Isabel Letham pioneered surfing for women long before the culture had become widespread in Australia.
FOR CHAMPION FEMALE surfers in Australia today – such as Stephanie Gilmore and Pam Burridge – Isabel Letham was an inspiration, carving the waves in a male-dominated sport during an era when most girls remained on the beach.
Born in Sydney in 1899, Letham’s early childhood was spent in Chatswood, north Sydney. At age 10, her family moved to a house built by her master-builder dad, William, near Freshwater Beach, just over the headland from Manly.
It suited Letham’s appetite for outdoor and aquatic pursuits, and by her mid-teens she was swimming, diving and bodysurfing. Such interests would have been deemed unconventional, even defiant, among Letham’s more inhibited contemporaries, but these were the early days of a cultural shift that saw swimming and beach-going become national pastimes.
Australia’s first female surfer
When Hawaiian swimming champion Duke Kahanamoku visited Freshwater to give a surfboard-riding demonstration, the event attracted an enormous crowd, including Letham, then 15. It was the summer of 1914–15 and Kahanamoku – 100 yards freestyle world-record holder and gold medallist at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games – was in Australia to compete in local swimming carnivals.
His surfing would change Letham’s life. The Sydney Morning Herald reported: “[Kahanamoku] came out with his surfboard, plunged into the water, and continued to swim out until those watching from the beach wondered when he would stop. After covering nearly half a mile, Kahanamoku turned and prepared for a roller, which came along a moment after; he caught it, and as the wave carried him shorewards, he performed all kinds of acrobatic feats on the board, and finally dived into the water as the roller broke.”
When Kahanamoku called for someone to ride tandem with him, Letham volunteered and from then became widely acknowledged as the first Australian to board-surf. She later recalled:
He paddled on to this green wave and, when I looked down, I was scared out of my wits. It was like looking over a cliff. After I’d screamed, ‘Oh, no, no!’ a couple of times, he said, ‘Oh, yes, yes!’ He took me by the scruff of the neck and yanked me on to my feet. Off we went, down the wave.
Female surfing pioneer
Despite her initial terror, Letham was hooked. She surfed with Kahanamoku again at a carnival in February 1915, and convinced her father to make her a surfboard to the Hawaiian champion’s specifications – a 34kg slab of American sugar pine. Along with the short-legged, figure-hugging, one-piece swimsuits preferred by Letham, the board features in photos taken between 1915 and 1918.
Some historians dispute that Letham was the first Australian to surf and cite examples of boardriding several years earlier. Later, Letham declined to acknowledge the claim to fame, preferring to consider herself the first Australian to ride local waves in the Hawaiian fashion.
Either way, the landmark moment launched Letham on a career that in 1918 took her to the USA, where the Hawaiian Star Bulletin gushed she was “the prettiest swimmer to come out of Australia”. Letham remained in the USA as a swimming instructor for most of the 1920s. Her roles included assistant swimming coach at the University of California and director of swimming for San Francisco city council, where in 1926 she instigated the city’s first women’s swimming competition.
Letham also attempted to introduce Australian surf-lifesaving methods to California beaches, but her authority was undermined by the Manly Surf Life Saving Club, which denied her membership because of her sex. Returning to Australia in 1929, Letham spent the rest of her career teaching swimming.
In 1980 she welcomed the admission, at last, of women as members of Surf Life Saving Australia, the same year that 15-year-old Sydneysider Pam Burridge won the inaugural Australian women’s surfing championship. Pam, who 10 years later became the first Australian-born women’s world surfing champion, had been inspired by Letham. She visited her in a beachside nursing home and recalls the elderly woman looking out the window at the ocean and commenting: “Small waves don’t interest me. I’m only interested in the big ones.”
Letham was inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame in 1993 and died in 1995, aged 95. At her request, her ashes were scattered by surfers in the sea off Freshwater Beach in the same way Kahanamoku had been farewelled at Waikiki in 1968.
-Joanna Gilmour, Australian Geographic Mar – Apr 2012