Search the Register
Advanced Search
BOOFA seen on display at Eden Killer Whale Museum NSW, before being acquired by the Australian National Maritime Museum in the 1990s. Note the oars overhead.

Surf Boats

1913 - 2007

Famous throughout Australia as a symbol of the surf, surf clubs and the surf life saving movement, the surf life saving boat is an Australian class of boat evolved to suit the coastal beaches. It has since found its way to other countries, such as New Zealand which have also developed a strong surfing tradition. It is rowed by a crew under the command of the sweep, who stands aft steering with a long sweep oar over the transom.

The craft became a distinct vessel in 1913 when the Manly Club in Sydney acquired a boat that then became the standard model. Prior to this the other boats that had been used included vessels similar to the Royal National Lifesaving Society craft in the UK and a variety of other local raft such as butcher boats and whalers, with mixed success.

The Manly boat was designed by Fred Notting, who after much research of overseas craft based his ideas for the 20 foot long craft on Norwegian work boats. It was built by Holmes in Lavender Bay and became known as the "Banana boat" as the double ended craft carried an extreme amount of curvature or rocker to the profile shape of the keel, stem and stern. It also featured metal buoyancy tanks in its high end boxes and had Notting's invention of the quarter bar as an aid to steering the boat with the large sweep oar on the centerline over the stern.

The strong rocker profile and the buoyancy tanks are features that relate directly to the major problems to be overcome. Whereas lifeboats and whalers often had the advantage of a launching slipway putting them directly into deeper water, these craft had to be launched from the beach straight into the breaking waves rolling in over shallow water before they could reach the safer deeper water, and return through the same difficult conditions.

High ends would help the boat rise into and over the breakers, and along with the buoyancy tanks help reduce the intake of water as they passed through the rollers. Coming back in through the waves had the same problems but in reverse, and the added requirement of maintaining steerage as the wave propelled the boat toward the sand. Narrow high ends which the double ended shape possessed along with the rockered keel let the stern settle into the wave and stopped the bow digging into the next one if it caught up to it. In this way a degree of control was obtained which other hull shapes lacked and as a result would became dangerous. If it was swamped, a common happening in the awkward and sometimes chaotic seas, then the buoyancy tanks ensured the boat remained afloat and could be beached and bailed out. Additional control was obtained when the crew would stop rowing, move aft, and leave the boat to be propelled by the wave and steered by the sweep.

It did not take long after their introduction for races to be organized between clubs. The racing then became a driving force in their development, and they became longer at just over 22 feet. The construction changed from clinker to carvel. Rules were formed and the racing was fiercely competitive. The double end shape remained, until the 1946/47 season when the first tuck sterned boats were introduced by Tom Humphries. This gave more waterline length within the rules, but the stern was still quite narrow to maintain control and avoid nose diving when coming back with the waves.

The tuck stern was soon copied by other builders, and completely replaced the double ended shape in a short time. Meanwhile the introduction of the speedy and maneuverable rigid inflatable rescue boat with its outboard in the 1970s saw that craft take over the surf rescue role, the original task and motive for developing and using the rowing vessel.

The tradition of the craft with its need for skill and teamwork along with the solid foundation of racing at carnivals and club training has kept the craft alive. Wooden construction using cedar and kauri planking or moulded veneers, supported by hardwood frames and longitudinals has been replaced by fibreglass methods, both cored construction and solid laminates. The open boats with thwarts have now become more enclosed with tanks, fitted with sliding seats and bilge pumps, but the contest between teams of men and women trying to race each other as they master the conditions remains unchanged.

Bede-Maxwell C. 1949, Surf: Australians against the Sea, Angus and Robertson
Wooden Boat Association of NSW, 1994, Australian Wooden Boats, Volume 1, Classic Small Craft