A Restart for Australia

City Beach, Western Australia, mid-'50s. Photo: Ray Geary
Coffs Harbor Surf Club, 1950s
California lifeguard-surfers Greg Noll (left) and Tom Zahn (center), 1956
Greg Noll (right) and Mike Bright, Australia, 1956

By the end of World War II, Australian surfers had been going at it hard for almost 40 years, and the country’s wave-riding population had grown steadily. In 1949, nobody so much as raised an eyebrow after a newsreel claimed that “surfing is Australia’s most popular sport.” Yet surfing here was different than it was in America. Or, put another way, isolated from trends in California and Hawaii, Australian surfing was more or less exactly the same as it had been in 1935. This would end with the arrival of the Malibu chip in 1956.

By that time, Charles “Snowy” McAlister had long been the nation’s definitive surfing character. There had been other Aussie greats, most notably Claude West, the quiet teenager who’d received Duke Kahanamoku’s demonstration board in 1915. But McAlister—the son of a mailman, a great pubmate and storyteller, and three-time national surfriding title holder—became the prototypical Aussie surfer. “We’d dress up a bit after being in the surf and gather outside the Ladies changerooms,” McAlister once said, recalling his beachfront rake’s progress in the 1920s. “The young holiday girls liked the surfers, and it was the place to ask them out.” This après surf approach to beachgoing would, decades later, no doubt have met with approval from the likes of Tubesteak Tracy and the rest of the postwar Malibu gang. McAlister was a one-man argument for the idea that surfing’s constitutional set of givens—the ride, the sun, the beach, and all the manifold promises of excitement, leisure, beauty, and adventure—is what creates surfers, not the other way around. It’s an activity that seems to shape wave-riders anywhere and everywhere into the mold of a Universal Surfer.

Still, as it did before the war, the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia, with its thousands of members and a countrywide network of “surf clubs” (headquarters for locally-funded lifeguard companies), efficiently prevented surfing from being anything more than an agreeable off-hours compliment to the more serious work of beach patrol and rescues. There were a few exceptions. A beefy surfboard builder named Frank Adler founded the Australian Surf Board Association in 1945 with the intention of putting some distance between surfing and lifeguarding, and a few years later Jack “Bluey” Mayes of Bondi Beach managed to attract nearly a hundred members into his all-surfing Cornel Wilde Gang—distinguished by their shaggy hair and preference for zoot suits. Then there was Keith "Spaz" Hurst," another Bondi boy (the nickname was the all-too-predictable result of Hurst's having Tourette's) who pledged allegiance to his local club but also played the rebel at every opportunity, matching ocean-going feats of daring with heroic bouts of drinking and the occasional spot of public nudity.

Still, the SLSA remained nearly all-powerful. When young Queen Elizabeth II came to Bondi for the 1954 Royal Command Surf Carnival, a hundred thousand people jammed the beach and headlands, and sixty banner-carrying surf clubs marched solemnly past in formation before taking to the waves. It was a hot summer morning and the surf was up, and the Queen, in pearls and white gloves, was seen pointing excitedly during the final event as a powerful set of waves overturned the entire seven-strong field of surfboats.

The sport benefited to some degree from its association with the SLSA. Australian surfers were “knights of the boards,” as one newsreel put it, and the surfboard itself was “a sling for David against the mighty Goliath of the sea.” Surfing and heroism went hand in hand. Yet by American standards, the actual wave-riding taking place at Manly, Bondi, and the rest of Australia’s popular surfing beaches was laughable. The hollow "toothpick" surfboard remained the Australian standard long after it was discarded by American surfers, and Australian surfers mostly rode as they always had—straight for the beach, or “cornering” on the gentlest of angles, often in group formation.

Geographic and cultural isolation explained much of Australia’s weirdly suspended postwar development in the waves. Few Australians vacationed in Hawaii, and even fewer in California, so there was little or no firsthand knowledge of what was taking places on foreign shores. The media wasn’t much help. Television didn’t arrive in Australia until 1956, and surfing rarely figured into the imported American movies and news magazines.

More than anything, though, Australians had an obstinate native pride with regard to anything having to do with the beach, surfing including—and not without reason. The surf club was an Australian invention, after all, and nobody in the world was better at surf rescue work. That was what really counted. And if you needed one more reason, well, blame the waves. Duke Kahanamoku’s demonstrations were fondly remembered, and Hawaiians were considered the world’s best surfers, but many also believed that Australia’s waves were so unlike those in Hawaii that the local version was essentially a different sport from what was practiced in the Islands.

Australians didn’t think much about California surfing one way or another. When visiting Hollywood hunk Peter Lawford left his new balsa chip at the Bondi Beach Surf Club in 1950 during a film shoot, two or three locals took the board out for a test-ride, weren’t impressed, and let it sit unused in a corner of the clubhouse. Four years later, Queenscliff local John “Nipper” Williams got his hands on a dilapidated but seaworthy Malibu chip. “Everyone thought the board was a joke,” Manly Beach surfer Bob Evans later said. “Except for Nipper and several thousand California surfers.”

