Tathra Wharf Museum

Tathra Surf Boat

The Story

Title(s) of Object:

Tathra surf boat.

Brief Description of Object:

Small canvas skinned hardwood boat with an open well.

Location of Object:

Tathra Wharf Museum, Wharf Road, Tathra, NSW, 2550.

Accessibility of Object:

This object is on display at theTathra Wharf Museum.

The museum is open Saturday - Sunday, 10.00 am - 4.00 pm.

History and Provenance of Object:

This small canvas covered timber boat was reportedly used by the Tathra Surf Life Saving Club from the earliest days of the organisation’s existence.

Although the exact history of this little vessel remains unclear, it is anecdotally said to have been used as a surf boat by members of the Tathra Surf Club. Its shape, layout and style of construction indicates that it could have been built as early as 1910 – 1920, probably using images and details gleaned from existing surf craft. Entirely appropriate for use in surf conditions, the open cockpit suggests that one or two people could sit in the well to paddle, using single or double blade oars in a manner similar to a canoe or kayak. Club members may have used it during patrol and rescue work and it could have been easily launched from the shoreline near the club house.

Like other coastal areas at the end of the 1800s, Tathra Beach experienced increasing popularity and soon after the turn of the century, surf bathing as an activity began to rapidly grow. However, with few experienced swimmers amongst their number, many found themselves in difficulty and were lucky to avoid tragedy. In late 1910, a “…narrow escape…” was noted when “The surf at Tathra nearly claimed two Bega residents on Monday last. Mr. W. Taylor, manager of the Bank of Australasia, was enjoying himself in the breakers when he was suddenly taken out by the undertow and could not get back. Mr. Horwood, accountant at the same bank, pluckily went to his assistance and managed to bring him to shore after a desperate struggle. Another few yards and Mr. Horwood would have had to give in…Roy Zeigler was bathing in the breakers near the mouth and he also was carried out by the undertow, but managed to struggle back to safety.” Highlighting the fact that “A life line is badly needed on Tathra beach…” the report continued by observing that “There have been other instances where swimmers have had narrow escapes. The spot where the undertow took Mr. Taylor is known to be a dangerous one to many swimmers and they carefully avoid it. A deep channel runs along but further out the water becomes shallow again. Those who witnessed the trouble Mr. Taylor was in say that Mr. Horwood undoubtedly saved him from drowning and his courageous action should be brought under the notice of the Royal Humane Society.”

Ladies dressing sheds were erected by Alex Thompson in 1909 and in 1911 it was mentioned that “…another effort should be made to form a surf club and secure proper dressing quarters and a life line…” By October, consideration was being given to forming a surf club in the seaside town, it being observed that “…the project is one which should receive generous support from those who frequent the popular summer resort.” Although “…pronounced by its enthusiastic admirers to be perfectly safe…” it was acknowledged that Tathra had been lucky to avoid a fatality in the water, “…some narrow escapes have been reported…” The account concluded that “A surfing club would provide a reel and life line, and it is an easy matter to obtain the services of a certificated life saver to give members lessons in the work of rescue from the surf. We hope, before the surfing season reaches the highest point of patronage this summer that the proposal will have taken substantial shape, when under modern aids to safety, Tathra beach and its surfing will not cause uneasiness to those who have friends and relatives enjoying its delights.”

This time, residents were quick to respond, and on 13 December 1911 a group of about twenty gathered at “…an enthusiastic…” meeting held in Bega’s Star Picture Theatre “…for the purpose of forming a surf club…” Agreeing to found the Tathra Surf-Bathing and Life-Saving Club, the colours of navy with white edging were adopted, with a shield on the left breast bearing the letters “T. S. C.”. It was also decided that “Application is to be made to the Imlay Shire Council for leave to erect a dressing shed, and a reel and life line will be secured as soon as possible. The members are in downright earnest…”

A committee consisting of W. A. Smith (President), Messrs. W. M. Boardman and A. L. Paviour (Vice Presidents), Mr. L. Foley (Secretary), Mr. S. Ford (Treasurer) and Messrs. S. M. Rodd, C. Tuckfield, A. Bowden, E. Hughes, J. East, R. Sharpe, J. Lambert, A. Cochrane and L. Boardman were elected and it was noted that “A reel, line and belt have already been ordered…and a temporary shed is to be built at Tathra until permission is obtained to erect a permanent one…” This was just five years after Sydney’s first clubs had been formed, making the local group one of the earliest in Australian and thus world history.

