NOT THE POINT
THE BATTLE LINES ARE DRAWN AS THE WSL SETS ITS SIGHTS ON NORTH WEST WA.
Those of us who are fans of pro surfing want to see WCT events go down in glorious conditions – behind-the-rock drainers at Snapper, J-Bay with lines stretching to infinity and Teahupoo as a terrifying arena of folding concrete coils. We also like to see new locations introduced to challenge the surfers, spice up the viewing and give the commentators some different raw material to work with.
However, in addition to being pro surfing diehards, we all closely identify with a particular stretch of coastline. At our respective locals, the waves we ride, the sand or shelf we walk across, the car park or check-spot we banter in and the memories of the all-time days all give colour and meaning to our lives. The shared experience of such things binds us, instilling a sense of belonging and community. Each corner of coastline has its own set of unwritten rules, its unspoken understandings, its surfing folklore, its hierarchy and its powerful characters – some may say it’s tribal. However, whether we are from Bondi or Boomerang, Kirra or Kalbarri there are facets of our local surfing cultures that we would all like to protect.
These two facets of surfing – the wide sweeping gaze of the WSL and the nuanced values of a local surfing community are presently colliding on the north-west coast of Australia. It seems the conflict began when the WSL suggested they were seeking to add a high-quality left-hander to their WCT schedule and urged the administrators at Surfing WA to explore options on the north-west coast. Currently, the Margaret River Pro is scheduled to be held in late May of 2019, however it’s the final year in the event’s contract. While no one from the WSL will go on the record and say it directly, it’s apparent that Margarets has fallen foul as a WCT location for some within the organisation. For many, last year’s shark drama (and subsequent cancellation) only served to further exacerbate the feeling of indifference towards Margarets as a WCT location.
Conscious that the Margarets contract was due to expire in 2019 and justifiably fearful that they would lose the significant investment of funds and kudos that came with hosting a WSL event, representatives from surfing WA
set their sights on Kalbarri. The once-thriving cray fishing town is located almost 600km north of Perth and is home to Jake’s Point, a world-class left-hander. In their quest to secure a new WCT location the Surfing WA delegates had the full backing of Tourism WA (and therefore the WA state government) and, it seemed likely that Northampton Shire (Kalbarri’s Shire) would be eager to embrace the influx of funds associated with hosting an international surfing contest. A document was prepared, listing the Northhampton Shire as one of the potential major stakeholders in the event and outlining the economic benefits and in early August of 2018, Justin Majeks (Surfing WA Events manager) and Tim Thirsk (Business Development Manager) from Surfing WA travelled north to meet with shire representatives. The two surfing WA members also notified the Kalbarri Boardriders (KBR) of their intentions, a move that quickly prompted the KBR to adopt a unanimous stance against the proposal.
Responsibility as spokesperson quickly fell to the Kalbarri Boardriders (KBR) president, Kit Rayner. Kit is a 37-year-old father of two and former competitive surfer. He considers himself a pro surfing fan, counts many of the top pro surfers as friends, and is well known in the surfing fraternity as a likeable rogue with a sharp wit who loves a practical joke. Despite his pro surfing connections, Kit felt it was his obligation to reflect the sentiments of a local surfing community, which is comprised of second and third generation locals as well as families and individuals who had moved to Kalbarri more recently in search of a balanced surfing lifestyle.
“It’s not just a couple of salty old boys who are against it it’s the whole surfing community,” Kit told Tracks. An official statement from the KBR later stated that, “The surfers from Kalbarri are active members of the local community and are made up of local business owners, tourism operators, emergency
volunteers, nurses, fisherman, holiday accommodation owners, builders, farmers – just to name a few.”
Kit stresses that while the KBR boasts 100 core members, contest surfing has always been totally at odds with the ethos of the club and the local surf culture in Kalbarri. He outlined the local philosophy on contests in the official media release.
“There has never been a professional surfing contest at Jakes and through the years this laid-back way of life has been passed down from generations and we have come to accept that and embrace it. KBR don’t even have our own boardriders events at Jakes. Once a year KBR holds a Memorial Day at Jakes to remember our friends that have passed and this year we have had to cancel that – because we are dealing with this unwelcome issue.”
The biggest concern for the Kalbarri surfers is that a WCT event will upset the equilibrium of a wave and town that already plays host to a core group of dedicated locals and a regular supply of travelling surfers. “Ten guys out is probably average and 20 is crowded,” suggests Kit, who is quick to distance himself from allegations that the boardriders are ruthlessly territorial and opposed to the steady flow of tourism, which currently feeds the local economy.
“There’s too many people that just think we are selfish assholes and don’t want to share our wave. If anyone from around the world wants to roll into Gnaraloo or Kalbarri now, it’s a beautiful place and you can go and get a few little waves… If it gets to the point where it’s 50 people it will lose its appeal … it gets heavy and if there’s too many people out there, boards flying through the lip, it’s scary.”
