Cecil Healy: "A jolly good fellow"

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Phil Jarratt (Phil Jarratt)
The Depth Test

The name may not mean much – or anything – to the reader, and as far as we know, Cecil Healy’s surfboard riding experiences were limited at best. But as a longtime student of Australian surfing’s rich history, and a sometime recorder of it, I have always been intrigued by the idea of the chubby chap in the onesy who may well be one of our greatest unsung heroes.

So you can imagine my delight when, just in time for the centenary of Armistice Day, a big, fat, old school hardcover book – more than 500 pages of densely-layered biography – landed at my door. On Sunday, 11/11, I surfed a few in the morning, pushed the youngest grandie into a few more, paused for a minute’s reflection at 11am, then spent the afternoon, cold beer in hand, one eye on the cricket, absorbed in Cecil Healy, A Biography.

This admirable book is a labour of love by the three A-listers who produced it. As noted by Stoke Hill Press publisher Geoff Armstrong – himself a sports historian of high pedigree – this book is the first biography of an Olympic gold medallist written by an Olympic gold medallist. Swimmer John Devitt, who won gold in Melbourne in 1956 and in Rome in 1960, has carried a passion to honour his hero in print through most of his adult life, stemming from the facts that both men were involved in controversial 100-metre Olympic finals, and that both have, perhaps unjustly, become footnotes to history.

With this book, Devitt sets out to correct that, ably assisted by Larry Writer, one of the best ghost writers and true crime chroniclers going around. The only true crime here is that we know so little about Cecil Healy, but Larry is in top form nonetheless.

So, what is the relevance to surfing? Okay, the story – one that I’ve touched on in at least two books – in brief: Born in Sydney in 1881, Cecil Healy learnt to swim in the sharky waters of the Harbour and in his teens became an early adopter of the crawl stroke, and a top competitor for the East Sydney Amateur Swimming Club, although always in the shadow of greats Freddie Lane and Snowy Baker. In the new century Healy swam the fastest (unofficial) time ever for the 100 metres free (58 seconds) and went on to enjoy many successes in Europe. Only a lack of funds (he worked as a sportswriter) saw him miss the 1908 Olympics, but in 1912 he became the most senior member of the Australia/New Zealand swimming squad for the Stockholm Olympics.

In addition to his flat water swimming, Healy was a star surf swimmer and lifesaver for the Manly club, and had become interested in surfboard riding through watching the performances of Tommy Walker, who rode a redwood olo he had purchased in Hawaii. Stockholm gave him the opportunity to meet and compete against the greatest surfer and 100-metre swimmer in the world, Duke Kahanamoku. Despite giving the Hawaiian nine years and a few shades of fitness, it soon emerged that Duke would have to beat Cecil for the gold.

What happened next says a lot about the Hawaiian ethos and even more about Cecil Healy. Duke slept in and missed his semi-final. Cecil refused to swim in the final unless Duke was given another chance to qualify. Cecil stormed home in the final, but Duke took the gold by just over a second. Although this would define him as a “jolly good fellow” rather than a champion for the rest of his short life, Cecil had no regrets, and no animosity towards the laidback Kahanamoku. In fact he was the NSW swimming official who pressed hardest for Duke to lead a Hawaiian tour of Australia in the summer of 1914-15, just as our lads were being freighted to Gallipoli, like so many sardines.

Cecil Healy, second from left, and Duke Kahanamoku, slouching next to upright, at 'Boomerang', Freshwater, 1915 (Warringah Library Local Studies)

Although Kahanamoku is often erroneously credited with introducing surfboard riding to Australia on this tour, there is no doubt that his exhibitions popularized the sport and helped embed it in our culture. The tour also gave two of the true spirits of the ocean sports the opportunity to bro down and enjoy lazy days of body womping and reminiscing on the deck of 'Boomerang' surf shack at Freshwater. At the end of a hugely successful tour, the Hawaiians were farewelled at the NSW Sports Club. As Devitt and Writer note:

As the guests filtered out of the Sports Club that hot summer night in 1915, Cecil wished his dear friend and great rival Godspeed for the sea voyages that lay ahead. They doubtless made plans to catch up in America, in Europe or back in Australia. The Duke would never see him again.

Cecil Healy served with distinction in the AIF on the Western Front, gaining the rank of Second Lieutenant before he tracked across a field looking for a German machine-gun nest on August 29, 1918. The machine gunner found him first, ripping a round through his neck and chest. He was just 36.

A century later, the man behind this book, John Devitt, poignantly paid his respects to his hero at his grave at the New British Cemetery in Assevillers, France. That moment, captured in a lovely photo on the back fly jacket, reverberates throughout this worthy, passionate biography.

'Cecil Healy: A Biography', by John Devitt and Larry Writer (Stoke Hill Press, $39.95), available at all good book stores and online sellers.


Coops70's picture
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Coops70 Wednesday, 14 Nov 2018 at 11:32am

What a legend, nicely written. It’s good to see people taking the time and effort to keep history/ surf history in check.

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zenagain Wednesday, 14 Nov 2018 at 11:53am

x 2 Coops.

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Craig Wednesday, 14 Nov 2018 at 2:09pm

Great bit of history there that I wouldn't have ever known.