By January 1912, the life line and belt had arrived, and it was reported that the reel was being made by local firm Whyman and Brooke. Practice “…with its life saving apparatus…” commenced the same month, and participants “…did creditable work for its first effort…” The following month, local media made mention of “…a splendid photo of a group of members of the Tathra Surf Bathing Club attired in their bathing costumes. Mr. W.A. Smith, whom at first glance we took for Hackensmidt or Gotch, the wrestlers, takes up a lot of room in the centre of the photo. Walter strips well for a newspaper man…”

Following on from its early foundations, Tathra played an instrumental role in generating enthusiasm for the surf lifesaving movement locally, records showing members giving demonstrations of equipment and techniques at various beached around the district. In 1914, an account mentioned that “Several members of the Bega (Tathra) Surf Club intend visiting our local [Pambula] beach on Sunday 15th inst. to give an exhibition of life saving…” On the day in question it was further observed that “Mr. Bowden, instructor in life saving, and a member of Tathra Club, proved himself an adept in the breakers, the only fault, being that the latter were not rough enough for him to prove his real worth as a life saver.” He demonstrated use of the reel and line to recover a drowning person, as well as “…the method used of restoring respiration…”

Early in 1929, Mr. Doyle from the NSW Surf Lifesaving Association together with Mr. Strong of the Bermagui club visited centres as far south as Pambula to secure support for a branch association and in April a meeting was held at Bega’s Central Hotel to form the Far South Coast Surf Life Saving Association. That year, the active clubs consisted of Tathra, Bermagui, Merimbula and Pambula. Then, in 1937, it was reported that “Despite Tathra’s offer to assist clubs further south, apparently the only active South Coast clubs this season will be Tathra, Bermagui, Narooma, Moruya and Batemans Bay.”

Although early details of the Tathra Surf Lifesaving Club’s equipment is sketchy, the secretary was instructed at a 1920 meeting “…to write to the Navigation Department re a surf boat…”; while in 1930, it was reported that the Illawarra and South Coast Steam Navigation Company’s steamer was bringing their new “…lifesaving boat…” free of charge.

New surf sheds were opened with a carnival on Boxing Day 1928 and in 1930, an estimated 1,500 people were on the beach during Tathra’s “…monster surf carnival…” The same year, a new surf club house was commenced on the beach.

Having been in existence now for more than a century, Tathra is the oldest surf lifesaving club on the Far South Coast, and one of the oldest in New South Wales, Australia and thus the world.

The small timber craft now on display in the Tathra Wharf Museum has many features typical of the earliest purpose built “banana” designed surf boats and is possibly the only surviving example of its type dating from the early surf lifesaving period.


Heading into the 20th century, surf bathing during daylight hours was still prohibited across the Australian colonies. Men and women could only “bathe” in the early morning or late evening, and never at the same time in the same place. This began to change, however, after William Gocher defied the law in 1902 by taking a swim on Manly Beach at midday. Although arrested for his actions, no charges were laid and the door was opened for what quickly became an iconic Australian pastime – surf bathing.

People from all walks of life began taking to the briny, dressed in the neck to knee costumes of the day and swimming at beaches roped off to segregate the sexes. Not surprisingly however, with so many poor swimmers entirely ill-equipped for the dangers of the ocean, drowning rates sky rocketed. Although the British Royal Life Saving Model for still water was initially adopted, it was entirely inappropriate for surf rescues. Before long, however, pragmatic Australians began to adapt these skills to meet the ocean conditions.

Small groups of more experienced bathers began to form themselves into organised bands to assist less proficient swimmers, and the world’s first surf lifesaving clubs evolved on the beaches of Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. Bondi and Bronte clubs were both formed in 1906, although debate continues about which group deserves bragging rights as the world’s first. The sport spread rapidly, with Manly founded in 1907 and Wollongong and Kiama in 1908, the movement reaching the Far South Coast when the Tathra club was established in 1911.

In terms of equipment, the first life lines were human chains, with men interlocking their hands, the sturdiest acting as an anchor in the sand and the best swimmers at the seaward end. This was followed by a pole set up on the beach with a rope attached to a life buoy. The greatest step forward came with the introduction of the reel and line, which was first displayed at Bondi Beach in 1906. From the earliest days of the movement, this was considered the first and most essential piece of equipment for new clubs and remained so for many years to come.

The New South Wales Surf Bathing Association was formed in 1907 with the aim of "maintaining and improving lifesaving conditions on all public NSW beaches". It was seen as vital for the growing number of surf lifesaving clubs to have a 'common voice' in their efforts to raise funds and obtain assistance from local councils and the state government.

Soon after the establishment of surf clubs, they began holding carnivals to pit their skills against each other. Events included the march past, belt race, rescue, resuscitation and surf boat racing.

