Remembering the surfing professor

June 1, 2022

Emeritus Professor Neville de Mestre, left, Olympic pentathlete Alex Johnson and triathlete Duncan Inkster in 1993.

Emeritus Professor Neville de Mestre, whose lifelong love of the ocean led him to publish a scientific paper on bodysurfing, has died aged 83.

The gifted mathematician and sportsman joined Bond University at its opening in 1989 and served until his retirement in 2004.

Prophetically for someone who would go on to study fluid dynamics, Professor de Mestre grew up bodysurfing with his father near their home in Wollongong and gained his Bronze Medallion with the local surf club in 1954.

Father and son were descendants of Prosper de Mestre, a prominent French-born businessman in colonial Sydney.

Another family member was Etienne Livingston de Mestre, a horseracing identity who won the Melbourne Cup five times, including the first two Cups with Archer.

But it was the surf rather than the turf that shaped Neville’s life.

He studied a Bachelor of Science (Hons) and a Graduate Diploma of Education at Sydney University, becoming a maths teacher at the Royal Military College at Duntroon.

Unable to indulge his love of the ocean in landlocked Canberra, Professor de Mestre played water polo and coached the ACT team, and was also a top orienteering competitor.

He spent a year studying for his Master of Science at the University of Western Australia and reacquainted himself with the surf at Cottesloe surf club.

In 1973 Professor de Mestre spent a year at Cambridge University and gained his PhD studying the swimming of spermatozoa.

Further overseas study stints followed at California State University in Los Angles and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

He would return to the US at the behest of the CSIRO to study fire behaviour and how wind affects bushfires.

After more than 20 years at Duntroon and the Australian Defence Force Academy Professor de Mestre returned to the beach, joining Bond University.

Now in his fifties, He became a member of North Burleigh surf club and started competing in masters surf lifesaving.

He won 10 world titles, 39 Australian titles and more than 60 state titles, competing in board, ski, ironman and surf racing.

Professor de Mestre’s active lifestyle helped shape his research and he began to study the science of sports including rowing and golf.

When three competitors were killed at Australian surf lifesaving championships he came up with a surf hazard rating system which was adopted by Surf Life Saving Australia.

He remained obsessed with bodysurfing and developed an algebraic formula to help find the perfect wave.

He told the BBC in 2003: "The practical application for me is the timing of catching a wave. Most people can't catch a wave because they don't know when to launch themselves.

We should put down a theory in quantitative form so that people will know which wave to look for."

He said mathematics had given him a decisive edge in many surf competitions.

"I've been using various theorems - like Pythagoras - which I can use by standing on a beach before a surf race to decide which route I'll take. It's like an operations research problem,” Professor de Mestre said.

"If I go straight out, I go through all the waves and that uses up a lot of energy. If I run 50 or 100 metres down the beach I might be able to jump into a rip current and get an escalator trip beyond the waves, not use up much energy but perhaps travel a little further."

He went on to publish the world’s first scientific paper on bodysurfing and wrote a book about it.

Professor de Mestre was married to Margaret for 60 years.

He told the Gold Coast Bulletin in 2018: “We met at a swimming pool at Port Kembla while I was at university. She was from there but was studying at teachers’ college in Sydney.

“She recognised me from Sydney Uni where I’d wear my surf club blazer in winter, so she knew I was from Wollongong.

She asked me whether I had a car. She hated catching the train and was looking for a lift but I didn’t have a car so I suppose I wasn’t much use.

“I didn’t see her for another year but we ended up getting married in December, 1961.”

Professor de Mestre is survived by daughters Nicole, Simone and Justine, and grandchildren Emmi, Tali and Saxon.