A surfboat is an oar-driven boat designed to enter the ocean from the beach in heavy surf or severe waves. It is often used in lifesaving or rescue missions where the most expedient access to victims is directly from the beach. The boat building traditions of several countries produced the same basic design when faced with the same problem, that of passing through turbulent whitewater and breaking waves and returning to shore. A broad stern presented to steep and breaking waves when approaching shore can result in broaching (turning sideways to the swell) and swamping or capsizing of the boat. Therefore, surf boats have a pointed stern and usually a fairly marked sheer.
Surf boat rowing is very popular in Australia and New Zealand and to a lesser extent South Africa. Usually associated with Surf Life Saving clubs, surf boat crews are trained in life saving skills as well as boat handling technique. Powered vessels such as inflatable skiffs and Jet Ski personal watercraft have replaced surf boats as the primary tools for real world rescue efforts, but surfboat training and competition remain popular as recreational activities among both professional rescuers and amateur athletes. The Australian form of the sport attracts wide media coverage and is often featured on mainstream sporting shows in the summer months. Surf boats are 4 oared vessels with pointed bow and sterns. The boat is steered by a fifth crewperson called the sweep who stands in the stern and uses an oar as a rudder to help control the direction of the boat. During competition surf crews race head to head, starting on the beach and rowing out through the surf, into open water and around a designated set of turning buoys (often referred to as cans). On rounding the final can, the crews then race back to the beach. As the boat nears the beach the crew attempts to catch a cresting wave and surf all the way in to shore, raising the oars from the water while the sweep steers the boat to keep it upright and on the face of the wave. Surf boat races are conducted on a weekly basis through out the Australian summer. Hundreds of boat crews take part.
Until the 1950s, the most widely-known surfboats were those of Accra, Ghana. Until a port was built, commercial cargoes were landed through the surf by very skillful boatmen with strong arms and equally strong nerve.
The best-known exception to this double-ended nature of surf boats, is the coble of north-eastern England. Here, the broaching problem was resolved by beaching stern first. The run (the after part of the bottom) was broad, flat and straight so that once the boat had beached, it remained upright. However beaching the boat was a special skill which involved unshipping the rudder at the right moment. Because they do not fit the usual double-ended pattern, cobles are not normally called surf boats.