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Sportsmen Against a Moving Wall of Water

In Australia, wave riding is both a serious business for the world's finest lifesavers and a rough-and-tumble sport enjoyed by millions

For action in the water there is nothing in the world quite like a beach full of Australians. At the rough-and-tumble art of blasting their way out through onrushing walls of water and riding riotously back to shore the Australians are unbeatable, yet the Australians, strangely, are newcomers to the beach. Until 1902 local laws in Australia prudishly forbade even swimming on public beaches. Shortly after the beaches opened up, an itinerant South Sea islander taught the Australians to ride waves on their chests. In 1915, while visiting in Sydney, the Hawaiian Olympic swimming champion, Duke Kahanamoku, built a crude and cumbersome 90-pound surfboard and wowed his Australian hosts by riding waves with an Australian lass standing on the board with him. The Australians were sold.

Today on a single beach in a single hour there are often more than 10,000 Australians riding waves on their chests, on boards, on surf skis, on air mattresses and in surfboats. Because many of its beaches are swept by big waves from the open Pacific and are scoured by rip currents, Australia has developed the world's finest corps of lifesavers—9,000 surfing men who are precision-drilled in rescue and resuscitation and dedicated to preserving a rough sport, not for supermen, but safe enough for the average sporty Australian. Even the president of the Australian association of surfing clubs, Judge Adrian Curlewis, is still active at 57 as a swimmer and board rider (though now, to preserve the dignity of the bench, Judge Curlewis no longer rides waves standing on his head). "The surf is very worthwhile," Judge Curlewis reflected recently. "I feel we build national character pitting ourselves against the sea—by mountaineering, you might say, against moving walls of water."

A struggling Australian crew catches a boatful of water

At the start of a half-mile race (above), surfboarders stroke furiously to clear the breaker line

Flailing paddles on a 22-foot surf ski, two Australians rocket down the slope of a fringing wave

At Tamarama Beach, two body surfers plummet down the rolling face of an eight-foot breaker