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Competition in the surf

Competition in the surf

With the object of stimulating enthusiasm in the work of surf life-saving, interclub surf carnivals are held regularly during the summer months ... There are hundreds of entries at a single carnival, and the training keeps the members physically fit and thoroughly efficient. 

Surf Life Saving Association handbook, 1927
Surf lifesavers on the beach with their boards poised at the start line of a race.
Australian Surf Life Saving Championships, Kurrawa, Queensland, 2006.
Photo: Dean McNicoll.

Surf lifesaving consists of two main activities — saving lives and competition. Since the 1920s, Surf Life Saving Australia has emphasised the humanitarian aspect of the organisation but the reality is that many lifesavers join for the social and sporting benefits.

Competition on and off the beach is fierce, enabling surf lifesavers to practise their skills and improve their fitness. Members compete at all levels, from intra-club to regional, national and international.

The sport of surf lifesaving combines history with modern sporting practice. The surfboat race, belt race, rescue and resuscitation, and the march-past are still contested. Although no longer part of current practice, they honour the teamwork, friendship and traditions of surf lifesaving. The inclusion of individual events and the acceptance of professional athletes reflect broader cultural changes.

The thrill of the carnival

Surf lifesavers standing on the beach in their club costumes and holding their club flags. Australian Surf Life Saving Championships, Kurrawa, Queensland, 2006.
Australian Surf Life Saving Championships, Kurrawa, Queensland, 2006.
Photo: Dean McNicoll.

Soon after surf lifesaving clubs were established, they held carnivals in which lifesavers would test their skills. Surf carnivals also reassured the public of the lifesavers' discipline and competence.

Tens of thousands of people attended carnivals in the 1920s and 1930s and they were also staged to commemorate royal visits, the sesquicentenary and the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Early carnivals included novelty events such as pillow fights, chariot races and a tug of war but these were phased out due to concerns they would undermine the serious nature of surf lifesaving.

Today, the Australian Surf Life Saving Championships are surf lifesaving's premier event, attracting up to 8000 competitors.

Video icon Listen to what the lifesavers have to say about the thrill of the carnival (QuickTime movie 2.1mb) duration 1 minute, 35 seconds
(download QuickTime)

Women carrying surfboards and running towards the surf at the start of a race.
Australian Surf Life Saving Championships, Kurrawa, Queensland, 2006.
Photo: Dean McNicoll.

One of the greats

Bob Newbiggin was a champion swimmer, breaking the Australian Junior 110-yard record in 1937 and competing in the Empire Games the following year. But it was in the surf that he became a legend. Newbiggin dominated surf races before and after the Second World War. Always a powerful swimmer, it was his ability to pick the best wave and ride it to the beach that won him many races.

A break from war

Australian armed forces serving overseas often held their own surf carnivals. In places such as Gaza, Tel Aviv, the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, Vietnam and Iraq, soldiers have competed in surf races, rescue and resuscitation events and the march-past. Sport was encouraged as a leisure activity for off-duty soldiers but surf lifesaving, with its emphasis on discipline and drill, was considered to be particularly suitable.

Competing with sharks

In January 1949, Raymond Land was competing in the rescue and resuscitation event at a surf carnival. As beltman, he swam out to rescue the 'patient'. Twenty metres from the buoy, he signalled that he was in trouble. The line was caught on a rock so the patient and the number 3 linesman swam to his aid. They had almost reached him when a shark attacked. Raymond was taken to shore on a surf ski but died from his injuries.

Video icon Listen to lifesavers' stories about sharks in the surf (QuickTime movie 1.4mb) duration: 1 minute, 2 seconds
(download QuickTime)

The ultimate event

Female lifesavers running into the surf at the start of a race at the Australian Surf Life Saving Championships, Kurrawa, Queensland, 2006.
Australian Surf Life Saving Championships, Kurrawa, Queensland, 2006.
Photo: Dean McNicoll.

Hayden Kenny won the first Australian Ironman title at Coolangatta in 1966. Adapted from an American event, the ironman includes a surf ski leg, board paddle and swim, with beach sprints between sections.

In the 1980s, the ironman event provided a much-needed boost to surf lifesaving, attracting corporate, media and public interest. A 42-kilometre ironman event was staged for the filming of The Coolangatta Gold in 1984 and attracted over 100,000 spectators. Guy Leech won the actual event while the reigning Australian Ironman champion, Grant Kenny, starred in the film.

The ironwoman event was introduced in 1992 and women also compete in the recently revived Coolangatta Gold event.

Ironman Grant Kenny

Grant Kenny won his first Australian Ironman title in 1980, fourteen years after his father had achieved the same feat. Grant's win was remarkable because he won both the Junior and Open titles within an hour of each other.

Grant won three more national ironman titles. His success sparked the resurgence of the ironman event and promoted surf lifesaving competition.

Lifesaver competing in a surfboat race.
Australian Surf Life Saving Championships, Kurrawa, Queensland, 2006.
Photo: Dean McNicoll.

Beyond the horizon

Allan Kennedy was one of many administrators who promoted surf lifesaving overseas. He started the first club in Cornwall, England, and helped establish the Surf Life Saving Association of Great Britain. As part of the 1956 Olympic Games celebrations, an international surf carnival was held at Torquay, Victoria. Kennedy called a meeting of international surf lifesaving representatives and they formed the International Council of Surf Life Saving.

Surf Life Saving Australia maintains a strong influence in international surf lifesaving.