Isabel Letham: the story of the mother of Australian surfing

September 10, 2021 | Surfing
Isabel Letham: the Australian surfing pioneer rode her first wave in 1915 | Photo: Creative Commons

Swimming instructor and surfboard riding pioneer Isabel Letham is often called "the mother of Australian surfing." This is her life story.

Isabel Ramsay Letham was born on May 23, 1899, in Chatswood, New South Wales, Australia.

She was an adventurous, energetic, and smiley person who became known as one of the first women to ride a surfboard in Australia in 1915.

On Christmas Eve 1914, Duke Kahanamoku participated in a wave riding demonstration at Freshwater Beach, Sydney.

The Hawaiian surfer and Olympic swimming legend introduced the sport to a group of people who stood mesmerized on the beach watching the feat.

Two weeks later, on January 10, 1915, Duke returned to Freshwater Beach for another display of "surf shooting."

A third and final appearance took place on February 6, 1915, at Dee Why Beach in front of thousands of spectators.

Kahanamoku paddled out and then waited for the perfect wave.

When the roller came, he caught it, kneeled at first, and then stood up like a grand, magnificent bronze statue walking over water.

Kahanamoku then called for a volunteer. Among the crowd was a 15-year-old schoolgirl and enthusiastic swimmer, Isabel Letham.

The Hawaiian athlete took her by the hand, paddled out, and caught a wave effortlessly.

But when the aquatic-minded girl looked down from the crest, she was frightened. Isabel was still not ready for the drop-in.

So, on their first tandem surfing wave, Isabel didn't get up on the surfboard. And for three waves, she resisted Duke's attempts to get her to her feet.

On their fourth ride, the young Australian finally stood up on the big and heavy surfboard. The moment was witnessed and celebrated by many and then poured into words in the next day's newspapers.

Isabel Letham: the modern surfer woman who defied conventions and a male-dominated world | Photo: Creative Commons

A Swimming and Life-Saving Legacy

For decades, Isabel was celebrated as Australia's first native surfer.

The claim, however, is disputed. Historians believe that surfing had been previously introduced to Sydney four years earlier.

Isma Amor, a 14 or 15-year-old girl and member of the Manly Life Saving Club, had apparently joined a 1912-1913 "plank surfing" session at their home beach.

Interestingly, Amor and Isabel were friends.

But Letham's myth prevailed, and the unexpected historic moment played a critical role in the expansion of surfing in Australia, making it one of the most popular sports in the country.

The feat was forever inscribed in the history of surfing in Australia.

Isabel Letham fell in love with wave riding. "I was hooked for life," the Australian surfing pioneer later revealed.

According to some reports, her father helped craft Kahanamoku's surfboard from a solid plank of local sugar pine.

However, it is not clear whether he built the board for the Hawaiian or for her daughter after Duke concluded the Australian tour.

Letham later headed to the United States where, in 1923, she was appointed as an assistant coach at the University of California at Berkeley and then director of swimming for the city of San Francisco.

On her way to mainland America, Isabel stopped in Hawaii and surfed Honolulu's Waikiki Beach. She tried to reconnect with the Big Kahuna but wasn't able to find him.

In 1926, she organized San Francisco's first women's swimming competition, an event that would kick off several highly successful careers.

Letham also tried to share her life-saving knowledge in California, but because she was a woman, her membership application to the Manly Surf Club was refused.

"She would not be able to handle the conditions in rough seas," stated the president of the Australian club.

As a result, she couldn't use her influence to convince the San Francisco police to introduce her life-saving methods on the city beaches.

Isabel also lived in New York and Los Angeles throughout her life, working most of the time as a swimming instructor.

She was a modern and pretty woman with a feminist side that she inherited from her mother.

The Australian female surfer, who eventually became a US citizen, tried to make it to Hollywood but never quite got any opportunity.

In 1929, she returned to Sydney permanently, wrote articles about the art of swimming, and introduced water ballet Downunder.

Isabel Letham's influence in boosting the popularity of surfing, getting women into swimming, and promoting up-to-date life-saving methods goes way beyond the impact and fame of riding a historic wave with Duke Kahanamoku.

The Australian created change and made things happen, even when she got older.

"A 1961 Manly Beach newspaper article noted that the 62-year-old Letham 'still gets a thrill from riding a breaker,'" wrote Matt Warshaw, author of "The Encyclopedia of Surfing."

"In 1978, the never-married Letham was named grand patron of the newly formed Australian Women's Surfriders Association."

Pam Burridge and Isabel Letham, 1990: the world champion and the Australian surfing pioneer enjoy beach time | Photo: Warringah Library

A Surfer for Life

Duke Kahanamoku went on to enjoy a glittering career on the silver screen, and his legendary sugar pine surfboard is still proudly shown in the Freshwater Surf Life Saving Club (FSLSC).

Isabel and Duke met three times between their legendary tandem surfing exhibition and the death of Kahanamoku in 1968.

In 1993, Isabel Letham was inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame.

One year later, the passionate surfer-swimmer attended the unveiling of Duke Kahanamoku's statue at the northern headland of Freshwater Beach.

Letham never married, but she later revealed that she had feelings for his idol. "He's in my heart," she told surf historian Peter Warr.

Isabel could've actually tied the knot with Kahanamoku if circumstances - White Australia Policy, for instance - had allowed.

Nevertheless, for Australian surf historian Geoff Cater, Letham's devotion to Duke was only "a blanket to cover up her own sexuality."

The debate was never quite settled.

Although we might never know the truth about Isabel's personal life, it is undoubtedly true that she started a surfing revolution in the country she loved so much - Australia.

Curiously, women surfers were, here and there, among the pioneers of the sport.

English best-selling writer Agatha Christie learned to surf in 1922 in Muizenberg, South Africa, and Oahu's Waikiki.

And she was thrilled with the experience of riding a wave. "Oh, it was heaven! Nothing like it!" expressed Christie.

Letham's surf legacy is incommensurable and still probably resonates in today's American beaches and pools.

She was able to defy a male-dominated world with courage, determination, and a rare entrepreneurial spirit.

Isabel Letham passed away on March 11, 1995, in Harbord, New South Wales, Australia.

Her ashes were scattered in the Freshwater Beach lineup in the middle of a circle of surfers.