The History of Surfski Paddling

(Above) Harry McLaren, the first maker of surfskis, second from the left, with Ray Dick, Herb Reckless and Bert McLaren, left to right. 1919 on the Hastings River, Port Macquarie.

Harry McLaren and his brother Jack used an early version of the surfski in 1912 around the family's oyster beds on Lake Innes, near Port Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia, and the brothers used them in the surf on Port Macquarie's beaches. The board was propelled in a sitting position with two small hand blades, which was probably not a highly efficient method to negotiate the surf. The deck is flat with a bung plug at the rear and a nose ring with a leash, possibly originally required for mooring. The rails are square and there is a pronounced rocker. The boards' obvious buoyancy indicates hollow construction, with thin boards of cedar fixed longitudinally down the board.

Surfskis were later used by lifesavers to rescue drowning swimmers. Until the 1960s, surf boats—lightweight rowing boats with a crew of five—were responsible for the rescue work in and behind the surf line. These boats were expensive and require a huge amount of skill to be used effectively. It was soon realised that a double surfski could do almost everything that a surf boat could do, and in 1946 the importance of surfskis was noted by the surf lifesaving associations and they were included in lifesaving competitions and championships. Riders could stand up on them to surf them back to shore. These early surfskis were very wide and bear little resemblance to their modern counterparts. Surfskis were quickly introduced into surf lifesaving as a competition event. Over time they became narrower to maximise speed.

In 1984, waveski surfing became established as an offshoot of surfskiing with the formation of the World Waveski Surfing Association. A major surfski craftsman is Bob Twogood of Kailua Hawaii. Twogood surfskis have won 14 World Championships since 1982. In the television series Magnum, P.I. the character of Thomas Magnum was often seen on a surfski.

South Africa has had a large influence of the shape of the modern day downwind ocean ski. During the apartheid years, sanctions against South Africa's political regime and the prevailing racial inequality saw some aspects of the sport of surf-lifesaving develop almost independently from the rest of the world. Custom shaped high-density polystyrene foam shaped blanks were hand crafted annually by most top paddlers, featuring the latest shapes, and designed for their specific body shapes and requisite performance criterion. The popular FENN Millennium was shaped in Cape Town by Keith Fenn in the '90's, and proved to be one of the more influential ocean racing surfski models.

To date there are literally hundreds of international ocean racing surfski manufacturers around the globe producing a wide variety of shapes across a wide variety of price ranges!

(The Author would like to acknowledge that much of the above is courtesy of Wikipedia ( and also


 (Above) A selection of images from showing surfski's circa 1940, Port McQuarie. (And you thought today's LYCRA looks dodgy?..!)