The man who brought surfing to Australia

SURF RELIC: Dave Ringland shows off his rare California redwood surfboard, once owned by his father Neil and designed from one made by Hawaii’s Duke Kahanamoku. Picture Simone De Peak
SURF RELIC: Dave Ringland shows off his rare California redwood surfboard, once owned by his father Neil and designed from one made by Hawaii’s Duke Kahanamoku. Picture Simone De Peak

Legacy of the Duke rides on: photos  

AS Newcastle Surfest 2014 draws to a close tomorrow, let's turn back the clock to the sport's origins.

Let's go way back to the late 1920s when building your own surfboard, sometimes from imported, solid, heavy California redwood planks, seemed the right thing to do.

And surprisingly enough, one of these extremely rare relics from the dawn of Australian surfing is still in Newcastle.

The unusual redwood long board, measuring an impressive 10-foot (three metres long) and weighing about 32 kilograms (80 pounds) has been in the family of Newcastle surf identity Dave Ringland for probably 85 years.

"I know there would be other wooden surfboards around, but not as long or as old as mine, I'd say," Ringland says.

"It once belonged to my dad, Neil, originally of Tea Gardens, who had been an early lifesaver, possibly at Nobbys. His nickname was 'Jum', for 'Jumbo'. He was tall and strong as an ox.

"All I know is that his board hasn't been in the water for up to 80 years."

Ringland, a former school teacher and lifesaver who once had a surfboat named after him, had the American redwood board mounted on his verandah wall for many years before moving home.

Now locked up in a secure facility, the weathered longboard has rarely been publicly seen until now.

Ringland said the redwood plank may have been imported through the old Winda Woppa timber mill, near Tea Gardens, then managed by his grandfather and where his own dad worked.

"The board's quite odd compared to modern ones. It's long and heavy, obviously, being two foot, or 60cms, wide and four inches [10cms] thick. The tail then narrows to 18 inches [45cm]," Ringland says.

Surfer Duke Kahanomaku, the Hawaiian swimmer who introduced surfboard riding to Australia during a visit to Freshwater Beach, Sydney in 1915. Pic supplied by Peter Luck Productions

Surfer Duke Kahanomaku, the Hawaiian swimmer who introduced surfboard riding to Australia during a visit to Freshwater Beach, Sydney in 1915. Pic supplied by Peter Luck Productions

"The board has no fins. In that era if surfers wanted to go a certain direction they'd drop their leg over the side. In 1929 my dad Neil would have been aged 20, so I'm guessing his board here would date from the late 1920s.

"The really unusual feature about it is a little down from the nose itself. Look closely, there's a brass bolt going across the board, hidden by two wooden end plugs," he says.

"The idea was to hold it together, to prevent the soft, rounded nose from splitting. As for the board's weight, of around 32 kilograms, well, that's a dry weight! It would have had to have a good sealant, but I can't find any trace of one.

"How difficult would this have been in the water to control?" Ringland asks.

"Surfing's a much older sport than many believe. Captain James Cook was the first to witness board riding when he saw Polynesians riding waves in 1770," he says.

IMAGINE what an exciting time it was when surfing was "introduced' to Australia 100 years ago on Sydney beaches.

Or should we say, when surfing was popularised here. Tradition has it Waikiki beach boy, the great Duke Kahanamoku, introduced surfboards to Australia during a tour of the Aussie east coast in the summer of 1914-1915.

The Duke didn't bring his own surfboard with him, but instead got a slab of sugar pine from a North Sydney timber mill and carved it into shape.

It was shorter than boards back in Hawaii, used on long ocean swells, but better suited to the local conditions, especially at Sydney's Freshwater (Harbord) Beach, near Manly, where the Duke gave popular surf riding demonstrations.

The genial former Olympic swimming champion was an inspiration. Many older surfers immediately had boards modelled after his.

One who didn't was "Snow" McAlister, who used to wag school so he could race down to the beach to go surfing, using his mum's ironing board! McAlister became a champion surfer.

He then built a plywood board, but it sank. He then obtained some prized California redwood slabs to carve into shape and varnish. He even became famous for performing a long surfing headstand to win the 1928 Newcastle surf title.

Much earlier, when Duke Kahanamoku left Australia in February 1915, he gave his own special board to Claude West. Originally a carpenter's apprentice (making coffins), West became a Manly beach lifeguard, Aussie surf champion and Australia's first surfboard manufacturer.

By the mid-1920s, the surf club movement was pioneering the Duke-type surfboard as a lifesaving tool to rescue swimmers!

West kept riding the Duke's 1914 board for decades before donating it to the Freshwater Surf Lifesaving Club, where it's now proudly on display under glass.

Today, above Freshwater Beach there's also a statue in honour of Hawaii's famous surfing legend.

FOR years people thought Duke Kahanamoku introduced surfing to Australia in 1914. But the former editor of Tracks magazine, former Newcastle journo and keen surfer Phil Jarratt, believes the most compelling evidence against this is Manly Council trying to ban boards back in 1913.

Novocastrian Dave Ringland agrees.

"My information is that an Australian called C J Paterson went to America and brought home a Hawaii surf board in 1912," he says. "But it was so heavy nobody could manage it and was tossed aside for the next three years.

"I believe the surf craze really took off when the Americans visited Australia for the 1956 Olympics and introduced us to the shorter, lighter Malibu balsa board. By 1959, more than 1500 Malibu copies had been produced here.

"I mean, long before that, one bloke, I think it was "Snow" McAlister, drilled over 100 holes in his home-made board trying to make it lighter," Ringland says.

"And when the Duke came to Freshwater Beach in 1914 he couldn't understand why no one was surfing.

"Some Hawaiian boards [Onos] back home were up to 16feet [4.5 metres] long, so he made a shorter board to handle the Aussie surf breaks.

"And people forget how heavy these early boards were. I remember years ago when surfer Nat Young was at Merewether Beach when those surfing safaris, using double-decker buses for transport, were popular," he says.

"They'd lined up various boards on show, including the then new 'Mini-Mal' [Malibu] so I got dad's heavy board included. Nat picked it up after handling the short, much lighter Mini-Mal and his shock reaction was something like, 'Gawd Almighty!' "

Ringland himself in time would become Hunter Valley convener of a scheme that introduced surfing as a school sport in public schools. In between, he found time to be president of Dixon Park Surf Club for 20 years.

He's the first to acknowledge many people thought his unusual California redwood surfboard, circa 1929, made to the Duke's own specifications, disappeared long ago.

"There was a similar board owned by [former lifesavers] Ron and Horace Motum and Alf Ward once exhibited up at Tea Gardens. There was a note on it stating I'd given my red cedar [sic!] board to our son Will to make a piece of furniture as a HSC project. That's wrong. Who'd seriously make a surfboard out of Aussie red cedar?" Ringland says.

But some family member had stockpiled some precious red cedar.

So, what happened? It ended up as an ingenious fold-up drinks cabinet with a counter top . . . in the shape of a surfboard, naturally.