Do Surf Competitions Suck?
Despite winning back to back state titles, for the bulk of my surfing life I was never a fan of surf competitions. To me they didn't represent the true spirit of what riding waves actually meant: barrels with mates; dancing with nature; surfing for the soul, not for the trophies.
And for half a century I was convinced I was right.
So how is it, that with this sort of mindset, I find myself the President of an organisation I never believed in?
I entered my first contest in 1965, a year after I started surfing. It was held in perfect head high surf on a late summer day on the point at Seven Mile Beach and I won the novice title. In 1966 I won the open title at the Mecca Bowl in head high lefts and also the following year at Eaglehawk Neck, when I was the only one to get off the beach during a cyclone swell. Swept out in a rip, I caught three waves and won the title by default. I was just trying to get to the safety of the beach!
The first surf competition in Tasmania was a few months before I started and was won by John Pool, who went on to represent Tasmania at the first world titles held in Manly, won by Midget Farrelly. That was the birth of competition surfing in Australia and we soon followed suit with three local boardrider clubs – Kona Moana, Island Surfing Fraternity and Van Demons – a subtle play on the surfer's car of choice, the dreaded panel van.
Along with a few mates, we were the founders of the Island Surf Fraternity and even had an old Fargo van as a flagship. We had a few meetings and maybe two or three contests before we got sick of losing, blaming inept judging. The final straw was when my brother stole the Fargo and seized the engine. Flagship abandoned, the Fraternity fractured, fell apart, and we all went surfing again. For me that entailed a sojourn to Hawaii, California, and Mexico where I caught a serious travel bug that took a couple of decades to purge from my body.
From that point on I seldom crossed paths with the competition side of surfing. After returning from Bali in the mid 1970's, I lived on King Island for a while where there weren't enough surfers to fill a heat. That set the trend for the next twenty years. My focus was the remote parts of Indonesia for the winter and the remote parts of southwest Tasmania for the summer. Due to an accident in time I was lucky enough to indulge in both with just a few mates.
It's easy to share waves when there's hardly anyone to share them with. The lack of competition for waves is why somewhere 'remote' has appeal. It's the reward for putting in the hard yards required to surf anywhere that's over the horizon and off the grid. The road trip, the walk to get there, sharing waves, surfing till you drop and reliving it around the campfire at night, is the sort of bonding that creates mateships that last a life time. Despite the explosion in surfers around the planet, there is still the opportunity on our rock to experience surfing as it once was, before Captain Cook blabbed it to the world.
Jack McCoy is the doyen of surf films who, given half a chance, can wax lyrical about the history of surfing for as long as you've got. He once told me that the origins of surfing are rooted in what he calls, the 'Spirit of Aloha'. 'When you say Aloha in Hawaii, you're actually saying: whatever I have to spare is yours unconditionally. I expect nothing in return.' Even though my personal experience with the 'Spirit of Aloha' was limited to a 125kg North Shore local threatening to punch my lights out if I caught one of his waves, I got what Jack was telling me. After all, it's nice to be nice!
Being a dad is also nice, even if it is a gigantic challenge. Like, how do you keep a one-year old safe on the beach while you go surfing? My answer was to legrope my son to a tree with the dog. Tim howled like a banshee for the first few sessions, after that, he howled if I left him at home. He did his first trip to Lion Rock when he was five where he learnt to ride a boogie board and kill march flies. In the ensuing years we became best mates, we chased waves all over the state and I introduced him to all the surf spots I had come to know. Aloha!
It was not until his early teens that Tim showed an interest in surf competitions. He and Mikey Brennan had struck up a relationship at school which extended to sleep overs and surf trips during the weekends and school holidays. They were both hooked on the search for out of the way spots, but for reasons unbeknown to them, were also drawn to compete. Despite my personal feelings I suddenly found myself as a long haul chauffeur on the competition circuit.
