THE wave Isabel Letham caught at Dee Why beach, Sydney, on February 6, 1915, was neither long nor spectacular. According to one newspaper account of it, she spent most of the ride “toppling backwards”, and in the end fell off.
But, in one of the strangest twists in Australian sporting history, it was enough to get her into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame, an honour usually reserved for people whose contribution to the sport spans an entire lifetime.
She achieved this status by embellishing the story of her Dee Why ride to make it far more significant than it was. Her audience — the surfers of Australia — were convinced by her story because, for reasons I’ll explain later, they desperately wanted it to be true.
Oral storytelling, particularly about new and radical experiences, forms a large part of surf culture. As a result, surfers, who are not the most literary bunch, are prone to exaggeration. But even by their hyperbolic standards, the Letham story is extraordinary. The truth, as usual, is even more fascinating .
A reassessment of Letham is overdue, partly because her status in surfing has become ludicrously high, and partly because the centenary of her alleged achievement is approaching, and it would be a shame if the planned celebrations on Sydney’s Freshwataer beach on January 8 commemorated a fallacy.
These are the known facts of that historic summer of 1914-15. The great Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, a gold-medal-winning swimmer at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, was invited to Australia to compete in races in Sydney and Brisbane. While he was here, he also put on demonstrations of “surf shooting” in the Hawaiian style (riding a surfboard while standing), of which he was at the time one of the world’s best practitioners and protagonists.
By far the most significant public demonstration was the first one, at Freshwater, Letham’s home beach, on January 10 1915, which was attended by about 400 spectators. For a long time afterwards, this was considered the day Australian surfing was born.
A month later, another demonstration was held at Dee Why Beach, a few kilometres north. On this occasion, Letham, 15, a keen young ocean swimmer and a bit of a tomboy, was invited to ride tandem with Kahanamoku, which she did, making an impression on all three journalists present, as well as the crowd of thousands.
“When ‘the Duke’ stood up the sight was grand,” Sydney’s The Telegraph said. “Later, Kahanamoku came in standing on his head, and at another time carried a lady passenger.”
The Sydney Morning Herald also confirmed it: “He was accompanied at intervals by Miss Letham, of Freshwater, and it was a rare sight to watch both swimmers on the surf board.”
The Referee, a sports newspaper, said Letham’s ride with Kahanamoku was the “more sensational spectacle” of the demonstration, but only because it showcased the Hawaiian’s skill — Letham spent most of the ride “toppling backwards”. The ride ended when both Letham and Kahanamoku wiped out.
In the late 1940s, as surfing began its ascendancy within Australian culture, this story of the ungainly tandem ride at Dee Why became conflated with the Duke’s surfing demonstration at Freshwater, which was beginning to acquire newfound historical significance. Stories began to be published placing Letham front and centre at the Freshwater event.
The Sydney Morning Herald in 1948 said that Kahanamoku had taken Letham “out with him (at Freshwater) and they would come right into the beach with incomparable grace and precision”. A similar account appeared in a book called Surf Australians Against the Sea, by C. Bede Maxwell (1949). In 1959, Heroes of the Surf, a history of the Manly Surf Lifesaving Club, said Kahanamoku “took three waves with her (Letham) standing on the board in front of him”. None of these publications cites sources.
Yet the only surviving contemporaneous newspaper account of the Freshwater demonstration is by W. Corbett of The Sun, who wrote in some detail about Kahanamoku teaching two Manly swimmers how to surf by themselves. Had Letham ridden tandem with Kahanamoku that day, it is inconceivable that Corbett wouldn’t have mentioned it.
The arrival of mass-produced fibreglass boards in the 1960s helped surfing to explode in popularity, and with it the Letham myth took off. In 1968, the Daily Mirror published a story about Kahanamoku’s visit, which focused on the Freshwater demonstration; Letham is quoted as saying that as she and Kahanamoku took off on the wave it “was like looking over a cliff”.
“But after I’d screamed a couple of times he took me by the scruff of the neck and yanked me to my feet. Then off we went down that wave,” she said. For the next two decades, she continued to repeat the story, with only minor variations, in print interviews, an oral history and a video recorded in 1986. She collected most of her own clippings into a personal archive, which was donated upon her death to the Dee Why public library, where they remain. Those clippings are punctuated with notes by Letham correcting minor mistakes by the various journalists. In none of the clippings does she dispute the increasingly accepted fact that she surfed with Kahanamoku at Freshwater.
The story was even embellished without Letham’s input. A book called The Surfrider, edited by Australian journalist Jack Pollard and published in the mid-1960s, claimed that Letham not only rode with Kahanamoku, but managed to sit on his shoulders as well. This claim is made in the book’s foreword, which is attributed to Kahanamoku, but according to Geoff Cater, one of Australia’s leading surf historians, the foreword is almost certainly Pollard’s own work. In it “Kahanamoku” says: “There was a tiny girl in the crowd that day who by her manner seemed more excited than all in the crowd. I put her on my shoulders and we made a few good rides.” Shoulder-riding, Cater says, didn’t become popular until the 1940s, when long hollow boards made the trick easier to perform. This detail has since been repeated at least twice, both by surf journalist Phil Jarratt, in A Complete History of Surfboard Riding in Australia (2013) and That Summer at Boomerang (2014).
