In a strange quirk of history while one of Sydney Northern Beach’s greatest ever surfers was winning the world title in the USA, public authorities back in Australia were banning his wonderful sport!
On a windy Sunday morning a few dozen surfers were enjoying some fun, little waves at the protected southern end of Palm Beach. Around mid-morning the patrol captain of the local surf lifesaving club sent out the message that all surfers should leave the water. It was his intention to carry out some surf lifesaving drills for club members and surfers just had to get out of the way. The surfers, reasoning that they had every right to a few waves and feeling resentful at recent rough treatment from surf club members and the local council, refused to move.
The club captain, unwilling to take any cheek from a bunch of disrespectful surfers, ordered the senior and junior surf boat crews to paddle out into the surf and use force to clear the surfers from the water. Four burly rowers, a burly sweep (all armed with huge wooden oars) in combination with the bulk of the surf boat itself, are capable of doing serious amounts of damage ploughing right through a bunch of surfers.
Mayhem followed. Like a pair of road-graders the surf boats mowed down the belligerent surfers. As the surfers were swept from their boards by the rampaging surf boats and their swinging oars, the riderless boards were carried into the beach by the waves, where surf lifesaving club members waited on the sand to “impound” the lost boards.
One surfer, furious at the treatment, managed to climb on board one of the surf boats and started throwing punches at the crew. Before they could gather their composure and hit back, he had dived overboard and swam away to the cheers of the other surfers. Despite the lone surfer’s efforts, the initial battle was over, won easily by the surf boat crews, who clearly had more potent artillery. The surfers, however, sick to death of what they considered “clubby” bullying, decided to take the war to the beach. While, initially, only a few dozen surfers had been involved in the skirmish, the word spread throughout the surfing fraternity that Palm Beach surfers had had enough and that they were going to make a stand against the surf lifesaving club house. As the morning passed many more surfers converged on the beach and as a group they laid siege to the surf club. They intended to break down the club doors, engage the surf club members in fisty-cuffs, beat a few heads and retrieve the “impounded” boards by force. The surf club members barricaded themselves behind the locked club doors and prepared to defend their club house with fists.
Order was restored and the siege lifted when a local police sergeant arrived on the scene and managed to sweet-talk the enraged surfers out of their violent intentions. What was this all about? Why had the peace of a beautiful Sunday morning on the sand at the idyllic Palm Beach been broken by two warlike tribes, intent on doing serious physical damage to each other? What had generated this hatred that surfers felt for “clubbies” and vice-versa? The so-called Battle of Palm Beach took place on 6 November 1966.
In the early days of surfing in Australia, surfers and surf club members co-existed within the surf lifesaving clubs, but most board riders understood that they were considered the scruffy, less trustworthy, less conventional element within the clubs. The uneasy co-existence lasted for a full 50 years. By the early 1960s, however, as surfing and the surfing lifestyle erupted globally, Australian surfers were less likely to seek out surf lifesaving club membership (they found the clubs conservative, restrictive and militaristic) and committed board riding surfers began leaving the surf clubs in numbers that the lifesaving clubs considered alarming. By 1965, surf club membership was actually in decline for the first time in the history of the surf lifesaving movement. As the body that had traditionally controlled the beach like an admired benevolent dictator, surf lifesaving authorities saw their influence declining and felt that action needed to be taken.
The action that they took would today be unimaginable to most beach-goers. It was so extreme that it caused a deep-seated animosity between surfers and surf club members to rage for decades and even persists in the hearts of the less forgiving today.
Many would argue that the spiritual home of Australian surfing is Freshwater Beach on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Freshwater Beach was the place that Olympic swimming champion, Duke Kahanamoku, chose to demonstrate the elegant, ancient and royal art of Hawaiian surfboard riding before tens of thousands of screaming, cheering and hooting Sydney residents. “The Duke” was not only the world’s finest swimmer at the time, but also one of the world’s finest surfers. While few Australian sports historians go along with the myth that Kahanamoku’s demonstration was the first time board riding had been attempted in Australian surf, most agree that his morning-long 1915 “show” was pivotal to its growth. A very small band of Manly surf nuts (including the Walker brothers from the North Steyne surf club) had been demonstrating their board riding skills for a few years around Manly waters but the Kahanamoku demonstration, fired up by his superstar sporting status and his rock star presence, turned hundred, possibly thousands, onto the new sport and set Australia on its path to becoming a world power in surfing over the next century.
