Isabel Letham

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Isabel Ramsay Letham
Born Isabel Ramsay Letham
(1899-05-23)23 May 1899
Chatswood, New South Wales, Australia
Died 11 March 1995(1995-03-11) (aged 95)
Beach Street, South Curl Curl, New South Wales, Australia
Occupation surfboard rider and swimming instructor
Known for Pioneering surfing for women

Isabel Letham (23 May 1899 – 11 March 1995) was an Australian pioneer surfboard rider and swimming instructor, renowned as 'the first Australian to ride a surfboard' (although she disputed that claim - Isma Amor of Manly is believed to be the first Australian Female Surfer and Tommy Walker of Manly is believed to be the first Australian Male Surfer).[1] A probably erroneous story has been repeated for years that In January 1915 at Freshwater Beach, Sydney she experimented riding a board in the Hawaiian tradition in tandem with Duke Kahanamoku.[1][2] This story has been disputed by researchers who have investigated its roots and provenance, and the reality is probably that she did not do so until shortly after, at Dee Why beach in Sydney, on February 6, 1915.[3]

Kahanamoku had been invited to Australia by the NSW Swimming Association. He hadn't brought a board so he made one from sugar pine. At Freshwater Beach Kahanamoku gave a 3 hour demonstration of "Hawaiian-style surf shooting" to a crowd of several hundred people. Australians had been bodyboarding on wooden boards, and bodysurfing.[citation needed]

Again probably apocryphally, the idea has been repeated for years that at the end of the Freshwater Beach session Kahanamoku invited Letham from the crowd for a tandem surfing demonstration. Letham herself later repeated the story, but contemporaneous records indicate that this incident did not take place until the following month at Dee Why beach. [1] In either case, Letham was 15 at the time, but an accomplished swimmer and bodysurfer.

As she later told the story, on the first few waves they paddled for she yelled for him to stop because it felt like going off a cliff. Kahanamoku ignored her cries, went anyway, and hauled her to her feet. They rode at least one wave that day, although repeated re-telling of the story has resulted in an increasing number being reported over the intervening decades. Letham was, as she later said "hooked for life".[citation needed]

Letham went on to become an accomplished surfer, and to teach surfing and swimming.[4]

When Letham died in 1995, her ashes were scattered by surfers in the sea off Freshwater Beach.[5]


  1. ^ a b Nikki Henningham, Letham, Isabel (1899 - 1995) in She's Game (exhibition online), in The Australian Women's Register, The National Foundation for Australian Women and The University of Melbourne accessed 18 August 2011
  2. ^ Isabel Letham (2007) Australian Women's Archives Project accessed 18 August 2011
  3. ^ Pawle, Fred, "Legend and fib combine as Isabel Letham surfs into history on wave of fancy", The Australian (News Corp) 
  4. ^ King, Jennifer (22 August 2015). "First women graduate from US Army Ranger School as gender barriers continue to fall". Australian Broadcasting Commission. Archived from the original on 22 August 2015. 
  5. ^ Australia's first lady of the surf, Australian Geographic, 8 June 2012, archived from the original on 22 August 2015 

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