A Surfing Life

A Surfing Life

Hal Leslie (1920-1997)  founded the Nowra-Culburra SLSC In 1954. His legacy has shaped the Shoalhaven community, impacting and saving the lives of many to this day.

Black Sunday (Photo: The Daily Telegraph, 1938)
It was one of those perfect Sundays on Bondi Beach in February 1938. I was 18 years-old and had decided to catch the two trams from the city to the beach which was full to the brim with people. 
In the water, there was a channel about 15 yards wide along the edge and a bank about 50 yards wide. The breaking waves provided a good carry into the channel and half a dozen strokes put you back on the bank. 

I had just had a good ride and been left on the edge of the channel when it seemed the ocean had gone mad- water was coming from everywhere. Later I found out that four very large waves in quick succession had broken up the bank and about 250 people had been dragged out a couple of hundred yards. 

As it happened, the Bondi clubs were lining up for a competition swim and immediately went into action. The best swimmers, all members and a surfboard were loaded up with rubber surf-o-planes. The crew threw the floats in amongst the crowd and half a dozen people could hold on in safety.

I had tried to keep afloat and felt myself peacefully sinking when something inside me stirred me to strive harder. I did hold on to a float for a while with the others but decided to keep swimming as long as possible-a ridiculous decision.  Whilst doing my best, which really was not good enough, a lifesaver paddled past on a float assuming others had greater need than me. Luckily he was there because I was exhausted so I attracted his attention, climbed on his back and we came in on the surf-o-plane. 

The beach was littered with rows of people in different states of distress. Six people died altogether and this day is known in the annals of surf life saving as Black Sunday. 

-Hal Leslie

There’s no doubt Hal Leslie’s first brush with Surf Life Saving stayed with him for the rest of his life. His near drowning at Bondi Beach in 1938 triggered a life of community service at surf clubs all over NSW. 

He was a self-taught swimmer and obtained his Bronze Medallion in his hometown of Newcastle at the Dixon Park SLSC while on leave before his call-up with the RAAF Reserves. While serving overseas he made use of the exotic surf beaches in Egypt. 

“Whilst in camp at Abu Qir, on the Mediterranean coast near Alexandria, there were good waves for a couple of days which a group of us thoroughly enjoyed much to the amusement of the British troops in camp nearby,” he recalled in his memoirs.  

“After the war, the call and freedom of the surfing movement was strong and I decided to give competition cricket a miss and [join the club] at South Narrabeen.”

Out of the ranks of the RAAF, Hal was attracted to the equality within surf clubs. “[South Narrabeen] had only about 26 members from all walks of life and interests. One of the good things about surf clubs was that rich or poor, bright or dull, everyone was a member and nothing else and accepting of the discipline imposed for rescue work.” Hal became the secretary of the club and began training the resuscitation teams. 

—–

It was 1954 when Hal and his wife Von moved to the Shoalhaven. Von was pregnant with their first child and Hal had just opened a battery repair shop in Nowra. 

“It was amazing to find that the townspeople’s excursion to the coast each weekend meant a bus trip to Husskison on Jervis Bay,” Hal recalled.  “The surfing beaches around Nowra were virtually ignored by the district but being a dairying district, a lot of people were tied up seven days-a-week which had something to do with it.”

By collaborating with a Shoalhaven Councillor living in Culburra, Hal was able to generate some interest in starting a club in the area. He held several public meetings in the town hall where he showed hired 16mm surfing movies. Through Hal’s contacts in Sydney, the North Bondi SLSC donated the basic equipment- a single Reel, Line and Belt. “A couple of old surfers, the Ambulance Chief and about half-a-dozen of us got started…and we became the Culburra SLSC officially.”

“What was amazing was how he was able to build the Culburra club with the help of people from all over the place whom he’d met at other surf clubs. He was an excellent organiser,” said Von, now white haired and crinkle-faced. She sits in a recliner in her Gold Coast lounge room, three streets back from the beach. She taps the armrest in a gentle rhythm, conjuring her memories from 59 years ago-a photograph of Hal behind her. 

“We bought a house in Grantham Street and we had a house warming and the whole surf club came. It was quite a party. We went out to the beach the next day, the fellas went out to swim and they got caught in a rip,” Von says with a laugh in her throat. Hal recalls the event in his memoir, “I said ‘don’t look now but we’re a good way from the beach. So stick together and we’ll move sideways out of the rip’ and this seemed to be the signal for everyone to take off in different directions. Rip and I stayed back with Jack Regan who wasn’t feeling too good. “

Von continues, “I was on the beach and I could see Jack Regan. His face was as white as a sheet. He was probably hungover from the night before!” she chuckles. 

“I was shouting ‘somebody get the reel! Come on! You know what to do!’” 

Hal noted how that day “was an important lesson for newcomers to the surf.”

—-

Momentum at the club took off and the public was allowed access to the beach, which was now patrolled through the summer. The club was able to get hold of a boat and a surf ski and slowly gained enough members to make racing teams. 

In 1956 the Australian Surf Life Saving Championships were to be held during the Olympics in Melbourne. Culburra entered the open events like the boat race and the march past, which Hal trained. 

On the way there, a reporter from the radio station at Warragul asked if the team would drop in for an interview. With all the excitement of the games around they asked where they were from, what they would be doing etc., the reporter somehow thinking they were apart of the Olympic Games ceremonies. “Some of the answers to the questions were unbelievable,” Hal recalled. “One of the boys said in response to one of the questions about how the March Past team was trained ‘Mr. Leslie whistles.’”

The Championships were held on the second Sunday in front of huge crowd, publicising surf life saving on an international stage. 

The club continued to progress, providing the township of Culburra a community hub. Next year marks 60 years since the club’s humble beginnings of a dozen men with a boat kept in a shed by the sea. These days Nowra-Culburra SLSC is a thriving volunteer organisation with numbers increasing every year. What started as Hal’s passion and community spirit has provided ongoing enjoyment, but more importantly safety to generations of Shoalhaven residents and will continue to do so well into the future.

The first club house at Werrain Beach, Culburra
The first surf boat "Jantzen II" (Photo courtesy of the Nowra-Culburra SLSC. Left to right: Os Cork, Hal Leslie, Jack Regan, Reg Walker)
Hal Leslie leading the Culburra March Past team, 1956 (Photo courtesy of Nowra-Culbrra SLSC)
The Culburra SLSC before the Australian Surf Life Saving Championships in Melbourne, 1956, lead by Hal Leslie. (Photo courtesy of Nowra-Culburra SLSC)
Hal Leslie presents Nowra-Culburra President Tom Looney with a plaque at the 25th Anniversary of the club, 1978. (Photo courtesy Nowra-Culburra SLSC)