Australian Surfing History
The first widely publicised moment of stand up surfing being introduced to Australia was at Freshwater beach, Sydney in 1915 when the visiting Hawaiian legend Duke Kahanamoku and young Australian Isabel Letham enthralled the crowds on the beach as they rode the rolling whitewater waves to shore.
Bodysurfing was already popular after the turn of the century and evidence even suggests that some members of local surf life saving clubs were riding waves and standing up (and busting out some head stands whilst surfing) before the Duke’s visit.
Surfing increased in popularity, mainly within the surf life saving movement, on heavy, solid wooden boards that were surfed straight to the beach, with surfers standing with feet together and hips front on (like snow skiing). By the 1930’s, hollow wooden surfboards (without fins) were constructed, based on designs from the US. Most designs were toothpick style paddleboards and were around 16ft. long.
The inflatable rubber surfoplane was also developed during the 30’s and became a popular surf craft for hire amongst beach goers on Sydney’s most visited beaches.
Then in the 1950’s Australian surfers for the first time witnessed in awe as visiting Hawaiian and mainland American lifeguards displayed during a surf carnival, the increased performance capabilities that fibreglass / balsawood boards possessed. These shorter and lighter malibu designs now with fins and rocker, were already popular in California, and were able to be maneuvered and accelerated across the wave face.
By the end of the 50’s and into the 1960’s, surfing’s popularity boomed as Australian surfer / shapers immediately began to experiment with new designs using fibreglass, wood and foam. The surfing youth culture was growing, influenced firstly by American TV, cinema and music and later by home grown Aussie surf bands. Australian surfers began travelling to Hawaii and other parts of the world to test their skills with success, and their reputations grew further when they began winning contests against the worlds best surfers.
As car ownership increased, young Australian surfers strapped their malibus on the car roof and headed up and down the coast in search of freedom and waves.
Breaking away from the conservative surf life saving movement, boardrider clubs were set up, and free thinking surfers revolutionised design, surfing (and life) philosophy and in the process, changed the direction of Australian surf culture. The short board revolution began, improving surfing performance levels, and by 1970 surfers were riding light weight 6ft. surfboards and were turning tightly in and around the steep pocket of waves.
During the 70’s further experimentation saw twin fins become a popular choice, which suited the small peaky summer conditions on the east coast of Australia. Leg ropes, full length wetsuits, safe foam surfboards and boogie boards also contributed to increasing surfing’s accessibility and therefore popularity. As crowds increased on the beaches, surfers continued to explore the more remote coastlines for empty and challenging waves (a trend that continues today).
By the 80’s the surf industry was booming around the globe as selling fluro wetsuits, bikinis and surf wear, including very short (and uncomfortably tight) boardshorts became big business. Backed by the big surf brands, the competitive scene was in full swing with Australia playing a major role both in hosting the world’s best surfers at prestigious competitions each year and through the competitive success of its surfers on the international stage.
Three fins (thrusters) became the standard on most surfboards, further improving performance levels. By the end of the decade and into the 90’s design experimentation slowed as most surfers around the nation rode either a standard shortboard thruster, malibu or shorter mini mal – all made from foam and fibreglass.
Heading into the new millennium, women’s participation rates increased, as did the success of womens surf brands. All black wetsuits and plain white, super refined shortboards were cool and a new generation of young surfers, inspired by moves developed in other board sports, began to perform highly technical aerial manouvers above the lip of waves.
Today, competitive surfing is still of major importance to many Australian surfers. Given the mind blowing level displayed by the nations best women and men surfers, along with the nurturing of future generations via surf schools, passionate local surfing communities, boardrider clubs, shapers and big brand sponsorship, it is well placed to continue to perform well internationally.
Meanwhile, many of the nations most talented shapers and surfers have shifted their attention to riding boards that combine modern and retro design elements and this has influenced perhaps the biggest shift amongst recreational surfers in recent years. Surfers of all levels around the land are now also experimenting with boards, and it’s not uncommon to see in the line up at the same time adults and kids having fun surfing on shortboards, mals, mini-mals, SUPs and softboards along with weird and wonderful new and retro designs of all shapes, sizes and colours. Single, twin, thruster, quad fin & finless set ups on boards is the norm. This openness to experimentation has led to many experienced recreational surfers who were frustrated surfing on unforgiving high performance or low volume boards to find the right equipment that is appropriate for their surfing level, environment and aspirations – the fun is back!
A resurgence in surf art is also occurring, and some of the most influential surfers in the nation are those that innovate with their surfing in the water and their pen, paint brush, camera or music on land.