Despite my reservations, I slowly came to understand that contests had dramatically changed since the sixties. No longer a group of loud lads generally messing up, there were people of all ages, backgrounds, and gender. It was certainly more structured and organised, but apart from the sponsors feathers, judging tents, hooters and megaphone updates, they were having just as much fun as a crew hanging out at Lion Rock or Middle Bay.
Over the next two years I took the kids to contests all over the state, usually slipping off somewhere for a solo surf, otherwise I just watched, but never felt inclined to become involved. The big thing was the social connections that the competitions opened up. The chance to renew old relationships while making new ones was a big takeaway for me. And it wasn't just with the people. It was with the places as well.
Now convinced they were the next super pros, the kids then joined the junior development squad run by Surfing Tasmania and their skills improved dramatically with Tim selected to go to the High Performance Centre in NSW in 2003. My reconnection with competitions came to an end when I not only lost my job as a chauffeur, but lost my car as well. Strangely, it all happened the day Tim got his drivers licence. Aloha!
Despite their talent and ability, neither of the boys continued competing for long. They claimed they didn't enjoy being fully organised, the pressure, surfing in crap waves, and dealing with the emotional rollercoaster of winning and losing. I can't help but think that I had a large part to play in that, perhaps I helped poison their minds by inducting them into my world rather than preparing them for theirs. Interestingly when they walked away from competing, they did what we did when the Island Surfing Fraternity fell apart. They went surfing again.
Two years later, after a great surf at Boneyard, Huey told me that was it, my ride was over. I hung my board up in the shed, where it remains to this day, gathering dust. Never once inclined to get it down from the rafters, I'm more than comfortable with my decision to walk away, totally content that, I'm left with little but a head full of memories and a totally waterlogged body. But that wasn't the end of the road, I remained connected through Tim and his gaggle of mates who quickly adopted me as their go to surf guru and second dad. Even though I'd moved on and taken to exploring the southwest wilderness by kayak, the surf was never far away from my thoughts. In my own way I was giving back through the kids. I still had a role to play.
That all came to an end in October 2017 when Tim was killed after colliding with a navigation beacon on his jet ski in the Narrows at Marion Bay. Bizarrely, less than 200m from where Huey told me my surf life had ended some years before.
Losing your only child is the worst nightmare you can experience and it's impossible to fully articulate what it's like. Let's just say it sucks! The thing that got me through, was the way my surf community reached out. Some I barely knew, others I knew well, shared stories of their experiences with loss, what helped, what didn't. With support like that I slowly learned to cope with the grief, or at least I got a lot better at hiding it.
It took me a while, but I also came to understand that one major hurdle I had to clear, was to find a new sense of purpose. So I joined the local boardrider club SABR, just to help with gear and maybe pass on some tips and encouragement for the kids. That summer I took some of the grommets to Lion Rock for their first trip. The look on their faces confirmed that this was a good path for me to embark upon. So when Shayne Clark approached me to see if I may be interested in joining the Suring Tasmania board, I accepted without hesitation. Not long after, I was elected President. Now into my second term, I've not only outdone the Donald, but could do what no American President has ever done - run for a third term!
The governance of any small, not for profit, sporting organisation with limited income, is not something many people choose to do. Running anything in the current world is a struggle, even if you get handsomely rewarded for it, much less do it for nothing. Be it a boardrider club or the governing state body, they can only operate through the goodwill of their members. Those that have the time and motivation to give back are the lifeblood of our sport.
I'm very lucky. I'm part of a board of diverse, talented, and progressive thinkers dedicated to improving the skill and participation levels of Tasmanian surfing. In order to run events it needs qualified judges, tally clerks, flag marshals, and lots of pack mules. But Surfing Tasmania is not just about contests, it's also about providing access for members needing help on mental health issues, providing a collective voice on fish farms, oil exploration, and access to beaches during lockdowns.
This is a call for anyone with an interest in surfing who wants to give something back, to contact their local boardrider club to see how you can help. Every little bit helps. Like me, you may discover that surf contests don't suck at all. They're just another way of having fun and forging relationships.
Surfing Tasmania Inc.