Surfing in Australia

Surfing in Australia

There is still debate about who began surfboarding in Australia. For most it was the legendary Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku who cracked a wave while standing on a board at Sydney’s Freshwater Beach on Christmas Eve in 1914.

But more recent claims point to a Manly swimmer, Tommy Walker, who bought a surfboard back to Australia from Hawaii and reportedly began using it around Sydney in 1911.

Whoever was first there can be no doubting that “The Duke”, an Olympic champion swimmer, generated the major publicity, and surfing in Australia took off from that point.

Surfboard design became a big endeavour, with the heavy “planks” of the early days giving way to a lighter hollow plywood design in the mid 1930’s. In 1956 the shorter “Malibu” board arrived in Australia from the United States, and then, in the 1960’s Australian surfboard designer Bob McTavish pioneered the “V Bottom” design in his boards.

Australian surfing received a massive boost in 1964 when the inaugural World Surfing Championship was held at Manly Beach in Sydney and was won by local surfer, Bernard Midget Farrelly. Many more world champions would follow over the years.

New materials allowed the development of lighter and more manoeuvrable surfboards, with polyurethane foam and fibreglass used. Fins attached to the underside allowed for more stability and control, with Australian surfers Mark Richards and Simon Anderson pioneering two and three fin designs.

As in the United States, surfing also developed a distinct culture in Australia with the development of a unique lifestyle consisting of surfing music, fashions and vocabulary. Much of this was portrayed negatively as a “drop out” culture during the 1960’s but in more recent times the positive health effects of surfing have helped promote the sport further. In addition the increasing participation of women in the sport has further increased its popularity.

Some commonly used surfing terms in Australia:

  • Bailing out: Pulling out of a wave after initial commitment
  • Bommie: A bombora – where waves break well out to sea over an area of shallow water.
  • Cutback: The surfer reverses direction and moves back towards the braking face of a wave. Also known as a “cutty”, “whack” or “slash”.
  • Dropping in: A surfing sin where a rider chops in front of another surfer already on the wave.
  • Gnarly: Dangerous or difficult conditions
  • Grommet: A young surfer – usually under 16 years of age.
  • Snap: A sharp turn executed at the top of a wave
  • Wipeout: A massive, out of control fall from a wave


Image: Duke Kahanamoku – a portrait taken in Hawaii, c 1912, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.