Letham, Isabel


Lively and adventurous surfer from Sydney's Freshwater Beach; sometimes referred to as "the mother of Australian surfing." On February 6, 1915, the 15-year-old Letham rode tandem with surfer and Olympic gold medal swimmer Duke Kahanamoku during one of the Hawaiian's famous and well-attended wave-riding demonstrations at Dee Why beach, not far from Freshwater. It was later revealed that the sport had been introduced to Sydney at least four years earlier, but for decades Letham was celebrated as the first native Australian surfer.

Nearly amphibious as a child, Letham was nonetheless frightened when she paddled out with Kahanamoku at Dee Why. On their first ride together, she later recalled, "He got me by the scruff of the neck and pulled me up on the board." Letham continued to surf after Kahanamoku returned to Hawaii, as did an ever-growing number of surfing newcomers, and the sport quickly became an established part of Australian beach life.

Letham later traveled to America (surfing in Waikiki on her way to the mainland) and lived in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco; she worked most of her life as a swimming instructor. A 1961 Manly Beach newspaper article noted that the 62-year-old Letham "still gets a thrill from riding a breaker," and in 1978 the never-married Letham was named as "grand patron" of the newly formed Australian Women Surfriders Association.

Letham was inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame in 1993; the following year she attended the unveiling of a Duke Kahanamoku statue at the north Freshwater headland, and gave a short but spirited interview to Australia's Surfing Life magazine. Refusing to give her age, Letham feigned shock when told she was 95. "Ah no! I'm only about 65, surely!"

In 2014, Sydney journalist Fred Pawle, in a feature-length article in the Australian, wrote that the Letham story had for decades been both inflated and wrongly reported. The standard version was that Letham had first surfed with Kahanamoku at Freshwater, and two weeks later had a follow-up session at Dee Why. No reports of the Freshwater session in fact exist. More importantly, Pawle notes, the Letham story overlooks the handful of Sydney surfers who were riding boards as early as 1910. "But why all this credulity and exaggeration?" Pawle asks. "Because Australian surfing history is mostly a procession of aggressive, arrogant, hard-drinking, drug-abusing, brash dudes." The Letham story, he continues, "was a perfect foil. At last, Australia had its own Gidget! A tomboy who rode with Duke!"

Letham died in 1995, and her ashes were scattered just past the surf line at Freshwater.