Bodysurfers and Australian Beach Culture

Article excerpt

Recently, while enjoying the early morning surf at Bondi, I found myself confronted by a flashback to another era. Looking up as I swam through a long break, there she was, gracefully arrowing down the front of the wave, head up, arms extended out, planing on a small handboard. It was a powerful wave which had broken more than thirty metres beyond the outermost bank, so her speed was impressive as she hurtled down the wave's sloping face, completely in control. Spray fanned outward from the board, and there was a smile beneath her narrowed eyes as she sped towards the shallower bank and, beyond, the beach. Her image, vivid as a Max Dupain photo, will always remain with me. (1)

On that early Sunday morning the bodysurfer came to symbolise the surfing world we have lost: a world where she, I, and others like us dominated the waves, rather than the boardriders. Fifty years ago she would not have been alone on the wave, for there would have been at least a dozen or more keeping her company. Today at Bondi, surfers obediently swim between flags no more than sixty metres apart, with the best waves being monopolised by boardriders who enjoy three or four times the area. In the 1950s and earlier, the reversal of this situation left the comparatively few boardriders corralled in an equally restricted space. For more than half a century, bodysurfers (the first 'surfers') far outnumbered all other forms of surfing enjoyment, riding the best and/or longest waves free from any interference. Nowadays, the surfers are the board and boogieboard riders, and they rule the surf with the help of the surf lifesavers.

Not only is bodysurfing now an almost forgotten part of Australian beach culture, recent studies have ignored the reality that for hundreds of thousands of Australians this was their chosen form of surfing. In particular, the recent groundbreaking studies, Leone Huntsman's Sand in Our Souls: The Beach in Australian History, and Doug Booth's Australian Beach Cultures. The History of Sun, Sand and Surf, have mentioned it only in passing. (2) In the writing on Australia's beach culture, bodysurfing has been obscured by more visible phenomena such as the role of surf lifesavers on the beaches; the 1960s and '70s clashes between surf lifesavers and boardriders; emerging surfing professionalism; and representations of the beach and beach culture in both art and literature. (3) There has also been a longstanding fascination with what Robert Drewe recently referred to as the 'Dingo and the Shark'; metaphors for the bush and the beach and the importance of each in Australia's culture, as well as studies of the body, power and masculinity. (4)

The silence about bodysurfing is curious, because its early history is known: books, chapters and articles have been written explaining its techniques, and before the 1960s, thousands of photos and numerous films documented its existence. (5) In A Personal History of the Australian Surf, theatre director Michael Blakemore explained his love affair with the beach: initially Bondi, later Palm Beach, at the same time providing unique shots of bodysurfing, most notably of himself at Bondi demonstrating the grace and timing needed for good bodysurfing. (6)

From the beginning of the twentieth century, at every popular surfing beach around Australia there were bodysurfers (men and women) 'out the back', waiting for 'the big one' or 'mountain' (wave) which would give them 'a beacher': a ride to the beach. (7) Many bodysurfers who were 'cracking' waves displayed an awesome grace and courage disguising the many skills they were exhibiting. No matter how hard they tried, most swimmers in the shallower inshore waters could rarely imitate the tanned human torpedoes speeding among them. The gradual disappearance of the bodysurfer could be an essay in nostalgia; however, a more rational, less emotional analysis highlights an important dimension of Australian beach culture which has been ignored for too long. …