The same sentiment was expressed in the official media statement released by the Kalbarri Boardriders in conjunction with the North West Surfer’s alliance. “Jakes Point cannot support a huge crowd and the proposal to hold a WSL event here is just too big and too soon for our little town. KBR feels we should have rights to ‘say no and be heard’ by our local Shire, the State Government and the SWA… If a place is special to your hearts and you live your life dedicated to this place, then a certain amount of respect has to be shown to
the people who do.”
Eager to take the initiative with enquiries into the potential environmental impact of a major contest, Kit also consulted Dr Indre Asmussen (B.Sc. First class honours, PhD (Ecology) to conduct a preliminary study. According to the media statement released the KBR, the research indicates that there would need to be a massive investment in infrastructure to make Kalbarri and Jakes viable as a WCT destination. The findings also suggested that existing tourist attractions like the Pink Lake are not equipped to deal with a massive influx of people. “It’s the social and environmental impacts that are the main concern,” suggests Rayner. “There are too many unknowns with it. They (the WSL) can promise the world … they just can’t promise what it’s going to be like after they leave…”
Thrust into a role where he must articulate the concerns of an outspoken group of local surfers, Rayner is not naïve about the priorities of local business groups. “In their eyes (local businesses) if you don’t surf why wouldn’t you want it to come?” he states matter-of-factly. The issue is again teased out in the official media statement. “We understand some local business owners are in favour of the event and we respect their reasons, however we resolutely believe they should also respect our reasons since this is a surfing event-activity and we are the local surfing community.”
Rayner’s fear is that the contest proposal will cause ongoing tension between surfers and non-surfers in a small town with an official population of just over 1500. “It’s just created a huge wedge in the town at the moment. We just need a decision to be made… – ‘Na, Not happening’ – so everyone can get over it and everyone can get back to their lives. Or if it was going to happen we’d hopefully just deal with it.” Rayner points out that while bigger power players like the WSL and Tourism WA entertain the idea of a contest, they don’t have to live in the town. “I’ll probably have to host a town hall meeting. Just so no one’s roasting the shit out of each other on social media. That’s the worst thing because you can see that the town is just tearing itself to shreds.”
If the Kalbarri surfing community find themselves in a proverbial David and Goliath battle against the WSL, the West Australian government, the Northampton Shire and Tourism WA their official ally in the debate is the National Surfing Reserves organisation, led by NSR founder, Brad Farmer.
Kalbarri received Surfing Reserve status back in 2010, a move endorsed by the state government, the Northampton Shire, the Kalbarri community and significantly the local Aboriginal Nunda elders. Of the 23 other locations in Australia that have Surfing Reserve status, several, including Bells and Snapper Rocks, play host to WCT events. So, how is Kalbarri different? According to the official position of the NSR there are a number of locations in Australia considered, “sacred ‘no- go zones’ for surfing contests, both by the local surfing community and the wider recreational surfing public. These include the NSR’s Point Sinclair (Cactus, South Australia) and Kalbarri (Western Australia), as well as places like Red Bluff and Gnarlaoo, both located in remote parts of Western Australia.”
The underlying message is that it is a function of the NSR to play an arbitrary role in helping to make choices about which locations are and are not suitable for surfing competitions. While listing a swathe of reasons why Kalbarri qualifies as a sacred, nogo zone for contests, Brad Farmer suggests that ultimately one core tenet of the NSR explains the NSR’s stance on Kalbarri. “NSR provide that surfers will have primacy in any decision that may (adversely) affect the surfing amenity or experience.”
It’s a line of argument which has won support from Wayne Lynch. For nearly half a century Lynch, a one-time teenage prodigy and successful competitor, has walked the thin line between sponsored rider and highly principled soul surfer. Lynch’s willingness to grapple with the competing forces at work in surfing has given a certain gravitas to his views on everything from surfboard design to the environment. “I still believe that a correctly functioning democracy means local people have the right to say yes or no to whatever the issues are that affect their community and environment,” he told Tracks in support of the stance adopted by the KBR
“IT’S NOT JUST A COUPLE OF SALTY OLD BOYS WHO ARE AGAINST IT, IT’S THE WHOLE SURFING COMMUNITY.” KIT RAYNER
and North West Surfers Alliance.
If Wayne Lynch has always maintained a somewhat indifferent attitude towards competition, Taj Burrow could not be accused of the same. In 18 years on tour Taj was twice runner-up in the world title race and claimed 12 ASP/WCT titles. However, despite surfing to the tune of a contest siren since he was a kid, Taj, who has spent his fair share of time on the North West coast of WA, is backing the Kalbarri surfing community in their fight against the WSL proposal. “I think Kalbarri should remain untouched by the WSL. Of course it would increase crowds. This topic just being in the media alone will increase crowds.”
While last year’s Margaret River event was marred by the shark drama and there have been rumblings of discontent with the event from some fans and surfers, Taj still argues that it’s a great setting for a WCT contest. “Margs, Box, North Point,” is insane he states, showing he’s lost none of his infectious enthusiasm since retiring from the tour.
