AUSTRALIA’S FIRST WOMEN’S CHAMPION?

Over the years pieces of the surfing puzzle can slip through the cracks, history can be forgotten or deliberately erased. Sometimes more celebrated events can throw shade on previous achievements, so we are always delighted when missing pieces of the surfing puzzle emerge and we are able to shine a light on forgotten surfers, surfers like Beth Jackman.

Over the weekend of May 27-28th 1961 the Australian Malibu Surfboard Riding Championship was held at Avalon on Sydney’s Northern beaches. While surfboard rallies had been previously held at Avalon and Narrabeen this was the first time a surfing contest was run as an Australian Championship.

With the boom in surfing’s popularity in the late 1950s and early 1960’s people started thinking about contests being a great way to bring surfers together and highlight surfing skills. Surfboard only contests were a new idea, as surfers moved away from the regimentation of Surf Life Saving Club events. These contests became an expression of an evolving youth movement and an indicator of things to come.

Avalon was a great spot for this event as it was one of the sites visited by American surfers in 1956 where they demonstrated the (then) new Malibu style surfboards. Originally planned as a one day event the contest stretched into two days to cater for the unexpected number of entries. Two hundred surfers entered the event including fourteen women. Beth Lee (sister of celebrated big wave charger Dave Jackman) won the women’s division making her Australia’s first women’s surfing champion. Being encouraged to compete at such an event was great news for women’s surfing, as for years women’s involvement in the Surf Life Saving Club’s had been disregarded or overlooked. Modern lightweight equipment also meant that surfing had become more accessible.

In reports from the event some younger surfers rated a mention as well, not surprising considering the role they would go on to play as surfing evolved. Bob (Nat) Young from Collaroy (1966 world champion), Rodney Sumpter Avalon (British surfing pioneer) and Robert (Bobby) Brown Cronulla (outstanding surfing talent, cut down in his prime) were standouts in the sub junior competition. The junior division was won by W Dews, with G Treloar winning the senior men’s event from S Dillon and M Saunders.

As an indication that competitive surfing was gaining acceptance and reaching a much broader audience, music celebrity Col Joye was on hand to hand out the silver cups, and the event was broadcast live on Radio Australia (ABC Sports). Curiously this event seems to have become lost in the mists of time . . .it is not included in histories of Australian surfing. Phil Jarrat did extensive research into the history of Australian surfing competitions yet there is no mention of this event in his book “Surfing Australia-A Complete History of Surfboard Riding in Australia”. . . the 1961 Australian Malibu Surfboard Riding Championship . . .part of Australia’s secret surf history?

Pic Beth Jackman courtesy of Beth Jackman/John Morecombe

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