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blindboy Wednesday, 14 Nov 2018 at 6:26pm

Thanks Phil, a timely reminder that all those names on the war memorials represent real people who still had so much to live for.

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Panman Wednesday, 14 Nov 2018 at 7:56pm

That's the Australian spirit all wrapped up in that great story

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Rabbits68 Wednesday, 14 Nov 2018 at 11:30pm

Thanks for that Phil. Bloody amazing story. There must be so many that have gone untold.

truebluebasher's picture
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truebluebasher Thursday, 15 Nov 2018 at 3:01am

Indeed Gold Coast Surfboard shapers/riders of 1910-11 alongside Walker predated Oz Tour.

Duke Kahanamoku was the first Surfer to compete at night in floodlit ocean stadiums.

The tour was under the proviso of it being strictly amateur.Food /Accom/Travel expenses!
Busted for Appearance fees Logo framed in Grog Ads & Tobacco puff pieces.
Duke saw fit to promote his iconic surf brand. (Arguably the first & most iconic surf image)

Another weirdly 1960-70's surf'board style advert appeared often on Duke's Qld leg.

Duke came under fire in Qld leg for pulling out of Warwick & Sth Bne Baths events.
This by fellow body surfer/swimmer/diver Jim Cavill of Pioneer Swim troupe Cavill Family...

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Greg76 Thursday, 15 Nov 2018 at 5:37am

I have an old photo of my grandfather and his brother for Newtown RLFC 1913 .. There youngest brother who i only met briefly told me that my great uncle died in France WW1.
That remains only recollection or mention of it .. RIP

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truebluebasher Thursday, 15 Nov 2018 at 9:38am

The name Cecil Healy is revered in Gold Coast building circles.
Also from Sydney way.
Lived on Sunset Blvd Central Surfers Paradise.

Hands down the best Home Builder our City ever had...all proud to work for him.
Hand selected his timber lengths, baffles in the bathrooms,vented eaves the real deal.

Thought I'd mention it ...GC legend Cec was born in/around 1920's...related maybe.

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factotum Thursday, 15 Nov 2018 at 5:02pm

Allied to True Blue Basher's Trove work (what a treasure trove Trove is, by the way) regarding the Duke, howzabout his Hawaiian swimming and surfing companion on that initial jaunt, George Cunha?

Interesting man, name and history indeed!


(you may need to translate)

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truebluebasher Thursday, 15 Nov 2018 at 7:21pm

Spoilt us factotum that's a bonzai writeup in so many ways.
Duke knew as soon as he lift his head...Cunha would pull ahead as he did! All say so!

Your story says Cunha shaped some boards which they took on tour to Qld.

*On one of two lay days they may have hit the surf at Cooly? (Many believe so!)

*Mount Morgan end of tour (Surfboard Auction)...This seems to be only record of such?
(a)1915 Possible 1st imported boards to Qld?
(b)1915 Possible 1st purchase of SurfBoards in Qld?
That's a lot more surfing firsts for Tour ...I'm sure Phil Jarratt would be equally stoked.
Queenslanders need to verify such news.

Explains how Cooly Kids got the knock offs? (Likely bid on behalf of surf club!)
As no one in Rocky needed them... the Cooly kids possibly got a bargain.
Throw them on the Brisbane Train > South Coast Train... Cowabunga!

Locals think the Duke dropped off the Boards or were scored from southern Clubbies...
This Story says the boards were auctioned at end of Qld Tour.
Wow! Great stuff... Qld tour leg is full of mystery...

factotum that's a great find for Oz Surf History...Queenslanders whole thank you!
Wave of the Day ~~ ~~/C..~[ factotum )

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truebluebasher Thursday, 15 Nov 2018 at 9:03pm

The importance of this claim of Cunha's said Tour Surfboards changes the whole game!
Duke & Cunha planned their East Coast Summer Surf Safari off the back of the Swim races.
This explains the pre planned run of Surf icon ads for Swim events to include Surf Demos.

We must now accept that the surfers had Boards at hand at every Summer venue.
Also that all Accom + Transport provided for Surf Boards the whole summer long. Not easy!

Promoters & Swimmers never counted on Surf Displays attracting bigger free crowds.
(Hit the Panic buttons! Cut that shit out now!) 'No more Surf Demos or you'll send us broke.'
'OK! One board each for your days off but no more Displays! Deal.'(Duke/Cunha: "Squares!")
I reckon no more than 2 boards were packed for Surf Safari to Mount Morgan!

Even after Centenary this tour keeps redefining Oz surf history, possibly more twists ahead!
I agree with factotum that Cunha's swim/surfing/Boardshaping earns him a wild card.

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factotum Friday, 16 Nov 2018 at 12:22pm

A very rudimentary search by me there, TBB. A good project for more thorough investigation, no doubt.

Trove investigation targeting Cunha and New Zealand may yield worthy stuff for some further lines of inquiry.

Also here:


Good luck.

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gerrywaverider Saturday, 17 Nov 2018 at 12:56am

Wonderful inspiring article.The question is as I see it for what thats worth
Has the surfing community lost is camaraderie and willingness to share our great moments in the oceans with others or has $ ,ego, selfishness,big business,futile attemps to own your local wave etc engulfed one of life's precious gifts ?
Lets look at this articles gift to surfers