The sentiments expressed by Taj are reiterated by Ian Cairns who suggests taking a more expansive view of WA’s south-west. “A more agile mobile event in the Margaret’s/ Yallingup area is a better call. Boodjidup to Three Bears. There’s hundreds of possibilities on a range of swell and wind condition.”
Cairns spent much of his youth roaming the North Coast of WA, and is familiar with the almost sacred role the region plays in West Australian surf culture. A trailblazer in the nascent, 1970s pro surfing scene, Cairns helped shape the format and model for pro surfing and was ultimately runner-up in the inaugural year of the IPS in 1976. By 1982 Cairns had launched a coup to overthrow the IPS and replace it with the ASP, where he held the role of executive director until 1986. Given his WA background and extensive involvement with pro surfing at all levels, Cairns is uniquely qualified to comment. “Surely adding the flexibility to include other waves in the Cowaramup area, Yallingup and Rabbit Hill would be a better option,” he argues. “Those areas are accepted as event locations and can be pulled off without massive protests and surely the WSL needs to be more attuned to the surfing world’s sensibilities.”
Cairns also suggests there are some rather practical reasons, beyond the politics, which make Kalbarri (Jakes Point) and Gnaraloo (Tombstones) far from ideal locations for a WCT event.
“Both Jakes and Tombstones are insane if the swell is pumping but there are few options if it’s small, which is often.”
The chorus of opposition to the WSL presence in the North West stretches a long way. The North West Surfers Alliance, the other association officially opposed to the contest initiative, includes surfers in an 800km stretch from Kalbarri to Exmouth. There has been some suggestion that if Kalbarri proves to be unsuitable as a WCT destination the WSL focus will shift to Gnaraloo. When the Rip Curl Search expressed an interest in hosting an event at
Gnaraloo back in 2009 the initiative was met with blunt opposition from local surfers and there is nothing to suggest attitudes have softened.
WA surfer and journalist Sean Murphy travelled to the North West to produce a segment for ABC’s ‘Landline’ shortly after the Gnaraloo initiative was squashed back in 2009/2010. Playing on the colloquial reference to the North West as the ‘Coral Coast’ Murphy instead dubbed it the ‘The Quarrel Coast,’ drawing attention to the fact that there were so many competing interests at play in the region. Asked if the WSL had a case for hosting an event at Gnaraloo, Murphy responds with the delicate diplomacy of an experienced journalist.
“In a perfect world wouldn’t it be fantastic to see two world class surfers going wave for wave at Gnaraloo, but the place has got an almost spiritual reputation and getting over that is perhaps a bridge too far.”
Meanwhile, the WSL have been less poetic with their language, preferring to stick to the formal rhetoric in relation to the Kalbarri initiative. When Andrew Stark (the recently minted WSL General Manager of Australasia and Oceania) was asked, in the context of Kalbarri, if the WSL have any official policy on hosting events at locations where there is strong opposition from local surfers he stated, “For any location we look at we will do extensive community consultation with the key stakeholders at the right time of the assessment process. I am referencing that to any event locations we look at anywhere.”
Similarly, while representatives from surfing WA were initially willing to talk more openly about their role and rationale for exploring alternate WA locations at the behest of the WSL, they ultimately withdrew their comments and issued the following statement.
“The current event agreement to stage the Margaret River Pro expires following the event in 2019 and discussions regarding future years are ongoing.
As you can appreciate, discussions around future events are of a commercial nature so we can’t share all the details with you but we can assure you that any future event will abide by the relevant local, State and Federal guidelines and will involve consultation with the relevant stakeholders at the appropriate time.
We want to achieve the best outcome for the sport in the State as well as one that will have benefits for tourism in WA.”
The rhetoric above may lack the passion of the staunch opponents from the North West, but it’s still apparent the WSL are not renouncing their interest in Kalbarri and Gnaraloo as potential locations for WCT events. Perhaps the waves will turn on for Margarets in 2019, the sharks will stay away (safety measures have been considerably ramped up according to Surfing WA) and everyone will be happy to see the contract extended. Reportedly, $6 million has been spent over the years to improve the contest site at Surfers Point, Margaret River, and, unlike the crew from the North West, the Margaret’s surfing community want to hold on to the event. However, if the Margaret River region is not embraced as an ongoing feature of the WCT calendar, then a small surfing community from north-west WA will be pitted against heavyweight corporate and government might, in its attempt to prove that some places are just too sacred for contests.
Main: Would the raw appeal of Jake’s Point be spoiled by a WCT event?
Main: The annual Memorial Day (pictured below) is the closest thing to a contest the Kalbarri Boadriders have ever had.
Main: The Kalbarri surfing community gathered on Jakes Point to make their sentiments clear to the WSL. Inset: Kalbarri Boardriders president, Kit Rayner, sampling some north-west juice.
Main: Shane Felsinger entombed at Gnaraloo.