straight in, either prone or kneeling.  Standing rides on the board for up to 50 yards/meters were considered outstanding.[16]

In Queensland, by 1913-14, prone boards four to five feet long, one inch thick, and about a foot wide were in use on Coolangatta Beaches.[17]  These were made from slabs of cedar or pine.  Charlie Faukner read of Duke Kahanamoku’s surf riding and used a board as an aqua planner on the Tweed River, to ride at Greenmount in 1914.[18]  Sometime slightly before 1914, at Deewhy, “Long Harry” Taylor “made a board resembling an old-fashioned church door, but his efforts in the surf were so futile they became ridiculous.”[19]

So, yes, surfing on wooden boards – or their facsimile – had already begun by the time Duke Kahanamoku first visited Australia in 1914-15.  Even so, it is undeniable that it was Duke’s shaping his own board and then riding it at Freshwater that really got surfing going in Australia.  His riding was widely publicized and resulted in huge enthusiasm for stand-up surfing in New South Wales.  Unfortunately, this stoke was rapidly dampened by the onset of World War I, when many young Australians lost their lives on the battlefields of Europe, including Manly captain and Olympic swimming champion, Cecil Healy.  Surfing, like most other Australian recreational activities, was largely put on hold until after 1918.[20]

Duke Kahanamoku's tandem partner while in Australia, Isabel Letham, continued boardriding at Freshwater up to 1918 when she moved to the USA to work as a professional swimming instructor.[21]  Other prominent boardriders in the Manly area, post-Duke, were Steve Dowling, “Busty” Walker, Geoff Wyld, Ossie Downing, Reg Vaughn (Manly), Tom Walker (Seagulls), Barton Ronald, Billy Hill and Lyal Pidcock.[22]

Circa 1915, seventeen year old Grace Wootton (nee Smith) was encouraged to try (prone) boarding at Point Lonsdale, Victoria.  Using a board brought to Australia by “a Mr. Jackson and a Mr. Goldie from Hawaii,” and after some basic instruction, Grace Wootton became a proficient and stoked surfer.  A local carpenter was commissioned to make a board for her, for the following season.  This board was solid timber, approximately 6 feet x 16 inches and a little over 1-inch thick.  The cost of 12 shillings included her initials (GW) carved at one end.  Photographs of Grace Wootton taken in 1916 show her surfing and her personally modified woolen swimsuit, purchased from Ball and Welch (Outfitters), Melbourne.[23]
Following Duke’s surfing demonstrations in Australia (and New Zealand), many boards were made based on his handcrafted design.[24]

Circa 1915, Collaroy Surf Life Saving Club member, Alf “Weary” Lee saw Duke Kahanamoku’s Dee Why demonstration and built his own board according to Duke’s design.   Since the board was stored in the club house, it was available for younger club members to have a go of it.[25]

Duke’s most stoked pupil, Claude West, was initially at the Freshwater Club but later moved to Manly. He became Australia’s top boardrider for the next 10 years.  Starting out riding Duke’s original pine board, West really got into stand-up surfing and encouraged others, including “Snowy” McAllister of Manly and Adrian Curlewis of Palm Beach.  He went on to become a professional lifesaver at Manly Beach for many years.[26]

In Queensland, two copies of Duke Kahanamoku’s pine board were made for the Greenmount Surf Lifesaving Club.  The arrival of the two boards prompted further replicas made and surfed by Sid “Splinter” Chapman, Andy Gibson and a surfer known only as Winders.  Prices varied from two shillings and sixpence to seven shillings and sixpence.[27]

In 1919 Louis Whyte, a Geelong businessman, and Ian McGillivray visited Hawai‘i and purchased solid redwood boards from Duke Kahanamoku.  The boards were subsequently ridden at Lorne Point, Victoria.[28]

John Ralston, a Sydney solicitor and land developer, introduced surfboards at Palm Beach, Sydney in 1919.[29]  With such encouragement, Palm Beach became a popular board riding beach, producing several champions and a strong pro-surfboard lobby within the ASLA.[30]

Some of the Surf Life Saving clubs became centers of board riding, clubhouses becoming storage facilities for boards, in addition to being places where club members could gather and hang out.[31]
With the end of World War I in 1918, military technological developments like industrial glues and varnishes were applied to marine craft, including surfboard construction.[32]

In the early years of its establishment, board riding was given little support by the Surf Life Surfing Association.  Competitions as part of carnivals were judged subjectively.  For example, a headstand scored maximum points although it had little to do with how well one rode the wave.  With a growing emphasis on rescue techniques, it was paddling skill that became the focus when it came to surfboard use.  Record keeping for surfing events was an after thought.  Often, board events were either not held or not recorded, and since the ASLA was in its infancy and basically a New South Wales organization, results were open to dispute.

Amazingly, it was not until 1946 that the first officially-recognized Australian Longboard Championship took place.[33]  However, the first credited Australian surfing magazine was published in 1917.  This was Manly Surf Club’s The Surf, which first published on December 1, 1917.  It ran for twenty editions, until April 27, 1918.


