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Lifesaving and surfing

by  Nancy Swarbrick

Surrounded by New Zealand’s irresistible beaches, swimmers gradually took to the water in Victorian times. They were closely followed, of necessity, by the heroic surf lifesavers. Later still came sun-bleached surfies. Today, thousands head for New Zealand’s extensive coastline to have fun in the surf each summer..

Origins of surf lifesaving

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.

  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

Surf lifesaving develops

Lifesaving techniques

Lifesaving has always demanded close teamwork. The reel, line and belt rescue technique dates from the early 20th century. One of the team, known as the beltman, would swim out to the person in trouble, wearing a belt attached to a line which unrolled from a reel. Other members of the team would pay out the line, then reel in the beltman with the rescued swimmer, who would be resuscitated if necessary. Sometimes boats with a crew of rowers could reach swimmers more quickly, especially if they were far from shore or in heavy surf.

Adaptations of equipment

New Zealanders adopted or adapted a range of rescue gear that had originated in Australia. The earliest reels were wooden, with rope attached to a cork belt worn by the beltman. The belt could be a death trap if the line became snagged, as the beltman could not take it off. In 1948 a New Zealander designed the Ross Safety Belt – a three-piece canvas chest harness held together with a steel pin. In an emergency it could be easily removed. This remained the main lifesaving aid for nearly 50 years. Another device that achieved lasting popularity in New Zealand was the neoprene rescue tube, which provided flotation for both rescuer and rescued.

Some lifesaving craft were imported from Australia: the narrow, light, double-ended surf boat; the hollow longboard on which a lifeguard kneeled while paddling with his hands; and the surf ski propelled by one or two seated lifeguards using paddles. In the 1930s Don Wright of the Piha Surf Life Saving Club designed an improved teardrop-shaped surf ski between 12 and 16 feet (3.6 and 4.8 metres) long, which was soon used by clubs around New Zealand. The surf canoe, propelled by four paddlers, was developed by Duke Gillies of Dunedin’s St Clair club in 1933 as a cheaper, more seaworthy alternative to the surf boat, and was widely used from the 1940s onwards.


Competitions for surf rescue techniques, known as surf carnivals, became regular events. Two trophies, the Wigram Shield and the Nelson Shield, were established in 1911 and 1915 respectively. Initially lifesavers competed at club level, but later there were also competitions between regional surf lifesaving associations. In 1932 a national body, the New Zealand Surf Life Saving Association, was formed and competitions with Australia began in 1937.

The surf carnival

Surf lifesaving carnivals were a colourful spectacle, with novelty events such as a human chariot race, tug-of-war and acrobatics. The high point was the ‘March Past’. Competing teams paraded along the beach in their brightly coloured swimsuits and caps, carrying reels and club banners.

These events emphasised military-style drill. The reel, line and belt rescue followed a strict pattern. Synchronisation was all-important, for instance when the team played out the line at head height, or marched solemnly up the beach carrying the rescued swimmer face down.

Competitions reinforced the team aspect of lifesaving as well as helping to improve rescue standards. They also provided a lively diversion for other beach users. The pageantry of surf lifesaving reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s.

Women in surf lifesaving

Some clubs such as the Piha Surf Life Saving Club, founded in 1934, initially admitted men only, but others had a ‘ladies’ section’, and there were also some clubs solely for women. Regional contests between women’s teams occurred before the Second World War, and from 1944 national women’s titles were contested. But it was not until the 1970s that mixed teams of lifesavers became accepted.

Surf lifesaving today

Surf Life Saving New Zealand

In 2005 the national organisation, Surf Life Saving New Zealand (SLSNZ), co-ordinated the activities of 71 clubs in nine districts, with a total membership of nearly 13,000. It is a member of the International Life Saving Federation. As well as training lifeguards, who must obtain the Surf Lifeguard award, and juniors (known as ‘nippers’), the clubs offer water safety education programmes for school children. Surf sports, which cover the traditional range of lifesaving activities, are considered important in coaching lifeguards, and local and national competitions are still held regularly.

