Just a little bit of history - repeating?
Words by Benjamin Freeman
Today Manly is one of Australia’s busiest beaches but little more than a lifetime ago you’d be arrested for setting foot in the water. With the Australian Open of Surfing underway this week, we tracked down Manly Life Saving Club’s resident historian Ray Moran to find out what’s gone down on the stretch of sand in front of the clubhouse over the last century and how surfing came to Sydney…
Who was Australia’s first surfer? As a country steeped in beach culture, you’d think we’d know. Turns out, well, we’re not sure. While Hawaiian legend Duke Kahanamoku is widely recognised as launching the sport in 1915, local archives suggest that Tommy Walker, later to become a Manly Life Saving Club member, might have got the jump on the Duke when he returned from Hawaii in 1909 with an old redwood board.
“From all the evidence I can gather, he holds [the title],” says Ray who, as curator of Life Saving Clubs archives has looked into the topic in some depth. “He gave demonstrations at Freshwater and Manly [and] used to ride the board off South Steyne point for all the people coming off the ferries.”
According to Ray, the jury’s still out on that one, but it’s certain that by the 1920, surfing had well and truly arrived in Sydney. It was a different story in 1902. Australian law prohibited ocean bathing in daylight hours. It took a ballsy journalist’s publicity stunt to really shake things up and begin the beach culture phenomenon. William Gocher, from The North Sydney and Manly News (later named The Manly Daily), strutted out for a daytime swim at Manly Beach and was subsequently arrested. The fuss he kicked up through the paper and mounting public pressure caused the law to change in 1903 and Australia’s affinity with the beach began.
It wasn’t all good news, though. Put simply, people started swimming and people started drowning. The Sly family took the initiative, using an old whaling boat to paddle around from Shelley Beach and patrol the water in hats and neckties. Despite the attire, the surf lifesaving movement generated a solid following. Groups of strong swimmers banded together to watch over Manly Beach, creating Manly Surf Club.
A rift at the Surf Club in 1911 saw some members move up to North Steyne while others formed a more disciplined group further south; this group called themselves Manly Life Saving Club - a club dedicated itself to lifesaving and its strict practices. These strict practices paid great dividends. The club would go on to produce several Olympians and one pretty influential guy, Olympian swimmer, Cecil Healey.
Cecil’s mate, Duke Kahanamoku arrived in Australia in 1915 after forming a close friendship at the 1912 Olympics. The Duke came to Sydney as part of a swimming demonstration but several Manly Life Saving Club members, like Tommy Walker, had heard of Duke’s surfing and were keen to see him on a board. The Duke gave surfing demonstrations at Freshwater and up and down the coast. With this, the reputation of surfing began to rise.
From 1915, surfing and lifesaving continued to grow in popularity, the two sports were inherently linked by the reliance of surfers on Surf Clubs. The wooden boards, called toothpicks, were roughly 19 foot long and hollow. There was no way to get the boards to the beach because no one had roof racks or even cars. The only way people in Manly surfed was to use the Club’s boards. Then all of a sudden, something big happened.
“The Americans came out in 1956 and that changed the whole scene of surfing. Manly of course was the main place in Australia and when they brought them (the boards) out they were just chopping and changing and hot-dogging and everything like that. That was when everybody who wanted to do patrol decided they wanted to go surfing,” says Ray. The American Lifeguard team arrived for the Melbourne Olympics with their new balsa surfboards in tow. Balsa surfboards were a lot lighter and surfed a whole lot better. The fin allowed the boards to turn across the face of a wave, literally opening up new directions for wave riding.
Inspired by the new boards, surfers began to push the limits. On a large swell in 1961, Dave Jackman plucked up some courage and paddled out through Freshwater to surf the Queenscliff Bombie for the first time. Once everyone realised he’d survived, a small crew of Manly surfers followed. After nailing the bombora, the boys got a little bigheaded and decided that the next step was Hawaii. But while Australian surfing was reaching the dizzy heights of big wave riding, the cracks between the Life Saving Club and surfers were beginning to show. Ray recalls,“Surfing at the time was getting a bad name, the guys that were leading the surf clubs weren’t happy with that. The surf club was strong with discipline and the guys (surfers) didn’t want it. We all grew our hair long and a lot of the guys dropped out. We got cars and we were going big time”.
Despite the increasing separation, the beach was still home to both surfers and clubbies in the early sixties. Over the next few years the clubbies and the surfers got together to face some new challenges. ‘The Rockers’ were guys from the Western Suburbs with short hair who came over to pick fights. Surfers and clubbies fought for the pride of Manly, and along with police, met ‘The Rockers’ at the ferry terminal to send them home.
The sixties also saw the beginnings of modern day surf culture. “Manly Boardriders started in about 63-64, they were starting to get organised then. Competitions started to come in pretty quick between the clubs, Dee Why, Freshie and Manly,” Ray says.Girls got in on this too. Manly Life Saving Club records show that in the year of 1964 there were fourteen female members in the Manly Pacific Boardriders Club. The promotion of female surfing would come to fruition only a few years later when the contests got bigger and better.
The first ever World Surfing Championship was held in Manly in 1964, sponsored by Ampol and largely supported by Manly Life Saving Club. Competitors came from around the globe with locals, Midget Farrelly and Phylis O’Donnell, winning their divisions. The contest verified the sport of surfing to many people in Australia. It was also a good demonstration of Australia’s deepening relationship with the beach and surfing’s infiltration of broader culture.
And surfing continued to thrive throughout the sixties. Big swells reached Manly in 1965 and local were tested. Two photos in the Australian Surf Museum show a maxed out Fairy Bower. The first’s a photo of Billy Hannan riding what could be the largest wave ever surfed there, this surf is also notable for another reason.
