Story: Lifesaving and surfing

Page 4. The rise of surfing

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Early wave riders

Surfing or wave riding is generally believed to have originated in Hawaii, but it seems to have been popular with other Polynesian peoples, including Māori. When Europeans arrived in New Zealand in the 19th century, they saw Māori surfing (whakahekeheke), using boards (referred to as kopapa), logs, canoes and even bags of kelp. The pastime apparently declined when Christian missionaries promoted modest dress and behaviour.

Surfing was revived when the Hawaiian swimmer and surfer Duke Kahanamoku toured New Zealand in 1915. He gave demonstrations at Muriwai on Auckland’s west coast, Lyall Bay in Wellington, and New Brighton beach in Christchurch, inspiring a few locals who in the 1920s and 1930s were using solid wooden boards.

The surf lifesaving connection

Modern surfing in New Zealand had its roots in the surf lifesaving movement. Lifesaving rescue equipment included heavy hollow longboards, up to 16 feet (about 4.9 metres) long, which were paddled through the surf.

During the 1950s imported magazines included plans for building longboards. Some enthusiasts began to modify these especially for surfing, incorporating such features as a ‘rocker’ to give the board a curve and prevent it from nosediving, and a fin to increase manoeuvrability. The boards were often stored at clubrooms, and attracted younger members to lifesaving. Surfing at this time involved using a longboard to ride a breaking wave to the beach in a straight line – few surfers attempted to ride across the wave.

Catching a new wave

Lifesaver Peter Byers soon made friends with American surfers Bing Copeland and Rick Stoner when they stayed at Piha in 1959. He drove them around Auckland to find materials, including resin and fibreglass, for making Malibu surfboards. The boards were not finished before the pair returned to California, so Peter completed them. This was the start of New Zealand’s first commercial surfboard-building enterprise.

Malibu boards

The arrival of two young American lifeguards in November 1958 marked a turning point in surfing. Bing Copeland and Rick Stoner stayed at the Piha Surf Lifesaving Club for four months, demonstrating surfing on their Californian Malibu boards.

The boards had a shaped balsa core covered with fibreglass mat and resin, and were shorter, much lighter and more manoeuvrable than the old-style longboards. It was possible to surf across the face of a wave, giving the rider the exhilarating sense of weightlessness and speed that is the essence of modern surfing. Malibu boards were subsequently manufactured in New Zealand, and surfing rapidly gained converts.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Lifesaving and surfing - The rise of surfing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 April 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 12 Jun 2006