Changing techniques

Although there is still a place for reel, line and belt or surf ski rescues, technology has had a major influence on the way surf rescues are carried out. In 1970 helicopters were first used for picking up swimmers in trouble and transporting the injured to hospital. They were later used for other types of emergency rescue.

Jet boats also made their appearance in the 1970s, soon to be succeeded by jet skis and inflatable rescue boats (IRBs), fondly known as ‘rubber duckies’. Resuscitation techniques have also evolved from applying pressure to the patient’s back, to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Clubs now have medical equipment such as defibrillators.

New demands

The need for surf rescue continues to grow. During the 2004–05 summer period, over 2,000 people were rescued around New Zealand’s shores, an increase from 1,700 the previous year. SLSNZ receives some funding from sources such as the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board and Charity Gaming and private sponsorship to run programmes, but it remains a largely voluntary organisation.

A world first

In 1970 helicopter pilot George Sobiecki suggested to the Auckland Surf Life Saving Association that he could run a beach rescue service in Auckland over summer. So began the world’s first civilian helicopter rescue service operated by a surf lifesaving association. In the first year, 11 rescues were made. Within 15 years the number had reached over 1,000.

The image of lifesavers

The idealised, bronzed lifeguard made popular in American television programmes such as Baywatch has probably influenced New Zealanders’ perceptions. Surf lifesavers are widely admired. Many people know from experience that they often make the difference between life and death – a point reinforced by the local television series Piha rescue. The warning to ‘swim between the flags’ is familiar to most New Zealanders, as is the sight of lifeguards scanning the waves from the clubrooms that overlook most popular swimming beaches. As an activity that combines both team sport and community service, surf lifesaving upholds ideals that are an important part of New Zealand culture.

The rise of surfing

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.

The surfing way of life

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.

Surfing in the sixties

In 1963 the sport was still relatively small: estimates suggest there were about 300 surfers in the entire country. By 1967 there were around 15,000 surfers. In these years the sport became more organised and sophisticated.

In 1963 the first national surfing championships were held at Mt Maunganui, after which the New Zealand Surf Riders’ Association was formed. Local clubs sprang up and a national competition was held every year throughout the 1960s. Visitors from Australia and the USA, where surfing was more established, demonstrated new techniques and brought with them surfing news, equipment and accessories. New Zealanders travelling to Australia and Hawaii began to get experience in international competitive surfing. In 1966 the first New Zealand representative team went to the World Surfing Championships in San Diego.

The Aussie invasion

A Kiwi remembers Australian surfers visiting in the 1960s: ‘[They] would travel from town to town having a 21st birthday at each place and collecting presents; they would sell insured boards and then collect the insurance; and … they would shoplift on a scale and frequency that locals found hard to believe … The positive aspect of the Australian influx was their effect on surfing in New Zealand … Locals suddenly became aware of just what could be done on a surfboard.’ 1

Technological breakthroughs

In the 1960s the big revolution in surfing was the advent of short boards. As more surfboard builders such as Bob Davie, Alan Mitchell, Peter Way and Ted Davidson set up business, and technology improved, boards got shorter – from over 10 feet (3 metres) to under 7 feet ( 2.1 metres) by 1969. Tighter arcs and greater speed in executing turns and cutbacks became possible. Surfing got more exciting. The short (and light) boards attracted more women and younger people to the sport. And the introduction of wetsuits in the late sixties made it possible to surf for longer in all conditions.


