Once in a blue moon the surf on Sydney’s northern beaches gets so big that it is virtually impossible to go surfing. Just about the last rideable spot on a huge day is the point break near Manly known as Fairy Bower. If the swell gets up and over eighteen or twenty feet, as a general rule, “The Bower” is the only place with deep enough water to hold up the waves and with a deep enough channel to enable the paddle out into the line-up. Even so, on such a day, it is very much an experts-only spot.
March 27, 1966 was just such a day. With massive swells pounding Sydney’s beaches closing out all of the finest surfing locations, the north side’s most experienced and talented surfers converged upon “The Bower” to challenge the fifteen, twenty and maybe even twenty-five foot monsters the spot was dishing up. Horror wipe outs were the order of the day but some surfers made their names by challenging and riding these mountainous walls of water.
While the hundreds of spectators on the headland above the line-up were, initially, thrilled by the action in the water, they were gobsmacked when the incredibly brave but clearly suicidal crew of the Palm Beach Surf Boat decided to test their skills in some of the biggest waves to hit Sydney in a decade. An Australian surf boat is a seven-metre-long, pointy at both ends, rowing vessel which carries four oarsmen and a fifth oarsmen (known as the sweep) who steers the boat with his oar from the rear of the boat. While these boats were specifically designed for surf use it is hard to imagine that anyone foresaw their use in twenty foot plus breaking waves.
The boat crew did not muck around. On the order of their captain, John Windshuttle, they attempted to row on to the face of a number of huge waves. On their third attempt they were successful and all of the surfers in the water and spectators on the headland must have held their breath as the large rowing boat screamed down the face of what was probably a twenty-five-foot wave. Unfortunately, that was the end of the surf boat. In a mess of flying bodies, oars and churning white water the surf boat was smashed into firewood by the ferocious surf. Luckily, all members of the crew survived what might have been the most amazing wipe-out Sydney beaches had ever seen.
Despite a degree of admiration for the crew’s heroics, the Palm Beach Surf Club held an inquiry into the actions of the captain and crew on that mad day.