[1] Surfing Subcultures, “Origins and Development of Pacific Seaboard Surfing,” chapter 3, p. 34.
[2] Surfing Subcultures, p. 34.
[4] Young, 1983, 1987, pp. 35-36.
[5] Pods For Primates citing Maxwell, p. 235 and Greg McDonagh in Pollard, p. 55.
[6] Bloomfield, 1965, p. 4.
[7] Bloomfield, 1965, p. 10.
[8] Pods For Primates citing Maxwell, pp. 90, 202-204.
[9] Pods For Primates, http://www.surfresearch.com.au
[10]Australia Through American Eyes,” The Red Funnel, Dunedin, June 1, 1908, p. 468.  Quoted in Thoms, p. 14.
[11] Noble, Valerie.  Hawaii Prophet, 1980, pp. 57-58.  See also Mid-Pacific Magazine, January 1911, “Skiing in Australia,” by Percy Hunter.  It may be that Hunter was the one that noted the presence of boards in Australia in 1910, not Ford.
[12] Pods for Primates, citing Maxwell, p. 235.
[13] Warshaw, 1997, p.18.
[14] Hall, Sandra Kimberly. “Duke Down Uner,” Aloha Magazine, Volume 19, Number 11, November 1994, p. 57.
[15] Daily Telegraph, January 27, 1912, p. 21.  Quotes in Pods For Primates.
[16] Pods for Primates citing Maxwell, p. 235 and Harris, pp. 53-54.
[17] Pods for Primates citing Harvey, p. 8.
[18] Pods for Primates.  Geoff Cater mentions this claim as tenuous, but plausible.  He cites Harvey, p. 8.
[19] Pods for Primates quoting Thomas, p. 30.
[22] Harris, p. 55.
[23] Wells, Lana.  Sunny Memories – Australians at the Seaside, ©1982, pages 157-158.  1982.  Greenhouse Publications Pty Ltd., 385 - 387 Bridge Road, Richmond, Victoria 3126.  Hardcover, 184 pages, black and white photographs, Chronology of Events.  Geoff Cater wrote: “Expansive overview of Australian beach culture and history, starting with James Cook's description of 'indians' (aborigines) bathing in 1776.  Surfcraft in Chapter 12.  'Riding the Waves' is interesting; particularly the sections on Isabel Letham (sic) page 156, Grace Smith Wootton (1915 Victorian surfer) page 157 and C.J. ('Snow') McAllister page 159; but does not progress much past 1970.  The Chronology is useful, but note the 1964 World Contest at Manly is listed as 1960.  Photographic Highlights: “Andrew 'Boy' Charlton and Snow McAllister, both wearing V shorts over their bathing suits, with their boards at Manly, 1926” pages 88-89, ‘St Kilda Life Saving Club Member with a surfboard ... Manly’ circa 1929, page 151, ‘Grace Wootton Smith’ page 157.  See image of Grace Smith Wooton and Win Harrison, Point Lonsdale, Victoria, circa 1916, Wells page 157.”
[24] Harris, Reg. S.  Heroes of the Surf – The History of Manly Life Saving Club 1911-1961, ©1961, p. 55Published by Manly Life Saving Club, NSW.  Printed by Publicity Press Ltd.  Hard cover, 100 pages, 132 black and white photographs, extensive membership/results lists.  Geoff Cater writes of this resource: “Well written, extensively researched and comprehensive account of the Manly Club, with background dating back to 1880, this book is also a photograghic feast.  Special mention: Manly's Top Boardmen 1939-40, page Fifty-four -reproduced on Pods for Primates index page as Photograph #1.  'The Birth of the Board' pages Fifty-two to Fitfty-six. 'Surfboats' pages Forty-three to Forty-nine.  Queenscliffe 'Bombora' page Ninety.  Now a significant historical record.”
[25] Brawley, Sean.  Vigilant and Victorious - A Community History of the Collaroy Surf Life Saving Club 1911 – 1995, ©1995, pages 33-34.  Collaroy Surf Life Saving Club Inc., PO Box 18 Cllaroy Beach 2097. Australia.  Hard cover, 410 pages, black and white photographs, Notes, Office Bearers, Bronze Medallions, Subject Index, Name Index.  Geoff Cater wrote: “Highly detailed account of one of Sydney’s first Surf Life Saving clubs and the growth of its community.  Although boardriding plays only a small part of such an expansive work, the significant details recorded here are not available from any other source.”
[26] Maxwell, C. Bede.  Surf : Australians Against the Sea, ©1949, page 237.  Angus and Robertson, Sydney.  Hard cover, 302 pages, 22 black and white plates.  Geoff Cater wrote: “Beautifully written and expertly researched, this book is ‘a wave-to-wave description of surf lifesaving from its inception’  (to 1949), Adrian Curlewis, in the Foreward.  An essential resource for this period, much of the text has been reproduced in subsequent works.  Surfcaft are detailed in Chapter Three, Mountaineering in Boats, and Chapter Seven, Surfboards and Surf Skis. Special mention: The evolution of the surfboard, from old style ‘solid’ to modern ‘hollow’.  Maroubra board-men Bruce Devlin, Frank Adler, and Vince Mulcay.”
[27] Harvey, Richard.  A Surfing History of Queensland - Gold Coast - The Sunshine Coast - Byron Bay, ©1983, p. 5.  Olympic Productions and Publications Pty Ltd, Gold Coast Queensland. 1983, Soft Cover, pages, color photographs, black and white photographs, numerous colour/two tone advertisements.  Geoff Cater wrote: “A rich store of rare and interesting photographs accompanied by an informative but disjointed text.  A case of poor editing, the text jumps across time and geography without any recourse to headings or chapters, except for The Islands (Stradbroke) by Greg Curtis, page 78.
[28] Thoms, Albie, ©2000, Noosa Heads, Queensland 4567.  Hard cover, extensive black and white as well as color photographs, posters, flyers, record sleeves, documents, filmography; 192 pages.  Geoff Cater wrote: “This is an outstanding book, exhibiting extensive personal knowledge, rigorous research and a committed love of the subject.  Even if the core of the book (the actual film references) was omitted, the additional notes on surfing history, surfboard design, music, magazines, fashion and culture (both surf culture and general observations) themselves would be a significant achievement.  An essential text.”
[29] Maxwell, page 238.
[30] Brawley, page 57.

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