The formation of the Surf Riders’ Association had brought the sport into more open conflict with the New Zealand Surf Life Saving Association, who refused to allow the new organisation to become affiliated under its banner. Surfers and swimmers sometimes competed for space in the surf. In these conditions, loose boards could injure swimmers. Lifesavers and local councils (who saw themselves as socially responsible in trying to keep beaches safe) clashed with surfers, who were branded anti-establishment hooligans. At some beaches ‘surf lanes’ were introduced. At others, surfing was banned altogether. By 1965 the National Water Safety Council (now Water Safety New Zealand) was considering compulsory registration of surfboards. The safety problem was solved in the early 1970s with the use of leg ropes, which attached the board to the rider.

    • Quoted in Luke Williamson, Gone surfing: the golden years of surfing in New Zealand, 1950–1970. Auckland: Penguin, 2000, p. 44. › Back

Surfing: 1970s to today

Growth and its consequences

The three decades after 1970 saw the number of surfers increase from around 20,000 in 1970 to an estimate of 185,000 in 1998. In the 2000s, older surfers who started riding waves in the 1950s and 1960s were joined by their children and grandchildren.

New young surfers (known as grommets or gremmies) often gain entry to the sport through surf schools. Many popular surfing beaches have become crowded, and there is no longer such a sense of camaraderie between surfers. For instance, local surfers have been observed to band together to dissuade outsiders or non-surfers such as boogie boarders from using ‘their’ beach – by force if necessary.


The increased popularity has brought many benefits. An expanded repertoire of surfing manoeuvres, coupled with ever more sophisticated board manufacture, has contributed to a rise in skill levels. Surfboards are now made in all shapes and sizes according to the surfer’s weight, surf preferences and proficiency. The three-finned short board known as the thruster makes faster turns possible, and has allowed a new generation of surfers to develop a more aggressive style of surfing. On the other hand, longer Malibu boards have made a comeback and are used for certain wave conditions and more restrained surfing styles.

Making waves

By studying surfing locations such as Raglan, scientists have identified the conditions required to create good surfing waves. ASR Ltd, a New Zealand company, designs artificial reefs to control the type of surf at various beaches, and has an international clientele. It has done feasibility studies for reefs at various locations around New Zealand, notably Lyall Bay in Wellington.

A respectable sport

Surfing is now a mainstream sport. The national organisation, known as Surfing New Zealand, represents 64 clubs and co-ordinates a range of competitions that attract major sponsors. It also governs the diverse range of board sports that have developed alongside surfing, such as longboarding, bodyboarding, kneeboarding and skimboarding.

Top surfers

New Zealand surfers are up with the best in the world. Alan Byrne achieved an outstanding international championship result in 1981 when he came second in the Pipemasters, held at Hawaii’s famous Banzai Pipeline.

Professional surfing now gives the best surfers such as Maz Quinn, Jay Quinn, and Blair Stewart the opportunity to make a good living from their sport. Their successes in professional surfing series are an incentive for a new generation of young surfers, and have raised the profile of the sport in New Zealand. Maz Quinn in particular became a local hero after he made it to the élite World Championship Tour, which includes the top 44 male and 16 female surfers in the world.

Māori and surfing

Some of the best surfers are Māori, including professionals Lisa Hurunui and Daniel Kereopa, and national champions Morehu Roberts and Airini Mason. There are a number of tribal clubs and competitions specifically for Māori surfers. The national Auahi Kore Māori Surfing Team has had notable success at the Oceania Surfing Cup competition since the late 1990s. Customised surfboards and clothing labels such as Ngaru Toa feature Māori designs.

The lure of the surf

There are still plenty of surfers who reject clubs and competitive surfing. Being at one with the ocean and learning to read its moods in search of the perfect wave is enough for them. Surfing is an activity that engages both the body and the mind. In the words of a surfer: ‘The zen of surfing is to give yourself totally to the experience, becoming one with the wave. Defying gravity, and exerting control, aware of your surroundings yet poised in space with all your proprioceptors firing, never are you more aware of yourself.’ 1

  1. Bob Harvey, Rolling thunder: the spirit of Karekare. Auckland: Exisle, 2001, p. 129. › Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Lifesaving and surfing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 May 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 12 June 2006