Story: Lifesaving and surfing

Page 5. The surfing way of life

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Rift between surfers and lifesavers

The new lighter boards revolutionised the sport of surfing. Heavy longboards had to be stored at the beach, but Malibu boards could be carried easily on top of a car. New surfing techniques made the kind of surf more important. The variations in wave type at different places allowed for a range of surfing experiences.

Lifesaving clubs were no longer the obvious base for surfers. Travelling around, surfers were less likely to be committed to lifesaving activities. Some lifeguards saw them as a reserve force, and a few people retained both interests, but there was growing tension between the two groups.

New locations

Mt Maunganui, Piha, the Wellington beaches, and Sumner near Christchurch in the South Island were some of the early surfing locations. But increasingly, good surf ‘breaks’ were discovered by keen surfers at places such as Waiwakaiho near New Plymouth, Māhia, Waipū Cove in the far north, and Dunedin.

Some sites, such as those at Raglan, were point breaks, where the surf wheels around a headland. Others, such as Langs Beach in Northland, were beach breaks, where the surf is shaped by a sandy seabed. Yet others, such as The Island at Gisborne, were reef breaks, where the surf forms over a rocky seabed. Many beaches provided combinations of all these breaks.

Weather affected the size and quality of the surf, and as weather forecasts were unhelpful in the early days, surfers often developed a keen understanding of weather patterns, and built a network of local contacts to guide them in their travels around the country. Going ‘on surfari’ for days or even weeks became part of the surfing way of life.

The rules of surfing

Since the early days of surfing there have been unwritten rules. The first was that whoever was closest to the breaking part of the wave on takeoff had right of way. Ignoring the rule was called ‘dropping in’. A second rule forbade ‘snaking the line’ – pushing into the queue waiting to catch a wave. Thirdly, surfers paddling out had to avoid getting in the way of riding surfers.

Surfing culture

Unlike the team sports that were historically strong in New Zealand society, surfing encouraged freedom and individualism. Those who became addicted dropped out of organised sporting and social groups, skipped classes, and even left jobs to pursue their obsession. During the 1960s in particular, this rebellious lifestyle involved wild parties, drugs and dangerous driving.

Taking their cue from Californian publications like Surfer Magazine, locals produced the periodicals New Zealand Surfer and Surfing New Zealand (forerunners of the current New Zealand Surfing).

American surfing movies like The endless summer provided inspiration for the classic New Zealand films Out of the blue and Children of the sun. The bleached, suntanned surfer look caught on, and clothing mirrored overseas trends. Some places such as Raglan and Gisborne became essentially surfing towns, with a distinctive surfing culture.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Lifesaving and surfing - The surfing way of life', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/lifesaving-and-surfing/page-5 (accessed 21 November 2018)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 12 Jun 2006