Aussie surfers, in the end, just weren’t all that concerned with progress or change. “They ride the waves,” a sportswriter wrote in 1949, describing the routine followed by a group of Manly Beach surfers, “then return to the beach to play medicine ball, and later return to the clubhouse for a hot shower and a spot of weightlifting.” There was tradition, even glory, to all this. If an Australian surfer wanted to ride just as his father had ridden, it was hard to blame him. Not with the white-gloved Queen of England herself on the beach watching in admiration.

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Then, in 1956, Australia hosted the Summer Olympics in Melbourne. The games themselves were a cultural coming-out party for Australia. Everything proceeded smoothly over the course of the sixteen-day event, word went out that the host nation was friendly and well-organized, and sports fans across country cheered as teenage Sydney sprinter Beth Cuthbert won three golds in track, while the mighty Australian swim team torpedoed their way to a 1-2-3 finish in both the men’s and women’s 100-meter freestyle—a still-unmatched Olympic feat.

SLSA officials had lobbied the Australian Olympic Committee to choose surf lifesaving as one of two “demonstration sports” allowed to each Olympic host country, but the committee chose baseball and Australian rules football. As consolation, however, the SLSA was allowed to organize what was formally named the International and Australian Surf Championship Carnival—better known as the International Surf Carnival. Great Britain, New Zealand, South Africa, and Ceylon were each invited to send a team. America sent two squads: a ten-man team from Hawaii and a twelve-man team from Southern California that included a loud, roughhousing Los Angeles County teenager named Greg Noll.

All of the Americans were complete unknowns to their surf club hosts, who nonetheless greeted them at the airport with big chip-toothed smiles and plenty of handshaking and backslapping, leavened with a bit of Aussie arrogance and condescension. The welcoming party included a club captain, Noll later recalled, and as the visitors’ surfboards were loaded onto a flatbed truck, he offhandedly picked one up, turned to Noll, and asked, “What are these for?” It was a bantering little put-down; Noll smiled and mumbled a friendly sort of nonanswer. Curious but unimpressed, the clubbie glanced at the board’s oversized fin, rapped his knuckle a couple of times against the deck, set it down, gestured to the stack of boards, and with a dismissive grin said, “Two bob for the works, mate.”

The carnival was made up of two rounds of competition: the first in the town of Torquay, not far from Melbourne and the games, the second in Sydney. Both events, as expected, were dominated by the home team. For local surfers, the real action took place before and after the carnival events, as the Americans waxed up their boards for a series of impromptu demonstrations. (Because the Australian “surfboard” was then equivalent to the American paddleboard, locals dubbed this new type of wavecraft a “Malibu.”) The first one took place in thumping head-high waves at Sydney’s Avalon Beach, before a few thousand spectators who’d gathered earlier in the day for a warm-up surf carnival. The Aussie smirking vanished in a flash once Noll and his teammates paddled out and showed the local blokes how to ride a Malibu board correctly.

Local boardmaker Gordon Woods was at work when the demonstration began. “This chap came running in, aghast,” Woods recalled, “looked at me and said, ‘You’ve gotta see these Yanks! They go across the wave, turn around, and go back the other direction!’” Woods hustled down to the beach and saw for himself, “and realized straight away that everything we’d accomplished up to that point was now redundant. That was it. The sixteen-foot boards were done overnight.” Within forty-eight hours, Woods had not only arranged to buy lifeguard Bob Burnside’s 9-foot 6-inch Velzy-Jacobs pig upon the American’s departure, but decided to drive six hundred miles to Torquay for the opening round of the carnival, just to keep on eye on his investment.

Noll meanwhile proved himself a solid trencherman in the pubs as well as a sexual decathlete—over a single twenty-four-hour span he partnered with five different women—and quickly became the Australian’s favorite Yank. After a three-day Torquay-to-Sydney road trip with his hosts, Noll rejoined his American teammates, unshaven and stinking of alcohol, the Team USA patch ripped from his warm-up jacket and replaced by an Aussie-made patch of Disney character Gladstone Gander sculling a frothy mug of beer.

The buzz about the Yanks only grew. Hundreds of carnival fans stayed behind after the official events to watch Noll and his friends ride their Malibus, and hardcore surfers rushed the visitors as they left the water to talk and ask questions, and to get a closer look at the boards. Another half-dozen prized Malibus were sold to locals before the Americans left the country.

Once more, as with Duke Kahanamoku’s introductory demonstrations in 1915, the course of Australian surf history was charted by outsiders. It wouldn’t happen again. The sport began to emancipate itself from surf clubs and rescue work almost overnight, and just ten years later Australia overtook Hawaii and Southern California to become the world’s most progressive surfing region.

Midcentury Aussies weren’t much concerned with progressing the art. “They ride waves,” a sportswriter wrote in 1949, describing the routine followed by a group of Manly Beach surfers, “play medicine ball on the beach, then return to the clubhouse for a hot shower and a spot of weightlifting.”