Tossing in the Towel
Back in the early 1960's most of us testosterone-charged teenagers at the beach considered Mrs. Thwaites too old to draw breath. Yet there she was, all of fifty and the permanent shadow of her son, Tasmanian surf pioneer, Bill Thwaites.
Her name was Cecilie, but out of respect we always called her Mrs Thwaites and the collective opinion was, she was attached to Bill by the hip. No matter what size the swell, no matter how bitter and cruel the weather, if Bill was there, so was Mrs Thwaites.
Bill was credited with discovering many of the states prime surf spots, including Roaring Beach at Nubeena and Seven Mile Point, but his constant companion was somehow overlooked, perhaps proving history is either blind, sexist or both.
Bill was a lifeguard at the Hobart Olympic Pool who was blessed with the physique and presence of a Greek God. With film star looks, topped off with aviator sunglasses, he was the undisputed Don of Tasmanian surfing. A man of few words who spent all his time with his mum. In an era when the last person young men wanted to be seen with was their mum.
However Bill's mum was different. Very different!
Cecilie Cripps was from the prominent Hobart bakery family and married Jack Thwaites in 1935, producing a daughter Anne and son Bill. As head of the forerunner of Parks and Wildlife, Jack was responsible for the preservation of much of Tasmania's southwest wilderness. A member of the Royal Geographic Society, he was also the recipient of the Order of Australia for his contribution to conservation. Along with Leo Luckman, he founded the Hobart Walking Club and trekked much of the state's wilderness, including Thwaites Plateau in the Arthur Ranges. Mrs Thwaites constantly by his side.
Unlike Bill, who surfed with the grace and style of a cat, Mrs Thwaites was far from being a natural athlete. No doubt enhanced by the fact she smoked like a steam train. The only time she wasn't lighting up was when she was in the surf. It was tough to watch her stagger to her feet and assume a clumsy survival stance. Tough to watch her wipe out and struggle ashore while her son was out the back ripping. We all felt for her in our own way, but few of us fully understood the powerful elements she brought with her to the beach. Her lack of ability was lost on her. She was focussed on having fun. Not only was she a visionary but, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps the most inspirational figure in Tasmanian female surfing.
In the 1960's surfing was beginning to take off, but it was a young man's world. Surfboards were around 10' long and weighed 35lbs. Not only were they cumbersome and difficult to carry, but devoid of the benefit of a leg rope, they were also lethal unguided missiles. Ever conscious of preserving their turf, the boys decided that the boards and the surf zone itself, were far from female friendly. Much like many of the social attitudes that existed at that time.
A time when it was politically correct to call any non Anglo-Saxon a wog; when bullying was rampant and expected; when corporal punishment was normal; when females were relegated to the towel, where they were expected to douse themselves in baby oil, get tanned and admire every wave their boyfriend caught.
Fair to say that in the early-60's, boys ruled the waves while the sand was the realm of the surf widow.
Between sessions we would while away the time with idle chat and when, between firing up, Mrs Thwaites spoke of inclusion and participation, her words were usually drowned in silence. This was a topic lost on us males, since we all knew that women didn't want to surf anyway. They were more than happy sitting on the beach soaking up rays.
The thing about Mrs Thwaites was her amazing resilience. She refused to be put off by the boys club attitude and went about spreading her gospel by stealth. When Bill and his mum established Tasmania's first surf retail outlet, Seaworld, she understood the power of the female dollar and not only introduced her female customers to kaftans and bikinis, but boards and wetties as well. During her sales pitch she cajoled them with her conviction that men didn't have a mortgage on fun. And, she was convincing, because slowly but surely they began tossing in the towel and paddling into the lineup.
Ironically, the most accomplished female surfer of that time was Jenny Leeson. Ironic because she lived on the Phantom north-west coast, the coast of mythical waves. She came from a surf lifesaving background which had long embraced female participation and she felt totally at ease in the ocean, taking it up to the boys at any opportunity.
In the south, the Dorneys were well known in architectural circles and had a shack at Park Beach where the whole family surfed, including Leigh Dorney who won the women's title in 1968. In her case she learnt to surf with her male siblings and cousins who gave her very little. She was a tough competitor both in and out of the water and surfs to this day in Victoria. Despite their ability, women were not taken too seriously. The usual contest format was that females were treated as a standby novelty event. Something to fill in time until the tide turned, or held at the end of the day while the boys skulled frothies at the nearest pub.
Despite female numbers steadily increasing, the hardcore males of the lineup gave them small regard, fewer waves, and little if any encouragement. Most were convinced they'd soon tire of the whole thing, get pregnant, return to the towel and look after kids.
Fast forward some twenty years and a female pocket rocket by the name of Dara Penfold exploded on the scene, heralding what was to be, the boys' worst nightmare. She went on to become Tasmania's first world champion - World Junior Female Champion - and was the most successful competitive surfer the state has seen. And if there was ever any doubt, Dara went on to conquer the male domain of Shipstern Bluff, proving to all and sundry that not only were women here, they were here to stay.
Since then Brooke Mason drew a line in the sand, demanding equal prize money for female surfers and despite strong pushback from the male cohort, was adopted as policy by Surfing Tasmania twelve months later. The World Surf League has since gone on to become the first sport in the USA to adopt equal prize money for females. A point not lost on Red Bull, with Bruny Island local Liz Stokely receiving an invite for the Cape Fear event at Shippies.
Had she still been alive, Mrs Thwaites would have rightly been one very proud woman.
Since those early days surfing has undergone a paradigm shift in both demographics and attitude. No longer an exclusive male domain, todays surfers are often family groups, sometimes three generations, grandmothers through to grandkids. Almost half of those attending surf schools are young females and stalwarts like Jo Goldfinch are active as coaches, judges, and team managers and the beach vibe is much better for it.
Following the recent death of Bill Thwaites, Surfing Tasmania received a gift to help fund the future of state surfing. That money is being used to develop a network of progressive surf coaches at boardrider clubs around the state and is known as the Thwaites Fund. It's open to both males and females and is named in honour of Bill and his constant companion, Mrs Thwaites.
Anyone want a stack of discarded towels?
// MICK LAWRENCE
Mick is a Tasmanian surf pioneer and is the current President of Surfing Tasmania.