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ARIES, a surf ski from the 1950s and paddled by JacK O'Brien when he pioneered early endurance voyages off the Sydney coastline.

The Surf Ski

The surf ski is a craft that was originally unique to Australia, but in recent times has become widespread throughout the world, mainly on the strength of its use in the popular iron man and similar endurance events.

Origins:

The origins are quite humble and appear to go back as far as 1913 when NSW resident Harry McLaren is credited with building the first examples. He used his craft with friends at Port Macquarie. The dimensions of the McLaren craft were the starting point for skis developed by Dr GA “Saxon" Crackenthorp of the Manly Club in the late 1930s.

They were very basic, virtually cedar planks 8 foot long by over 2 feet wide, with some taper and shape and 6 inch deep sides. In profile they had about 12 inches of rocker or a curve upwards at the bow. The paddler sat on top and foot straps were fitted which gave the paddler something to brace with and balance against the paddle and board movement. Of interest is the fact that Harry McLaren preferred to kneel and paddle with two individually held hand paddles, rather than the seated and double bladed paddle arrangement that has become normal.

Design Features:

The shape and proportions of a surf ski are dictated by the difficult sea conditions they have to contend with. The craft have to leave and return to the surf beach through the breaking waves, and must be able to handle this awkward broken water before moving into the easier open sea away from the beach.

For many years the craft were used just to enjoy catching waves back to the beach. The initial proportions for the flat box section showed a plan form (or top view) that was wide forward and tapered aft, and in profile the forward sections were curved upwards while the stern had a straighter run. This helped the craft lift over waves as it left the beach, then stopped it nose diving as it picked up speed coming done the waves back in to the beach. The skeg gave the ski some directional stability and stopped it turning and going out of control, while the paddler used his paddle as a means of steering. The width and low centre of gravity of the paddler gave it good stability. At this point of development the craft would have been fun in the surf, but relatively slow in open water.

To further improve performance the introduction of a rounded hull bottom was a significant step forward. The craft gradually became narrower and more challenging to paddle, and they still retained more volume forward than aft. The skeg crept forward from the stern, but the introduction of a rudder with foot controls was another big step forward, offering additional steering control. The craft could now serve a dual purpose of wave riding and open water paddling.

Development:

This change in shape and arrangement was generally a gradual process that happened over a number of decades. The people interested in the craft played around with length, width, skegs and paddling position to suit different areas or conditions. There were singles and doubles, even up to four paddlers. A significant development was when plywood became available as a construction material, allowing the craft to be hollow and lighter. This improved performance and made them much easier to handle out of the water as well.

The surf lifesaving movement was a powerful catalyst and icon for surfing in Australia, and people were attracted to the beaches in large numbers, which became more accessible each year as cities and communities expanded along the coastline. Surf skis were built by club members and more people became involved. They were employed for rescue work from 1937 onwards, being quite maneuverable in the waves, but for many the recreational fun was their main reason for use.

Racing:

Eventually the craft became an integral part of the surf lifesaving carnivals with individual races, and class rules were established by the SLSA in 1967-1968. The introduction of fibreglass construction was another significant step, making the craft widely available at a reasonable cost. The craft also spread outside of Australia to places with surf beaches and surf communities, such as New Zealand, South Africa and eventually the United States.

The 1980s and 1990s was a period in the growth in fitness and endurance events attracting a wide section of the community. Fun runs, swim events, biathlons and triathlons became common place, along other individual multi sport races. Kayaks and surf skis were involved with some of these, but the standout event in the public's view was the iron man race, which involved swimming, board riding, surf ski and running legs. The surf ski, helped by its association with the star contestants of the day became a symbol of fitness.

It was not long before the ski became a recreational accessory, following in the trail of bikes and kayaks, where they were used just for fitness training. This has seen the craft evolve again, with some craft now specifically designed for long distance training or racing but without the flared bow or wave deflector needed for use in the surf, as they spend their time on harbours and other enclosed waterways.

References:
Klein, Arthur 1965, Surfing, Lippincott
Bede-Maxwell c. 1949, Surf: Australians Against the Sea, Angus and Robertson