But why all this credulity and exaggeration? To answer that, one needs only to look at the rest of Australian surfing history. It’s filled with blokes. Not just any blokes, but yobbos. Australian surfing history is mostly a procession of aggressive, arrogant, hard-drinking, drug-abusing, brash dudes whose obsession drove them wild, sometimes literally. Our brand of surf culture propelled Australia to some world titles and gave us a distinct national character on the pro tour and the various surf meccas around the world, but it came at a cost. The Letham story was a perfect foil. At last, Australia had its own Gidget! A tomboy who rode with Duke! But even this new development couldn’t escape the inevitable male fantasy — if they rode a few waves together, could they have also, you know…? Letham never married or had children, and later in life was still expressing her reverence towards him, saying he “is still in my heart”.
This year, Phil Jarratt published what some male surfers were probably already thinking. That Summer at Boomerang is a historical novel centred on Kahanamoku’s 1914-15 tour. In the introduction, Jarratt says “all the events depicted actually happened”. The book then goes on to describe a series of increasingly flirtatious encounters between Letham and Kahanamoku, ending with a sad dockside farewell during which Letham’s eyes get “misty” and Kahanamoku hugs her “tight for long seconds” and kisses her on both cheeks, saying, “I’m going to miss you, young lady”.
Letham herself repeatedly gave the impression that she, if not Kahanamoku, established a deep emotional bond on the day they supposedly rode together at Freshwater. But Sandra Kimberley Hall, Kahanamoku’s official biographer, is not convinced. Any romantic interaction between a 15-year-old white girl and a 24-year-old dark-skinned Hawaiian in Australia in 1915 stretches the bounds of plausibility, she says. “Nowhere in Duke or Isabel’s archives is there anything that would lead researchers to believe there was a romance, a fling, or even a friendship between the two of them,” she says. “It’s laughably ridiculous.”
Hall says Letham’s claim to have ridden with Kahanamoku at Freshwater is similarly fanciful. “It sems that at some point in time, Isabel confused Dee Why with Freshwater,” she says, adding that it was “unlikely” that the pair rode tandem at Freshwater.
Two weeks after the Dee Why demonstration, Kahanamoku left Australia. Letham persuaded her father, a master builder, to make her a board like Kahanamoku’s. She and her friend Isma Amor, a fellow surfer tomboy from Manly, began spending weekends at remote Bilgola beach on Sydney’s northern beaches surfing and earning the label “wild young things”.
Jarratt’s book describes Letham’s later, fruitless attempts to reconnect with Kahanamoku, stopping in Waikiki, but not finding him, on her way to the US in 1918, where she worked for a while, trying to break into the film business, before returning home to be with her dying father. She returned to the US in 1923, where she finally and briefly saw Kahanamoku again. She has said nothing of this meeting, one of three they would have before Kahanamoku died in 1968, aged 77. The romance, if there was one, was never rekindled. Letham stayed in California and became a highly respected swimming coach at the glamorous Women’s City Club in San Francisco. She sailed home to Australia in 1929 and continued coaching swimming and water ballet. She died in 1995.
Surf historian Peter Warr interviewed Letham at length between the late 1980s and early 90s. He says Letham was still obsessed with Kahanamoku even then. “It was much more than a teenage girl’s puppy love,” he says. “She was still infatuated with him.” Letham smiled as she recalled Kahanamoku, Warr says. “She started talking about her feelings for him. I said, ‘that’s wonderful that you kept these feelings all these decades,’ and she just said, ‘oh, he’s in my heart’.”
Warr compares Letham’s love to that of other women from her generation who fell in love with soldiers who died in battle, then never married. “It was a much more controlled society back then,” he says. But asked by Warr if she would have liked to marry Kahanamoku, Letham hinted that a more conservative process was at work. “She said she would have if circumstances had allowed. By that she meant the White Australia Policy. It would have been a scandal.”
Cater has a different theory: Letham used her lifelong devotion to Kahanamoku as a cover for her own sexual orientation. “It was a perfect blanket,” he says. “She had the story that she met him as a teenager and never looked at another man. The evidence is more than plausible that she used the story to cover up her own sexuality.”
If Cater is correct, Letham’s story to cover up her own taboo same-sex secret grew so big that it earned her in 1993, induction into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame, alongside real surfing legends like four-times world champion Mark Richards and seven-time champion Layne Beachley. Letham’s entry on the Hall of Fame’s website repeats the dubious story about Freshwater, saying she “never forgot the exhilaration of that first ride”.
This historical ambiguity creates a dilemma for the organisers of Duke’s Day, the three-day celebration commemorating the centenary of Kahanamoku’s visit, starting on January 8 at Freshwater. One of the highlights of the celebration will be a re-enactment of the now mythical Letham-Kahanamoku ride. Duke’s Day committee chairman Stephen Bennett says the Letham story, which had been “relayed through the generations”, is beyond doubt. “It is hard to believe that the story about Isabel would have been perpetuated unless it was true as there were so many eyewitnesses who were present,” he says.
The most overlooked person in all of this is Tommy Walker, of Manly, who is increasingly seen as the real first surfer in Australia, riding a board he bought for $2 in Waikiki during a trans-Pacific crossing.
Cater’s website quotes The Telegraph describing surfing at Manly Beach in January 1912, three years before that supposedly historic day at Freshwater. “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.”
Sadly, the centenary of this event, which is more significant and plausible than Letham’s ride at Freshwater, went past uncelebrated.