Before World War II – and not counting the little being done in Japan and Great Britain – surfing was practiced basically in three main areas on the planet: the east and west coasts of the U.S.A., the Hawaiian Islands, and the Gold Coast of Australia. By the end of the 1940s, Peru and South Africa made the list.
Surfing had slowly grown along Australia’s “Gold Coast” after Tommy Walker first rode standing up in 1912.1 Australian surfing accelerated following Duke Kahanamoku’s demonstration of stand-up surfing in 1914-15.2
Growth can be measured in numbers of surfers, yet, surfboard evolution was stunted by the Surf Life Saving Association [SLSA]. Paddleboards were favored over more dynamic wave riding vehicles. As writer Kent Pearson pointed out, “board design was biased towards the interests of SLSA requirements and the interests of their members, concerning paddling speed rather than wave-riding performance.”3
“Board paddling in Australia became a form of athletic competition,” wrote Pearson in Surfing Subcultures of Australia and New Zealand, “which was in direct contrast to the more expressive and playful activity of wave riding itself. Thus, board design development was in complete accord with the central aims and official SLSA ideology. Stressing, as it did, the benefits of competition for rescue work, the official position also seemed to parallel general societal values on achievement and performance.”4
World War II changed things somewhat.
“World War II had several major repercussions on surf life saving,” Pearson continued. “At an international level, Australians posted overseas introduced local life saving methods to other countries. At home, club memberships were depleted by both voluntary drafting for overseas service and home conscription. Sydney beaches were barb wired and manned by troops. As a consequence, surf life saving activities declined.”5
(Manly Beach SLSC, 1939-40)
When the war ended, a major shift in surfing began to occur. “There was a big change in the manner of the members after the War,” wrote Australian surfing great “Snow” McAlister of Aussie surf life saving members. “They were restless and hard to control, despite the years of army training... It was something the clubs never recovered from, cars were becoming available and in 1948 petrol rationing was lifted (during the war we had been limited to four gallons a month) giving a new freedom to youth. Suddenly the youth were able to get mobile and were no longer anchored to the club.”6
In addition to this mass release and new freedom of movement, there were technological advances and greater consumer affluence that helped characterize the post-war period in Australia.7
“Pre-war board riding had generally been restricted to surf life saving club members,” wrote Pearson, “who based their activities at a particular beach. There were practical reasons for this...”8
“Boards were kept at club houses for the good reason of weight,” Snow noted. “They were secured upright on club verandas and fixed with a hasp and staple fitting with lock attached to the wall, both for reasons of safety and because this was a good position to let the water drain down to the bottom of the board – redwood soaked up water like a sponge.”9
The upright position was also beneficial for hollow boards – all of which had plugs at the end so that they could drain. Hollow paddle boards had become popular in Australia, due to the emphasis on rescue and paddling rather than freestyle surfing. Invented by Tom Blake in the late 1920s, hollow boards – particularly of the pointed nose and tail paddleboard variety – grew in popularity through the 1930s and ‘40s. “By the 1950s,” Pearson noted, “the hollow boards had become very popular in Australia but were difficult to ride on waves.”10
“The style of riding,” continued Pearson, “dictated by these boards was basically straight line surfing and turns were awkward and slow. Good surfing was seen as taking a wave standing, and travelling in control of the board in the same direction as the wave... In spite of the difficulty of using these boards for wave riding, they were being used more and more for just this purpose before the introduction [in Australia] of the wave-riding Malibu Board.”11
“The sport evolved slowly,” wrote surf writer Matt Warshaw, “and remained closely allied to the Surf Lifesaving Clubs,until a group of visiting American surfers introduced the lightweight balsa Malibu boards to Sydney and Victoria wave-riders in 1956. Sydney’s Gordon Woods also opened Australia’s first surf shop that year, in Bondi Beach.”12
1 See Gault-Williams, “Duke Not The First in Oz” www.legendarysurfers.com/blog/2007/12/duke-not-first-in-oz.html and “Australian Surfing, 1912” www.legendarysurfers.com/2012/01/australian-surfing-1912.html.
2 Gault-Williams, LEGENDARY SURFERS Volume 1. Chapter on Duke.
3 Pearson, 1979, p. 56.
4 Pearson, 1979, p. 56.
5 Pearson, 1979, p. 56.
6 McAlister, 1975. Quoted in Pearson, 1979, p. 57.
7 Pearson, 1979, p. 57.
8 Pearson, 1979, p. 57.
9 McAlister, 1975. Quoted in Pearson, 1979, p. 57.
10 Pearson, 1979, p. 57.
11 Pearson, 1979, p. 57. See also Gault-Williams, “1956.”
12 Warshaw, Matt. Encyclopedia of Surfing, @2003, p. 27.