North Beach go up and over

Surfboats? Introducing the iconic Aussie sport you've never heard of

The madness of surfboating has been unfolding at surf lifesaving clubs around the country since 1908. It's as Australian as a meat pie – but what the hell is it?
By Thomas Elliott
5 min readPublished on
Welcome to surfboating. The aim of the game is to row your boat out through the surf and turn around, then catch a wave back to shore. The first boat back to the beach wins. Sounds simple, right? Actually, it’s anything but.
First, a brief history lesson. Before the days of compact combustion engines, surf lifesavers used to row wooden long boats out through the surf to rescue stranded swimmers. As with all surf rescue techniques, lifesavers would compete with other each other to practice rescues and hone their skills.
The first surfboat race was held at Manly Beach all the way back in 1908. Now we can fast-forward back to the present day where rescues are conducted using high-powered outboard engines on inflatable craft, but the subtle art of rowing a boat head first into 8 foot swells has stuck around.

Where did this madness come from?

The sport started as a way for surf lifesaving crews to stay sharp for rescues, but it’s now purely for competition. “There’s no other sport like it,” says Gary Allman, who’s been a surfboat rower (or a ‘boatie’) for over 30 years and currently competes for the Cronulla SLSC. “You need to be as fit as anything and strong – but without guts, you’ll crumble out there.
Gary has been with the club for so long that their latest boat has been named the Gary Allman (The Gaz) in his honour. The surf craft are often named after outstanding members of the club, but it is rare that the honour is awarded to living club members.
“Cracking [catching] a giant wave is a tonne of fun but the best part about joining a rowing crew is that they become your family,” says Gary. “I’ve met my wife down through the club and I’m proud to call everyone [from the boat crews] mates. You come to trust everyone out there in the boat. You have to!”
Gary Allman sweeping 'The Gaz'.

Gary Allman sweeping 'The Gaz'.

© Thomas Elliott

What kind of maniacs take part?

A crew is made of five members: four rowers and a sweep. The sweep stands at the back of the boat and steers using a long oar. The remaining four crew members have one oar each – it’s their job to haul the craft out through the swell.
The rowing technique is almost identical to surfboating's tamer cousin that you see at the Olympics. The basics are the same: power through the legs and use the arms and back for finesse. However, rather than competing in calm flat waters, boaties opt for swell, chop and pure adrenaline.
Most Australian surf lifesaving clubs have at least one boat team. The competition period runs across Spring and Summer with National Titles, known by the community as ‘Aussies’ (classic Australian naming convention, again) being held in early April.
The only way to join a surfboat crew is to join a surf club and be an active member of the club first. That means holding a bronze medallion in surf rescue and conducting regular beach patrols at your chosen club. Only once you tick those boxes can you start training.

How does it work?

The races start at the water’s edge on the beach. When the gun goes off, the crews leap into their boats and begin the mad scramble out through the surf. If all goes to plan, the boats power through the waves and over the swells. In reality, many crews will mistime their run or be bested by the ocean and can be flipped or carried backwards by the wave. This is known as back-shooting.
Once they clear the surf, the crews settle into a steady rhythm in the relatively calmer until they reach the turning buoy. Each boat has their own buoy – there’s enough carnage in this sport without having them all try to turn on the same point.
From there it’s a race straight back to the beach. The quickest way to do that is to catch a wave. First boat back across the line wins.

What does it take to win?

Cracking a wave (catching) is the true art of the sport. You may have the strongest, fittest crew of ex-Olympians you can muster but if they can’t catch waves then they won’t be winning competitions.
Like surfing, the crew need to row down a wave until the craft is propelled by the power of the swell. It is then essential that none of the oars catch in the water and the boat remains balanced. If the wave is large or caught steeply then the crew may be called for a come-back. This involves all of the rowers throwing their oars and scrambling to the back of the boat so that the nose of the boat is lifted and the weight is at the back at the sweep's feet. A perfectly executed comeback looks like organised chaos.

What's with the wedgies!?

One of the quirkier parts of surf boat rowing is the fashionably questionable but functional need to ‘wedge up’, prior to racing. Wedging up involves giving yourself a wedgie (thus the name) and pulling the swimmers in between the buttocks so that the skin is exposed. This is so that the rower can slide along the wet seat to complete the full rowing action. Trying to do so if the seat is too dry or through clothing can provide some pretty painful friction burns in a very painful location. No photos will be supplied.
The sport is governed by the Australian Surfboat Rowers League (ASRL) who work closely with Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA) for the betterment of the sport and hosting competitions.
If you want to learn more about surfboat rowing, head to the ASRL website HERE.