Before he became one of Australia’s best-known swimming and surf coaches himself, Walker was a merchant seaman, and something of a showman, at least according to legend. Once, charging three-pence a head for a look at his catch, he supposedly swam a hook and the bait of a 3kg salmon straight into the mouth of a 4-meter Tiger Shark at Fairy Bower beach.
Another time, while surfing at South Steyne, it was said that Walker would have drowned without the intervention of a local dancer, Ivay Schilling, who swam to the daredevil’s rescue and pulled him to safety. Once resuscitated on the beach, Walker blurted: “Well, that is the last time I’ll go surfing immediately after a heavy breakfast.” Within days the publicity officer of Schilling’s dance company had presented him with a five-pound note for all the media attention the story drew.
Whether Walker or Letham’s stories occurred precisely the way in which they’ve been passed down through the generations is anyone’s guess, and indicative of surfing history’s ramshackle charm. Perhaps Walker wasn’t the first either. The sport’s hall of fame is full enough with heroes, it surely can’t hurt that a few legends are keeping them company.
If the romance of Letham’s status might have had its day, it certainly doesn’t hurt to give her the last word. Sitting by a window at her nursing home on Victoria’s surf coast one day late in her life, Letham turned to Pam Burridge and made a comment that captured the essence of her story. “Small waves don’t interest me,” she said. “I’m only interested in the big ones.”