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Story: Lifesaving and surfing

Surrounded by New Zealand’s irresistible beaches, swimmers gradually took to the water in Victorian times. They were closely followed, of necessity, by the heroic surf lifesavers. Later still came sun-bleached surfies. Today, thousands head for New Zealand’s extensive coastline to have fun in the surf each summer..

Story by Nancy Swarbrick
Main image: National champion Maz Quinn surfs at Ninety Mile Beach

Story Summary

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Beach swimming: early days

In New Zealand you’re never very far from the beach, and almost everyone loves swimming in the sea. But in the 19th century many of New Zealand’s British settlers disapproved of it. They believed it was shocking to expose your body in public, and some towns had laws against swimming in public.

Gradually, more people started swimming because it was healthy and fun. By the 1880s there were public baths, separated for males and females. At the beach, bathers had to wear costumes that covered them from neck to knee.

In the early 20th century surf lifesavers helped to rescue people from the sea. Beach swimming became safer, and much more popular.

Lifesaving teams

Lifesaving teams work together to rescue someone in the sea. In the early days, one person, wearing a belt attached to a long line, would swim out to the swimmer in trouble. Others in the team would then wind up the line and pull them both back to shore. In the 1950s and 1960s, hundreds of people would gather at the beach to watch the teams competing. Today, lifesavers use inflatable rescue boats to reach people more quickly.

Lifesaving today

At popular beaches, New Zealanders know that it is safe to swim between the red and yellow flags, which are put up by lifesavers. The teams also save lives using inflatable boats – as seen on the television show Piha rescue.

Surfing

Traditionally Māori and Polynesian people would surf with logs or canoes. In the 1920s New Zealanders began surfing on long wooden boards. Later, they used lighter boards made of fibreglass.

In the 1960s surfing became very popular. The boards were made shorter (under 2 metres), and you could do new moves in all kinds of surf. Surfies would travel around looking for beaches with good waves. Sometimes they left school or work to spend their time surfing at beach towns such as Gisborne.

Today thousands of Kiwis of all ages enjoy surfing, and there are 64 clubs. Some surfers, such as Maz Quinn, are international champions. Māori champions include Lisa Hurunui and Daniel Kereopa, and a popular Māori surf clothing label is Ngaru Toa.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Lifesaving and surfing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/lifesaving-and-surfing (accessed 24 February 2017)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 12 Jun 2006