— By Kim Marsh
History and Development
Australian surfboats evolved from whaling longboats and pilot boats built during the nineteenth century for rough sea conditions and durability. The development of surfboats was originally based on rescuing bathers from the surf but over time a sport developed with surfboats racing through the surf, turning a buoy and racing back to the beach. The shifting focus of surfboat design reflects its changing purpose over time. The Australian surfboat has always needed to be suitable for rowing in rough surf conditions and catching waves while increasingly being fast through the water and able to be carried on shore by the crew.
This evolution is not unique to Australia. In the Basque region of Spain rowing traditional fishing boats has become a sport. In places like San Sebastian long craft known as ‘trainera’, manned by about 14 oarspeople with a sweep oar for steering, can be seen racing across open water. On the other side of the world, Hawaiian fishing outrigger developed into competition-focused open water paddling while a minority of its proponents also participate with a traditional craft to catch waves purely for enjoyment and self-expression.
In another example, Cornish gigs raced out of coastal towns to win the right to pilot commercial sailing ships into small, treacherous ports. These gigs became part of a flourishing smuggling industry off the Cornish coast and eventually evolved into a sport with six rowers and a seated steersman are raced in Britain, France and the Scilly Isles.
The iconic Aussie surfboat is unique in that it has the greatest emphasis on surf and wave catching than other rowed surf craft. The style has expanded beyond our borders, and is an integral part of the culture in New Zealand, South Africa and Britain. Interest in the sport is also growing in Holland, Germany and France as World Surf Life Saving spreads its influence internationally.
Rowed boats, such as whaling longboats and coastal lifeboats, were steadily introduced to Australian beaches and began to be specifically built for surf conditions. The ‘Rocket Brigade’ in the late 1800s is an example of one group who rowed boats to mount surf rescues. They operated off Stockton Beach on the northern side of the Hunter River to save lives when ships foundered on their way into Newcastle.
In Australia the Sly brothers are claimed to be the first to have introduce a boat for specific surf rescue purposes, and they were rescuing bathers regularly at Manly Beach from 1895. By October 1903, they began to patrol the surf on a paid basis. The Sly brothers’ boat was a double ended ship’s lifeboat which they purchased from the Quarantine authorities at North Head on Sydney Harbour.
The first purpose-built surfboat, ’Surf King’, is claimed to have been designed in 1906 by Bronte member, Walter Biddell. It was a ‘catamaran like boat’ with kapok stuffed, torpedo shaped tubes made of wood, tin and canvas. Three people could sit between the tubes and paddle. Biddell then made a more conventional double-ended boat called Albatross with buoyancy tanks. In 1909, Biddell sent Albatross to Honolulu where he demonstrated Australian surf lifesaving methods while on holiday. Unfortunately, the boat did not arrive in time to be exhibited!
A breakthrough came in 1911 when Fred Notting of Manly Life Saving Club was commissioned to design a boat for local surf conditions. It is reported that he reviewed many international styles of open water rowing craft and based his design on a Norwegian boat and added some of his own ideas, including a quarter bar near the tuck. Holmes, of Lavender Bay, built the Notting designed double ender with a substantially curved keel or ‘banana’ (this is sometimes referred to as ‘rocker’).
Surfboats were given a further boost following a dramatic rescue of two youths off Long Reef in 1914 when a small rowing boat was used. As a result, Warringah Shire Council provided Freshwater, Dee Why, Collaroy, Narrabeen and Newport surf clubs each with an eighteen-foot-long ‘banana’ boats built by Holmes. These vessels were very crowded, with the stroke pair sharing a seat.
This rising popularity led to early surf carnivals. The first surfboat race with purpose-built craft is claimed to have been held at the Freshwater Carnival of 1915 and first place was won by the Freshwater boat crew, swept by Dick Matheson who dominated the scene in the early years.
Over time, boats grew to 22-23 feet long with a narrower beam, before standard measurements were introduced requiring the beam to be a minimum 5’3” wide. The earliest North Steyne boats were built by W. ‘Watty’ Ford at Berry’s Bay, Sydney, including the cedar carvel boat called ‘Bluebottle’. Cedar substantially lightened the boat’s weight compared to the previously used kauri timber. ‘Bluebottle’ sparked creative interest in surfboat construction and Fred Notting went on to design the ‘Sawfish’ which became an extremely competitive craft, its name derived from their fund-raising exhibition of a huge sawfish stranded at Manly Beach.
Sydney’s northern beaches dominated the early years of surfboat racing, and clubs near Lake Macquarie had the advantage of local boat builder, Tom Humphries, of Swansea. He was innovative, producing boats with fine lines. Another Newcastle boatbuilding firm, N.& E. Towns, with 80 years of boat building tradition, became a popular surfboat builder after producing boats for Frank Davis of Manly club.
The Rescue and Restoration of So Long
In 1982 my wife Leanne found an old carvel constructed double ended, surfboat on a farm near Scots Head on the NSW coast after I had competed at a local surf carnival. The boat was built by N. & E. Towns at Dempsey Island, near Newcastle, for Macksville-Scotts Head SLSC, in 1947. The club’s sweep, apparently collected the boat from the boatbuilder and named it after himself. The club objected, and the sweep consequently left the club. As a result, the club named the boat ‘So Long’!
The boat was to be christened by cricket legend, Keith Miller, who cancelled at the last minute. In his place he sent Richie Benaud, at the time a relatively unknown young cricketer. The boat was used late as 1962, at a carnival at Tathra, on the far south NSW coast. Every other surfboat at the event had a square tuck, so the crowd cheered the unique double-ender all the way off the beach. Eventually, Macksville-Scotts Head SLSC sold the boat to a local Baptist minister who used it for fishing. It was in a very dilapidated state about to be burnt when we rescued it.
