Inside the Collection

Australia’s Surfing History and Surfboard Design


Tanya Binning off Bondi Beach, 'Made in Australia' book, 1969, David Mist archive, MAAS collection, 96/44/1-6/3/2. Gift of David Mist, 1996.
Tanya Binning off Bondi Beach, ‘Made in Australia’ book, 1969, David Mist archive, MAAS collection, 96/44/1-6/3/2

On Saturday 20 June 2015 about 30 countries around the world will be celebrating International Surfing Day, Australia included. The idea is to celebrate surfing and the surfing lifestyle with contests and barbecues. More importantly, the day has a sustainability message with surfers participating in projects like beach clean ups and sand dune stabilisation.

I grew up on the Central Coast of New South Wales about 80 km north of Sydney and my big brother was really into surfing. I have a vivid memory of our two aunts, in the 1960s, carrying his first board for him, 3 metres in length, down Terrigal beach so he could try it out in the surf. He went on to have a succession of boards and spent all the summer school holidays camping with his mates in a Terrigal beach shack, surfing and collecting bottles for pocket money to buy food. They had a whole surfing language, being disappointed when you ‘dinged’ your board while a rider who led with the right foot was a ‘goofy foot’ or just plain ‘goofy’.

Australia’s First Surfing Demonstration

You’d think, with our fantastic beaches, Australians would have been surfing forever but it’s really only been just over 100 years since the Waikiki surfer and Olympic swimmer, the Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, gave the first demonstration of ‘surfboard riding’ at Freshwater Beach on Christmas Eve 1914. He was described by the Sydney press as ‘the human motor boat from Honolulu’ … ‘what a picture he presented as he stood upright, the breakers curling beneath him, a smile on his face’. His board, made locally for him of sugar pine, was 2.6 metres long, 60 cm wide, 7.6 cm thick and weighed 31.8 kilograms. The journalist who watched the demonstration said that the board reminded him of a coffin lid only it tapered at either end and its shellac surface was said to have been ‘as slippery as a dancing floor’. After witnessing the Duke’s demonstration, it was reported that young men couldn’t wait to get into the bush to get some bark to make their own boards.

Surfing in the Life-Saving Movement

Surfing in Australia went on to develop within the surf life-saving movement with wave-riding demonstrations and paddling races in the 1920s. The first surfboards were made of solid heavy timber, usually coarse-grained redwood, and about 2.7 metres long. The hollow plywood board was introduced in 1934. The surf ski, which is ridden seated with a paddle, invented by Australian G.A. Crackenthorp in 1937, was adopted as part of the standard equipment for surf life-saving.

The 1950s saw the introduction of the lightweight Malibu surfboard from California. Its popularity was reinforced by Hollywood surfing films and specialist surfing magazines and at this time the use of the board moved away from the life-saving movement. Surfboard manufacture escalated and boards became shorter and lighter. Innovations such as the leg rope, twin fins and the ‘stinger’, a step on the outside rail of the board, were introduced in the 1970s.

Australia’s Surfboard Innovations

Australia had its fair share of innovations and the Museum has several pioneering boards in its collection. In the 1980s it was the three-finned ‘thruster’. Our round tail thruster was designed by Simon Anderson and made by Energy Surfboards of Narrabeen in Sydney, in 1987.

Energy Flyer Round Tail Thruster surfboard. MAAS collection, 88/18-2. Gift of Energy Surfboards, 1988.
Energy Flyer Round Tail Thruster surfboard. MAAS collection, 88/18-2

In the late 1970s, Australian Mark Richards dominated world championship surfing. He introduced a short, two-finned surfboard suited to his light weight as well as to small surf. But Simon Anderson, a tall and heavier professional surfer, found the twin fin ‘twitchy’ (hard to control) and unsuitable for bigger waves. He experimented with a triple-fin prototype, eventually enlarged the area of the board to accept three fins and reduced the size of the central fin.

'FCS H-2' surfboard fins designed and made by Surf Hardware International, Talon Technologies and Metro Solutions, Sydney, 2004. MAAS collection 2006/51/1. Gift of Surf Hardware International, 2006.
‘FCS H-2’ surfboard fins designed and made by Surf Hardware International, Talon Technologies and Metro Solutions, Sydney, 2004, MAAS collection, 2006/51/1

‘Tracks Magazine’, the Australian surfers’ bible, said that Anderson’s innovation was the most significant change in the 80-year history of surfboard design. Anderson didn’t patent or register the design and for a short time the ‘thruster’ gave his employer, Energy Surfboards, a competitive advantage, but it was soon copied all over the world. The next stage in the development was the removable fin concept or Fin Control Systems (FCS) invented by Brian Whitty in Australia in the 1990s to enable easier manufacture, transport and adaptable use of the three-fin ‘thruster’ surfboards.

'Bambu' surfboard, MAAS collection, 2005/222/1
‘Bambu’ surfboard, MAAS collection, 2005/222/1

A special surfboard in the collection developed to appeal to the environmental conscious surfer is the ‘Bambu’ 3-fin board made with a core of polystyrene foam but an exterior of bamboo. It was designed and made by Mei Yap Gordon and Shale Gordon of Bamboo Surfboards Australia at Byron Bay on the Far North Coast of New South Wales between 2001 and 2002. The bamboo exterior reduced the need for resin and fibreglass. Since bamboo is very quick to grow and doesn’t need fertilisers, pesticides, or much water, it’s a good choice of material for any sustainable design.

FCS II fins plugs on display at the Australian International Design Awards 2013, Powerhouse Museum, MAAS collection, 2014/52/2
FCS II fins plugs on display at the Australian International Design Awards 2013, Powerhouse Museum, MAAS collection, 2014/52/2

In 2010 my colleague, Angelique Hutchison, wrote an excellent post on award-winning surfboard designs including the FCS. In 2014 she acquired a set of three FCS II surfboard fins designed by Surf Hardware International of Sydney for the Museum’s collection. The FCS II is the first high performance fin system to be removable by hand. The fin plugs are installed into a surfboard during manufacture. Each plug contains a mechanism which allows the fins to be removed from, and replaced on, the board without any need for special tools. The FCS II fin system represents a continuation of Australian innovation in surfing technology and an outstanding Australian product design.

So on International Surfing Day 2015 I’m pretty sure my brother will be out in the waves celebrating despite it being mid-winter here in Australia as the day is celebrated as close as possible to the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice.

Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, July 2015


‘The Human Motor Boat’ in ‘Sunday Times’ (Sydney, NSW : 1895) 27 December, 1914, p. 14,
Simpson, Margaret, ‘On the Move; a history of transport in Australia’, Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 2004.


3 responses to “Australia’s Surfing History and Surfboard Design

  • Hi great rundown on surfing. I spent a lot of time at the central cost in my younger day’s trying to surf and enjoy evey moment I am 64. Today I was looking for a car for my daughter and one of the oners mate came to show me the car he is 69 years young and still surfs at the central cost with his mates, now thats COOL as the saying goes, your never to old to enjoy surfing.

  • As a synopsis it’s ok but the transition from plank to malibu type is deficient. In the late 1940’s and early 50’s the board and ski construction favoured plywood over stringers and frame. The Australian Surf Ski and Surf Board Championships of the time were totally populated by this type of construction. Okulich ( killed by a shark at Merewether beach Newcastle and MacIntosh held the ski championships over that period.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *