Surfing astounds South Pacific explorers
When European seafarers visited the South Pacific they were astounded by the Polynesian inhabitants’ love of surfing.
One of the first to describe this “strange diversion” was Sir Joseph Banks, the English naturalist who accompanied James Cook around the world between 1768 and 1771 (the famous journey that also took them up Australia’s east coast).
He marvelled at how “with infinite ease” the islanders dived under breaking waves before rising on the other side. “But their chief amusement was carried on by the stern of an old canoe, with this before them they swam out as far as the outermost breach, then… opposing the blunt end to the breaking wave were hurried in with incredible swiftness.”
As Banks was to discover, surfing was central to Polynesian culture and had been practiced since ancient times.
Duke Kahanamoku introduces surfing in Australia
At the beginning of the 20th century, brilliant displays of wave riding by Hawaiian surfers aroused tremendous interest in America and Australia.
Initially they were invited to demonstrate their skills in California. The most famous was Duke Kahanamoku, who is also credited with introducing surfing to Australia.
Brought up at Waikīkī beach in Honolulu, Kahanamoku had exceptional aquatic talents. He won the first of his Olympic gold medals for swimming in 1912, and as a Hawaiian hero of the pool and surf performed swimming and surfing demonstrations around the world.
In late 1914, a crowd of spectators gathered to watch him surf at Freshwater on Sydney’s Northern Beaches using a board fashioned from local sugar pine. For schoolgirl Isabel Letham it was a truly memorable day, as this episode of Australian Encounters reveals.
Australian Encounters: Isabel Letham & Duke Kahanamoku (1914)
Coins celebrate Aussie surfing culture
Surfing has become synonymous with the Australian way of life. From Margaret River in the west to Bells Beach in Victoria, famous surf breaks abound around the coast.
The Beach Boys, America’s legendary surf band, paid tribute to Australia’s surfing pedigree in their 1963 classic, Surfin’ USA. The only exception in the otherwise all-American line-up of surf locations mentioned in the famous hit is “Australia’s Narrabeen”.
Today, it’s even possible to collect coins celebrating Aussie surf culture!