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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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