The country’s future surf talents assemble in Gisborne for the national Primary and Secondary Scholastic Champs.
As the carloads of groms pull on up and empty out onto the beach, a buzz fills the air. Groms from the length and width of the country have filtered into Gisborne on a stunning spring day, and right in front of their eyes an epic blue watered lineup fanned by offshore winds reels off with a two-way peak and longer lefts. The hype is real, the groms are screaming with excitement, some are reserved and shy while others are the life of the party already running around mingling with other teams and friends they’ve perhaps met at other events.
My mind takes me back, a long 28 years, where just like some of these groms I’d come to the very first inaugural scholastic champs, a tentative 14-year-old grom. As I came from an area not so surf contest orientated and I hadn’t done a lot of surfing at the hot spots like Raglan and Piha I wasn’t part of the core group of tight groms, but I kept quiet and just concentrated on my surfing. Other groms all around me were familiar as I had seen their faces in the mags and the elder U18 guys were almost like heroes to me. The places they were from, the waves
they surfed and the trips they’d been on scoring mind blowing waves had me wanting a taste of that action one day! And much like myself 28 years ago I look around and witness the same behaviour amongst these new generation of groms as if looking on a mini me from long ago. In that event I progressed through a few heats but in what I think was the quarter finals I was up against some big names and I simply froze, in awe of the spray that was blowing off the back of the waves they rode and I barely caught a wave. But over those few days I met some epic grom mates and some older surfers who took me under their wing and remain friends for life, opening the doors from that point on 28 years ago. Also still there in the thick of it, survivors of that very first NZ scholastic event are Ben Kennings who now runs these events for Surfing NZ the winner of the U15’s back then, James Fowell of Gisborne who teaches at the local high school and has been brought in as specialist guru coach of the Gisborne team, and as I look down the beach there on the shoreline cheering his charges on is Puke Parana of Canterbury still at it after all these years of scholastics. Then locked inside the big white box is NZ Circuit judge Russell Ritchie of Canterbury who was involved in that very first scholastics and was part of the team who headed to Bali for the Worlds.
The scholastics was launched in 1989 the brainchild of Ross Guy who worked for Rip Curl, with Carol Cranch (now McGhee) and Mary Davie heading the ins and outs. The concept was launched to improve the level of competition and to select a Junior Team for the World Grommet Titles held at Kuta Beach, Bali. And for the next 13 years our finest groms went head to head in the Regional and National Scholastics and from there a team was selected to represent NZ on the world stage, and represent they did, with many podium placings over those years culminating in a World Title win for the kiwi team in 2001 and a World Junior Title for Jay Quinn in the U18’s.
The scholastics contest environment has changed ever so slightly over the years; the international event moved from Bali in '99 to Australia for a few years and was then absorbed into the stand-alone ISA World Junior Championships, which has been contested ever since in a variety of locations around the world including our very own Piha in 2010.
But one thing that hasn’t changed, is year after year during the school holidays, teams of groms congregate to duke it out over the week-long tournament to find the champions from Primary Schools, through to Secondary schools and the champion regional team.
For three years straight, the tournament has been hosted by Gisborne and for three years straight the groms have been spoilt beyond belief in the wave department with each and every year providing amazing weather and perfect grom waves to offer a consistent and fair platform for the youngsters to perform. Whatever weather pattern we’ve been immersed in over the last few years, even the experts can’t seem to make up their minds whether or not it’s an El Nino or La Nina pattern, one thing for sure is that the season of spring has been cruel for the majority of surf zones in NZ bar Gisborne and perhaps Dunedin. But imagine throwing a pack of groms out into the icy waters of Otago in early October, I can hear the Otago Team right now rubbing their hands together screaming bring it down here so we can be the only ones whose limbs work. But the reality of the need for contestable waves throughout the course of a week, makes Gisborne a prized location to hold such an event, where at many locations up or down the coast waves can be scored in all manner of conditions. Many years ago, when the contest was last held on the South Islands West Coast at Westport the surf conditions picked up so fast and furious to the point of being dangerous and with nowhere to hide from the swell organisers were forced to cancel the event at the quarter final mark and crown a champion by way of highest heat score at that point.
This year’s event kicked off with the Saturday and Sunday opening act of the Primary School champs with groms ranging from 6-12 years old, encompassing both Primary and Intermediate levels. While the Secondary Schools had more of a hard-core competition factor the Primary contest was more of a feel-good
scenario, where fun and being involved take priority and Sticky Johnson and Skullcandy were two sponsors that got in behind the cause to enhance participation and grow the sport at this level. While surfing in an event such as this can be daunting for some groms it seemed the parents were taking the hit the most, some waded out up to their chest to help out their kids while others paddled out on a board to offer their kids a sense of security and then there were the parents that simply couldn’t watch as they were so tense and nervous they had to leave the beach. Every single grom gave it their all and most importantly friendships were forged that just like that first ever scholastics 28 years ago will last a lifetime as these kids grow together pushing each other and laughing amongst the waves of Aotearoa.
Rolling straight into the Secondary Schools there was no rest for the wicked with 117 surfers spread over 11 regional teams. There would be five straight days of full on competition with 99 heats to be surfed and at the end of the arduous week seven new champions crowned. Utilising the same arena as the primary Sshools had, at Northern Makorori, the bank was on fire and broke all through the tides offering up both rights and long lefts. And for the next three days the event hummed along without a hitch with nothing but epic surfing, intense battles in the water and superb displays on camaraderie and sportsmanship amongst the teams.
Gizzy had delivered five straight pumping days, and in between heats the teams would also disperse to sample other waves around the region, returning with tales of being blown out of pits. And that's the true reward of events like this, those involved get to develop their skills as people, be a part of a team and the values that brings, improve and test their surfing by way of competition and at the same time get to experience another part of the country’s surf. There isn’t anywhere in the country at this time of year that could deliver such a fine run of conditions, and for the third year running parents were also running off to real estate offices looking to get in on a piece of Gizzy love.
But on the fourth day, as expected and forecast, that run came to a grinding halt with a savage southerly whipping in off the Pacific. Temperatures plummeted and the ocean was whipped into a mess by the onshore. Yet Makorori’s ‘Red Bus’ surf break actually delivered some contestable waves despite the horrid day. Then as this part of the country does at this time of year, the final penultimate day dawned clear, sunny and groomed offshore lines marched through Poverty Bay where they met the sand bottom reefs of ‘Red Bus’ for the exciting and entertaining 2017 Finals. There were some epic neck and neck see-sawing battles, where the lead changed over and over and where it basically came down to who rode a wave last before the hooter sounded, then in other finals one surfer dominated from the get go and never looked back. But throughout the event, as across the finals, it was encouraging to see the many years ahead for this sport in this country will be well represented, just like the 28 years previous.
A week of team bonding, supporting one another and being coached by experienced mentors, and throw in pumping waves and you have the recipe for one epic week of grom froth that will in return develop the sport for years to come. The Canterbury team fly the flag at the waters edge.