City Beach, Western Australia, Mid-'50s. Photo: Geary
City Beach, Western Australia, Mid-'50s. Photo: Geary

History Of Surfing: A Restart For Australia

How Greg Noll and the 1956 Olympic Games brought Australian surfing back to the throne

In his newest History Of Surfing chapter, Matt Warshaw shifts our focus to Australia’s surf culture, which had carried on for 40 years ever since Duke Kahanamoku traveled to its shores for his international swimming exhibitions in 1915. But the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia, a network of lifeguarding centers across the country, meant the surfing culture was less about the wave to be enjoyed as a civic responsibility to be honored. Combined with its insulation from larger cultural trends in Hawaii and Southern California, Australia lagged behind in surf progression as boards shrunk and as riding grew more technical. Warshaw explains:

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.

All of that changed in 1956 at the Summer Olympic Games in Melbourne, where Greg Noll and the U.S. team competed on their Malibu chipboards in the International Surf Carnival, a multinational surf lifesaving demonstration, and, in Noll’s words, “hit [the Australians] like a comet. Took ’em from the horse and buggy straight to the Porsche.”

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.

Read the rest of the chapter here!

We asked Warshaw more about Australia’s board-design epiphany in ’56, and the country’s launch as a force in global progression.

How did the social environment on post-war Australian beaches compare to the postwar Malibu scene?

Lifeguarding was such a huge deal in Australia, as far as surfing went, while in America, lifeguarding was maybe something you did for beer money in the summer. Here, it was a job. There, it was sort of in-between the Boy Scouts and the Army. I don't even think they were paid to lifeguard. You did it for love of country and Queen. You did it for the good old local clubhouse, just like your Dad. And the guys at the very top of the lifeguard chain, the presidents and whatnot of the national organization, hated the idea of surfing pulling the young fellas away from their duties as guards. Which, of course, it did. Even before the Americans got there in 1956 and schooled them on what it meant to be a full-on surfer, some guys in Australia—and it was all guys—were beginning to resist the clubs and the uniforms and all the organization.

What was the national response to The Duke's first visit to Australia decades earlier? It's easy to forget how central a figure he was in jumpstarting Australia's surf history.

Australia loved Duke, but mostly for his swimming, I think. The surfing part, too, but Duke went to Australia mostly to do swimming demonstrations. Meanwhile, lifeguarding was already a big enough thing by the time Duke got there that it just kind of sucked surfing into its orbit. I think there was this idea, too, that yeah, you could surf in Australia, but the waves there weren't really proper surfing waves, like they had in Hawaii. That also may have had something to do with the Aussies not going after it as a stand-alone thing.

With the surf club being an Australian invention, did that model of beach-sport civic duty catch on anywhere else in the world? How is the modern surf club regarded today?

Absolutely. Everywhere across the British Empire. The local clubhouse, with volunteer guards, the bright clubbie bathing caps, the march-by, those big ridiculous "toothpick" boards—the whole shebang, you'd see it across the UK, New Zealand, South Africa, and every other far-flung coastal corner of the Empire. And in all those places, riding waves was mostly something you did after your club duties were finished.

Strange to think that there was a point in world history where the Olympics were the coming-out party for a nation's culture.

Australia didn't even have TV until the Olympics. The horror.

How much of the frenzy surrounding the introduction of the Malibu chip can be credited to Greg Noll being the ambassador?

Greg drank and f–ked his Aussie hosts under the table, which of course they loved. But it wasn't Greg alone that got 'em stoked. I think it was seeing the whole group, with their cool little boards, all light and easy to carry—just how relaxed and confident they were as surfers. The American guys were lifeguards, too, but they were also surfers in a way that was totally independent of being guards.

You write, “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." You wonder if the Australians advanced so quickly because they were already indoctrinated into that Surf-club spirit of self-discipline, regimen, and focus.

Absolutely. They had all that, plus the nation was sports-mad, plus it has got tons of waves, plus there was a whole let's-try-harder attitude because they were so far behind. What Australia did as a surf nation between '56 and '62, when Midget Farrelly won the big Makaha contest—something no California surfer ever did—is just incredible. And then draw a line from Midget to Nat to Michael Peterson to Tom Carroll to Mick Fanning. Australian surfers used to serve the Queen, but for 50-plus years now, they've been kings.

For more, visit the History of Surfing website here.

[Photo: City Beach, Western Australia, Mid-’50s. Photo: Geary]