The 7.5 metre carvel hull is made from Australian Red Cedar; the keel, ribs & stringers are Spotted Gum and the gunwales are NZ Kauri. The bow stem and seat knees are made from Tea tree root. Fastenings are copper nails and roves. A similar slightly younger N & E Towns double-ender exists in the City of Warrnambool’s Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum, in Victoria.
Minor restoration of So Long was commenced by Bill Clymer, who sourced some Australian Cedar and replaced a few planks before a surfing and snow skiing accident prevented the well over 70-year-old from continuing with the project. Tea root was provided by professional fisherman Ted Allen who until recently still used purpose-built Clymer cedar boats for trawling.
In 2004 Glen Myers of GM Boatbuilding commenced the major restoration works. It was decided to preserve the craft in a way that was sympathetic to its current integrity. Research was done in the National Maritime Museum Library. Bill Clymer and Les Stewart, ex-Apprentice Master at Garden Island provided advice on traditional boat building methodology. Conservation methods maintained the integrity of the craft with the original weathered state largely preserved with any essential new materials highlighted.
In 2007 the boat was loaned to Surf Life Saving Australia to be displayed as a major attraction in the SLSA ‘Between the Flags – 100 Years of Surf Life Saving’ exhibition held at the National Museum, Canberra and National Maritime Museum, Sydney.
A Surfboat Christening at AWBF 2021….
Our wooden surfboat conservation project also includes a as-of-yet-unnamed 1971 surfboat built for Point Lonsdale, Victoria. The 8.15-metre-long craft was manufactured by the cold moulded process. The Silver Ash keel, stem, stringers, ribs and gunwale were placed on a mould (frame). Three layers of cedar planks, 1/8 inch (3mm) thick by 4 inches (100mm) wide were laid up over the framing. The outer and inner layer, in diagonally opposite directions, and central layer perpendicular to the keel. Glue was used between the layers with thousands of staples temporarily holding the planks in place. The staples had to be painstakingly removed by a small hand tool. The bow had a stylised Point Lonsdale Lighthouse timber marquetry inlay on the bow deck.
In 2012 the boat was restored by Glen Myers. It was in reasonably sound structural condition. We decided to restore the surfboat to a seaworthy state capable of being used in the surf. The integrity of the boat was maintained with only a few items needing to be replaced including the bow deck.
The restored surfboat has been used in the surf on many special occasions. It is usually rowed by a crew of over 60-year-olds, each one an Australian Surfboat Championship winner. Since restoration it has been swept by legend Ron Payne; prominent modern-day surfboat builder; designer Nathan Perry; and young Brent Lethbridge. The boat has been used to scatter the ashes of past crewmates, attending boat christenings and other celebrations. It was proudly the only wooden craft among 100 modern surfboats at the 100-year Anzac Day commemoration on Collaroy Beach.
The restored surfboat feels quite different in the surf to a modern composite fiberglass and foam boat. The outer hull shape has remained almost the same since the 1970s, but modern surfboats have an enclosed inner shell reducing the amount of water a surfboat retains after being filled by breaking waves. Pumps quickly empty the water whereas the wooden surfboats have to be bailed out with a bucket – something that developed into a race winning skill. When this restored surfboat is used in challenging surf it reminds us how powerful the older craft felt when hitting a wave in the surf zone. Our ageing crew has been surprised at the waves we have rowed through without suffering a backshoot, whereas the buoyancy of modern surfboats may have sent us backwards.
She has also proven herself to be a great wave catcher. Rowers are able to shift their weight low into the open hull – assisting the sweep by lowering the centre of gravity. Importantly, being able to place their body low in the open hull provides rowers with more protection and helps them stay in the boat if it veers sideways.
On its first outing after restoration the crew were up for a moderate wave – nothing too challenging. Bowman Les, who had not been in a boat for decades, yelled ‘not this one’. Nathan, the sweep, thought the bowman wanted to let it pass because it was too bit..but he was mistaken. After a few sets roll by, Les yells ‘this one’ ahead of the biggest wave of the day. We were too far inshore and took a late take off with only two strokes which did not give the sweep, even talented Nathan, enough boat speed to control the boat down the face. Nathan immediately shouted, ‘come aft’. I had visions of our beautiful boat being splintered to bits in the heavy after all that effort and cost. Our reactions were aged but instinctively we scrambled up the steep boat attempting to lift the nose. My knees failed me, so the bow pair simply trampled over my prostrate body. It was over in a few seconds. Nathan strong-armed the boat as only he and a few others can, taking us, and more importantly the boat, safely to shore through startled surfboard riders. The professional photographers missed the shot because they did not expect us to attempt it. Leanne was prepared with her camera because she knew Les was in the boat. The exuberance on our faces says it all.
She certainly is a worthy vessel and deserves a worthy name to boot. The 2021 Australian Wooden Boat Festival might be just the venue for her Christening ceremony. I’ll see you all there.
About the author:
Kim Marsh grew up at Freshwater Beach on the Sydney Northern Beaches. His father and a few fishing mates kept a specially designed, small clinker boat rigged with a sweep oar and two sets of rowing oars on Freshwater Beach where they rowed it through the surf to fish. Kim has rowed surfboats since the age of 17 becoming one of the sport’s most successful competitors as well as a coach, mentor and organizer of surf skill courses in Australia and New Zealand. His coaching has focused on how to teach novices and assisting coaches to become more effective especially with their relationship with the crew.
Kim and his wife Leanne have helped maintain the culture of the Australian surfboat by collecting and conserving heritage wooden surfboats. In 2007 Kim wrote ‘The Surfboat Book – the Complete Coaching Manual’. He is a Life Member of Freshwater SLSC and has been inducted into the Australian Surf Rowers Hall of Fame.
For further information contact Kim Marsh