Durban's Surfing Birth
Through the 1920's swimming in the warm waters of Durban beaches became extremely popular and by the end do that decade Durban Surf Life Saving Club and Pirates Surf Life Saving were founded in 1927 and 1928 respectively. The men in these clubs were passionate for the ocean and held safety of the multitudes in high regard. Competent ocean swimmers, these men gave themselves to rescue techniques and patrolling crowded beaches. Bathing in those days consisted of waist to chest high venturing into the sea, with the more adventurous souls body-surfing and plaining on rudimentary wooden 'belly boards'.
Within those clubs were also more adventurous experimenters, one of whom was Fred Crocker, a railways carpenter and member of Pirates SLSC who by the mid 1930's was experimenting with various craft: "He was quite keen on going out on boats and things" and "he had made a few boards that didn't go too well", says Gabie Botha, past World Life Saving President; two time shark attack survivor and a friend of Fred's.
The birth of stand up surfing came after the Empire Games, Sydney Australia in 1938. The South African swimming coach and member of Durban Surf LSC, Alec Bulley had visited a Sydney beach to see what lifesavers were doing in Australia and sketched the stand-up wave riding craft lifesavers were using there. These he gave to Fred Crocker of Pirates SLSC who built a 'ski'.
In the Souvenir Program of SA Surf Life Saving Championships hosted by Pirates SLC at Country Club Beach, Durban. 21 April 1957 it is reported that "The Pirate's prototype(Fred's) was twelve foot long and two feet six inches wide, which tapered back and front. Boarded over deck flat bottom made the craft very heavy, and two men needed courage and energy to handle it". Although it was reported that World War Two slowed design and development, Gabie Botha reports that "The next thing he(Fred) made was the Crocker Ski. The Crocker Ski came in when I was in the war. That was about 1943. He started building Crocker Skis, Lou(Johnson) used to write to me and tell me how they were building skis, he told me how they built them with a wooden frame and with them in the air-force, they used to pinch the airplane dope".
The Souvenir Program of 1957 reports that "In 1945 Fred Crocker constructed a smaller ski of his own design. It was 10 long, later reduced to 9 feet and two feet 6 inches wide. With a pointed nose and squared stern, was 6 inches in depth and had a framework of light timber. A revolutionary method of covering was introduced, being 18oz canvas, painted. The next improvement was the use of dope in place of paint, and made the "Crocker" ski almost leak-proof, with the added advantage of strengthening the canvas, besides enabling the use of 10oz canvas which lightened the ski considerably. The "Crocker" ski was hailed as the ideal craft to ride any size or type of wave".
However these events actually occurred between 1938 and 1945, it is clear that the lead role of Fred Crocker in design and development of wave riding craft established a community of enthusiast stand up wave riders at Country Club and other beaches in Durban. The manner of riding these craft was to stand up holding the double bladed paddle that was secured to the nose by a rope, also tied to the paddle shaft. This tether was useful to pull the nose of the craft up as the rider leaned backwards when negotiating waves on the way out and executing the steep drop at take-off when wave riding on the way in.
Other craft innovations appeared around this time, but all were variations of the Crocker design. One particular development was a craft that was designed by Fred Crocker as a narrow 'sit-down ski' but turned out to become the earliest known hand paddled surfboard in Durban once the paddles were abandoned. One of these was a yellow board with the skull and crossbones on the nose, ridden by the famed and feared waterman and Captain of Pirates SLSC, Bill Lavarak. Peter Milne told how one of the first of these canvass covered boards was made by Fred Crocker just after the War: "...that board there(points to photo) was one of the first ones Fred Crocker made like that. He took it out, he paddled it out, he took off on a wave, it dug in, dug it's nose in. When he came to the surface, he said “Where's my board?”, and it hit him on the head. And I bought it off him. That was his first board shaped like that and that's how I started surfing".
Not many of these evolved "Crocker Boards" were made but they were the first 'surfboards' to be ridden in Durban without the use of a double bladed paddle. A photo of Fred Crocker shows him sitting on a board of this construction as a "ski" with a paddle and another shows him in the process of standing up without the paddle - surfing as we know it.
Ski, Manly, Australia, circa 1940. This ski is "Tapered back
and front" as would have been seen and sketched by Alec
Bulley and presented to Fred Crocker in South Africa.
Erol Edley in Pirates SLSC costume riding a canvass
covered, Post WW2, Crocker Ski with the double bladed
paddle tethered to the nose of the ski.
Fred Crocker with paddle on a 'narrow ski' and paddle
fooling with Tony Kershaw. This photo is taken well after
the discussed development as seen by the 'modern'
board ridden by Tony.
Fred Crocker rides the 'narrow ski' as a board. Note the
foot straps on the front revealing the original intent of
that craft to be used as a ski.
Tony Denesheen rides a canvass covered ski(board) with
foot straps on the front. Although this image is taken in
the era of polystyrene and epoxy boards, it shows the
natural progression to 'surfing' from of the lifesaving ski.