It was reportedly the Sly Brothers of Fairy Bower, Sydney, who first began using boats for surf rescue purposes. By 1895 they were employing a small oar-powered double-ended ship’s life boat purchased from the Quarantine station at North Head, adapting it to their needs by cutting off part of the stern. It was also loaned to the Manly club for rescue and patrol work but the limitations of the cumbersome, slow craft soon became apparent.

In 1906, Walter Biddell of the Bronte Surf Club designed a catamaran style vessel made of timber, tin and canvas with kapok-stuffed tubes. It was followed by a double-ender with buoyancy tanks.

A major innovation in surf boat design came when Manly Surf Club’s boat captain Fred Notting developed the double-ended vessel based on Norwegian work boat designs. Built by Lavender Bay boat builder W. Holmes, the “banana boat”, as the style became known, carried an extreme amount of curvature to the keel, stem and stern, as well as metal buoyancy tanks in its high ended boxes. Launched in 1913, the surf boat had become a distinct vessel.

Continuing to develop over the years, the surf boat has found its way to many other countries including New Zealand, where they also have a strong surfing tradition. Now famous worldwide as a symbol of the surf club movement, the surf boat is a distinctly Australian class of vessel that evolved specifically to suit our coastal conditions. There are now few more iconic symbols of popular Australian culture than a surfboat slicing through the waves. They remained an essential part of surf rescue equipment until the introduction of inflatable rescue boats (IRBs) in the 1970s – yet despite no longer forming part of the rescue repertoire, they endure as an important and instantly identifiable element of the sport.

The Surf Life Saving Association of Australia, established by 1922, became Surf Life Saving Australia in 1991. Today it is the nation’s largest volunteer organisation with more than 80,000 members belonging to 260 surf clubs across the country. More than 500,000 lives have been saved in the eighty years since records have been kept.

Fabric, design, manufacture and condition:

The Tathra surfboat is a canvas skinned hardwood hull with a timber support structure and timber deck. With its double ended shape and high rise to the ends, it represents many typical features of early surfboats. The raised ends give it the potential to handle rough water, and it has a small well cockpit. The canvas construction, common in the early 1900s, was an economical way of building a hull.

Although there is no evidence to show how it was propelled, the open cockpit suggests one or two people sat in there and paddled the craft like a canoe or kayak with a single or double blade paddle.

It measures 3975 mm (LOA) x 980 mm (breadth) x 400 mm (depth)


Used by:

Reportedly Tathra Surf Lifesaving Club.


The skeleton of the structure has a number of small defects with loss of material and split planks, but it almost all original or as repaired during its use. The remnants of the canvas are precious and should be treated carefully to retain as evidence of what was once there.

It is in fair condition overall, but is becoming more delicate and the possibility of parts becoming detached is quite high.

There is also a question as to whether the current configuration with its small well cockpit is the original layout, or that it may have been adapted during its life.


Production date:

Possible C. 1910 - 1920

Comparative examples:

No comparable surviving craft have been identified to date, although the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences does have a model of a lifeboat in their collection that shares a number of similar elements.

The particular significance of this Object:

[Currently under development]


Main theme:




Social institutions


Sociality in Bega Valley Shire

Other themes:














Technological innovation within Bega Valley Shire

Challenging terrains: Getting about in Bega Valley Shire

Educating and learning institutions within Bega Valley Shire

Caring for the needs of others in Bega Valley Shire

Having fun in Bega Valley Shire

Sports in Bega Valley Shire

Thematic storylines:

  • Settling, developing and building the region
  • Governing and civic history
  • Transport – maritime
  • The development and evolution of transportation methods
  • Tourism
  • Education
  • Social institutions
  • Community organisations
  • Entertainment and social life
  • Sports and recreation
  • Sports and recreation – Surf life saving

Geographically associated places / sites:

Associated / linked places / sites / items / people:

Tathra Surf Lifesaving Club.

Tathra Beach

Pig and Whistle Line Museum

Tathra Wharf

Bega Pioneers Museum

Heritage listings (statutory and non-statutory):

Australian Register of Historic Vessels - http://arhv.anmm.gov.au/en/objects/details/200059/tathra-canvas-boat?ctx=9c19d06f-00f8-4cdb-a341-c5140a2e902c&idx=0

Further information:

Contributors to this ‘library’:

Angela George and Pat Raymond

Acknowledgements, Rights and Permissions:

Acknowledgement of Pig and Whistle Fleet Club Inc., Angela George and Pat Raymond.

© Angela George and Pat Raymond. All rights reserved.

Images courtesy of and © Angela George. All rights reserved.

References and bibliography:


Wharf Road, Off Bega Street, Tathra NSW 2550