Freshwater Beach was there from the beginning. Over 50 years, surfing spread to every corner of the continent where surfing was possible, but for most surfers the tiny hamlet on the northern edge of surf-mad Manly was where it all began.
One would think it impossible that a sport that lies so close to the heart of so many Australians, our beach lifestyle and culture, could be banned from the place where it began. Could anyone imagine Australian Rules Football being banned from its spiritual home, the Melbourne Cricket Ground? Nup? Wouldn’t happen. Could anyone see English soccer being banned from Wembley Stadium? No way, huh? Perhaps Rugby being banned from Cardiff Arms Park/Millennium Stadium in Wales. Plausible? No way! What about cricket being banned at Lord’s? Of course not! Baseball banned at the Yankee Stadium? None of these bans could happen, could they? Yet in the summer of 1966, the unthinkable happened, and surfing was banned at Freshwater. At the very time that surf board riding was reaching its peak of popularity in Australian waters and Australian surfers were emerging as the dominant force in international competition, the Warringah Council (the government body that had administrative control over Freshwater Beach) voted to prohibit board riding completely from its spiritual home. And that’s not all. The Council also created regulations that imposed permanent “bathing only” areas over the 17 beaches under its control. Instead of surf club officials daily designating ideal safe bathing spots by using the traditional yellow and red flags (and indicating that surfers should avoid these flagged areas), permanent signs were erected effectively banning surfers from most of the choicest surfing breaks on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.
As the 1966 summer surfing season approached the Warringah branch of the Surf Life Saving Association felt the time had come to take a stand against uppity surfers and an attempt to force them back into the surf clubs where they could be controlled would have to be made. A meeting with delegates from the Warringah Shire Council was convened in September so that a strategy could be devised to pull surfers into line. The strategy that they cooked up involved the permanent banning of surfing at Freshwater and the permanent prohibiting of surfing from many of Sydney’s best surfing spots. While the vote that allowed the anti-surfing regulations to come into being was by no means unanimous, the Warringah Surf Life Saving Association had enough support in Council to win the day. Over the summer months, as the surf clubs attempted to enforced their newly regulated dominance over unruly board riders the mood at the beach and the relationship between the two surf tribes (surfers and clubbies) turned dark.
For months surfers conducted rallies, organised petitions, gathered support from businesses that depended on surfer patronage, waved flags, handed out “Share the Surf” bumper stickers and carried out such acts of civil disobedience as damaging or destroying “Bathing Only” signs. The Battle of Palm Beach was a confrontation that was bound to happen.
It is a strange irony that at the precise time Northern Beaches surfers were being scorned and bullied by conservative officialdom (and they were fighting back with every legal and illegal method they could devise) that one of the Northern Beaches’ favourite sons was winning sporting glory for Australia in the surf at San Diego. While Warringah’s surfers were fighting a battle for their right to surf, Nat Young from Collaroy Beach, was taking on the best in the world in Southern California to not only win the World Championship, but also assert Australia’s surfing dominance over the rest of the world. In 1964, Australian surfer Midget Farrelly, had announced the emergence of Australia as a surfing force, when he won the inaugural surfing World Championship. Despite his success, few Americans rated Australian surfers highly. However, when Nat Young completely dominated the championship in 1966 (and Farrelly rubbed salt into the American’s wounds by finishing sixth), while many leaders in American surfing media tried to ignore Young’s performance deep in their hearts everyone knew that Australian surfing had come of age.
In September 1966, with the winning of the World Surfing Championship in San Diego, Nat Young became an Australian sporting legend, but a legend who could not even play his own sport in his home town. The summer of 1966 was a strange time – a time when surfers were both revered and idolised on one level, but scorned and despised on another.