Ray explains, ”Apparently there was a strong south-westerly blowing and Billy lost his board. He swum around for quite a time and couldn’t find it. There was word that it was at Narrabeen and then there was word that someone in Bryon Bay picked it up. The last I heard it was behind a bar, painted orange, in Bryon Bay.” The second photo is the notorious shot of Palm Beach surfboat dropping in on Bob Pike. After wiping out, Bob claims to have heard a sound similar to matches cracking; when he surfaced the surfboat was shattered into little match like pieces, guessing Bob had the last laugh on that one.
Since the sixties, several major surf competitions have taken place in Manly. The Coca Cola Classic of 1987 featured Aussie heroes Martin Potter and Mark Occhilupo and was won by Northern Beaches local, Damien Hardman. In 1999 an up and coming Taj Burrow took the title despite stiff competition from old mate King Kelly.
More recently, Manly’s seen the ladies come back to town. Local lady and legend, Layne Beachley, hosted the Beachley Havaianas Classic of 2006 which was at the time, the richest event ever in women’s surfing. With such big events being drawn here, it’s obvious that Manly’s love of the ocean has developed into an obsession that’s defined the suburb.
“Most of the people that rebelled against clubs [have] children in nippers now or they’re in Boardriding Clubs. The circle’s gone around,” says Ray.“Today we have 800 nippers and North Steyne and Queenscliff have roughly 600. That’s a lot of children between the ages of 5 and 15. So you think that’s the community. There’s nothing bigger in the community than the three surf clubs, which is quite unbelievable. Then you’ve also got Queensie, North Steyne and Manly Boardriders, three Boardriding clubs that are all sponsoring young surfers. It’s a tremendous thing really”.This commitment to the ocean has had a lasting effect, from Tommy Walker to the1964 World Championship and now, to the Australian Open of Surfing, local support has been the key component.
“Manly is a unique place. The events seem to go off here, it doesn’t matter what sponsor you have, if you can get a contest featuring Manly you’re going to get a crowd and it’s probably in that respect, fantastic for any sport in Manly."
"Manly is really a sporting town.”
1902 – Swimmer’s arrest opens beaches
In 1902 swimming, or ‘ocean bathing’ as it was then known, was illegal in daylight hours. Outraged by the situation (and perhaps looking for a reason to get out of the office), local journalist William Gocher took it upon himself to shake things up. Hitting the water long before sunset. Gocher’s dip was cut short by the local constabulary, but the fuss he created through the paper drove mounting public pressure which saw the law overturned the following year.
1903 – Drownings up, whaling down
Between beachgoers’ newfound freedom, lack of swimming experience and swimwear more suited to polar exploration than mid-summer Manly, 1903 saw an alarming spike in drownings. The Sly brothers took the initiative, repurposing an old whaling boat that launched from Shelley Beach to patrol the beach. In keeping with period dresscode, the pair wore hats and ties during patrols. Eventually groups of strong swimmers banded together to watch over Manly Beach, creating Manly Surf Club.
1909 – Duking it out for the first ride
Tommy Walker is a name far less well known than Hawaiian surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku, but according to local historical records, he may well be Australia’s first surfer. Though disputed, evidence suggests that after returning from a trip to Hawaii with a redwood board, Walker gave demonstrations at Freshwater and Manly and rode the board off South Steyne Point for ferry passengers six years before the Duke arrived.
1911 – Splitting the peak at the Steyne
A rift at Manly Surf Club in 1911 saw some members move up to North Steyne while others formed a more disciplined group further south known as Manly Life Saving Club. Dedicated to Lifesaving’s strict practices, it produced Olympians such as swimmer Cecil Healey, and pillars of the Manly community, while helping keep Speedo in business for the last century. North Steyne, on the other hand, had better waves.
1915 - The Duke arrives
After befriending swimming sensation, Cecil Healey, at the 1912 Olympics Duke Kahanamoku arrived in Australia in 1915 for swimming demonstrations but hit the water for some surfing demos too.
1956 – Americans arrive
America’s exports aren’t limited just to boring sports and fast-food restaurants. In 1956 the yanks brought over their crazy-new balsa surfboards. The Manly locals were stoked that they could now actually do things on waves. Bob Pike upset the Americans by taking one of the boards out for an unauthorised test drive.
1960s – Girls hit the lineup
Gidget hits the movies and girls hit the shores. Ladies made the most of a fast dying thing known as chivalry by borrowing the local gentlemen’s boards and starting to shred.
1960s – Clubbies get serious, surfers head north.
The introduction of lightweight surfboards and fast vehicles saw a rapid decline in the relationship between many clubbies and surfers. Surfers decided that instead of watching the water all day they might as well just go in it. They also started growing their hair long – a trend still popular amongst some today.
1961 – Breaking in the Bombie
Dave Jackman paddled out through Freshwater and surfed the Queenscliff Bombie for the first time. He survived and when everyone else eventually paddled out they pretended they’d been working, that’s why they weren’t out earlier.
1964 - World Surfing Championship
Manly locals, Midget Farrelly and Phylis O’Donnell, take the title of Mr and Mrs World Champion. Everyone has a good time rocking out to local surf bands like ‘The Aztecs’ and ‘Billy Thorpe’. People around Australia begin to realise that surfing is a serious sport.
1965 – Surf Boat:0, maxed out Bower: 1.
Billy Hannan successfully surfed what is possibly the largest wave to have been surfed at Bower. A surf club boat droops in on Bob Pike and is less successful. There’s an awkward moment when they all swim in together.
2012 - Manly Australian Open of Surfing
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