Story: Lifesaving and surfing

Page 1. Origins of surf lifesaving

All images & media in this story

New Zealand’s coastline and surf

New Zealand, with its long coastline (roughly 18,000 kilometres), is pounded by surf. The size and shape of the country means that none of the main urban areas are more than an hour’s drive from the coast.

‘This health-giving recreation’

Medical authorities in New Zealand championed the health benefits of swimming in the late 1800s. For instance, Dr W. A. Chapple proclaimed in 1894: ‘There is absolutely no exercise at once so pleasurable, so invigorating, so healthful, and so productive of physical development as swimming. Every other exercise to which the human body can be subjected pales into utter insignificance when we contemplate the far-reaching advantages of this health-giving recreation.’ 1

When summer comes around, New Zealanders flock to the sea to swim, bodysurf, boogie board or surf, often under the watchful eyes of surf lifesavers. Although these sports are quite different, they have linked histories.

Early attitudes to swimming

Swimming and frolicking in the surf is now a familiar pastime for New Zealanders, and Māori people have swum in the sea and inland waters for centuries. But for 19th-century Europeans it was unusual. Exposing the body in public was thought of as shocking, and because swimmers usually wore scanty garments or nothing at all, the prevailing moral code deemed swimming in public unsuitable. Swimming took place in secluded places, with groups segregated according to age and sex. Some towns had by-laws prohibiting swimming in public places or in daylight.

Increasing popularity

The idea that swimming was healthy began to take hold from the 1880s. In some places, new public swimming baths offered separate sessions for men and women, with the requirement that all swimmers wear costumes. The New Zealand Amateur Swimming Association was founded in 1890, and the Royal Life Saving Society began teaching swimming and lifesaving.

Skin complaints

The sight of people swimming and sunbathing was too much for some beachgoers. Writing to the newspaper in 1911, ‘One Disgusted’ of Napier deplored the ‘vulgar beasts’ who lay on the beach ‘absolutely nude with the exception of a towel.’ ‘One Indignant’ agreed, claiming that ‘yahoos’ used the beach ‘for the purpose of exhibiting their nakedness under the pretence of bathing’. 2

Local councils still saw sea bathing as a problem, as the beaches were less private than other swimming spots. Beach users complained of being offended by the sight of semi-nude swimmers and sunbathers. Regulations were introduced, forcing bathers to wear modest neck-to-knee bathing costumes, and even banning swimmers from some beaches near urban areas.

Sea bathing associations

By the early 20th century, sea bathers were forming organisations to improve the image of swimming and provide amenities such as changing rooms at the beach. Following the Australian example, surf bathing associations were formed in 1910 and 1911. Many adopted the objectives of the Royal Life Saving Society. As the sea-bathing movement grew, new clubs described themselves as ‘lifesaving associations’, and provided a voluntary lifesaving service. At this time, drownings were frequent, and sea bathers faced particular hazards such as underwater rips.

Overtones of civic duty gave the clubs respectability, and the presence of lifesavers opened the beaches for those who were less confident in the surf. Gradually swimming in the sea developed into the hugely popular activity it is today.

Footnotes:
  1. Quoted in Caroline Daley, Leisure & pleasure: reshaping and revealing the New Zealand body, 1900–1960. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003, p. 119. › Back
  2. Quoted in Douglas Booth, ‘Healthy, economic, disciplined bodies: surfbathing and surf lifesaving in Australia and New Zealand, 1890–1950.’ New Zealand Journal of History 32, no. 1 (April 1998): 48–49. › Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Lifesaving and surfing - Origins of surf lifesaving', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/lifesaving-and-surfing/page-1 (accessed 16 September 2019)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 12 Jun 2006