Australia, a renowned premier surfing destination, has its surfing roots from the humble islands of Hawaii. One of the biggest impacts the Paradise of the Pacific made in the Land Down Under is the introduction of surfing.
Looking for someone to point the finger for the popularity of surfing? Discover how, when, where surfing in Australia started.
There is a bronze statue of legendary Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku (also known as “The Duke”) on the beach of Freshwater (nee Harbord). The monument serves to commemorate Kahanamoku’s surfing exhibition at Freshwater Beach in 1914 (although other reports claim that the historic exhibition actually took place in 1915). Surfing history credits this exhibition as the dawn of surfing in the Land Down Under.
“The Duke” used a sturdy Queensland Sugar Pine and shaped it into a surfboard. But the highly skilled Hawaiian surfer wasn’t the only one riding the waves on Freshwater Beach. Isabella Letham, a 16-year-old local, was invited to get on the board and experience the exhilarating watersport. Isabella is considered, on record, as the first Australian to have stood up on a surfboard.
But was “The Duke” really the first surfer to ride the waves in Australia? Also, was Isabella the first Australian to stand on a surfboard? According to historian Mark Maddox, locals were actually already riding the waves even before Kahanamoku’s arrival. In fact, Maddox has uncovered that locals were already board riding in 1911, effectively rewriting the history of surfing in Australia.
In Maddox’s book called “100 Years – A Celebration of Surf Life Saving at North Steyne,” the historian points out that the real birthplace of surfboard riding in Australia should be Manly. Maddox’s research reveals that Charles Paterson, president of the North Steyne club, had brought back a board from Hawaii several years before The Duke’s surf exhibition. Locals Tommy and William Walker then rode the board that Paterson brought back.
While there is no doubt that The Duke did contribute greatly to the widespread exposure of surfing in Australia, it would be inaccurate if he were to be credited with introducing the awesome hobby to the country. Recent discoveries of news clippings and early photos prove that Tommy Walker was one of the first board riders in Australia. Records show that Tommy was photographed standing on a crude wooden board at Main Beach in Yamba in 1911. Reports also indicate that the Walkers were giving surf exhibitions in 1912, which included a trademark headstand.
As for the first female local to stand on a surfboard, Maddox’s research has uncovered that it may have actually been a certain Doris Stubbins who should be considered as the first female to ride a surfboard in Australia. Surfing history in the Land Down Under might include Doris since a press clipping of her surf ride, with boyfriend Jack Reynolds, was found. The press clipping dates back to 1911, three years before The Duke came riding in his board.
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