HEALTH 2000 NATIONAL SURFING CHAMPIONSHIPS, GISBORNE
Returning to Gisborne for the 16th time in the illustrious history of the National Surfing Champs which first kicked off back in 1963, there was a little nervousness in
the air. The East Coast had been relatively lake like for 3 weeks leading up to the Nats and although Gizzy, open to swells from the North to the South-west, those consistent offerings from the south had all but dried up. But like clockwork as the weeklong event approached so did the swell and not only did it look like swell all week, but it even appeared as if it would max out for the first couple of days meaning somewhere unique may have to be used.
Since 1985 NZ Surf Mag photographers and editors have made the annual pilgrimage to the Nationals wherever they may be, and from the first blare of the hooter at 8AM on day 1 until that Open title trophy is hoisted into the air seven days later, we are there on the beach from dawn till dusk, focussed on the action, the controversies, the personal triumphs, the failures, and the tears that may fall. Every year there are pivotal moments and stories that occur in the challenge for these 29 titles contested by over 300 surfers.
The Surf - With a huge southerly swell pumping in fanned by brisk offshore winds, the scouts were dispersed at first light to find the best location for competition. Days prior local experts called the place to be was Gizzy Pipe, but as Pipe is most often overlooked in favour of more name spots, it is often held in regard and the last option. Yet in conditions like this Pipe can often end up the place to be. At first when it was announced Pipe was the venue to kick start the 2018 National
Champs, many thought it was some sort of prank, until they rolled up and laid eyes on the lineup themselves.
What Pipe offered that other locations wouldn’t in these conditions was a defined paddle out spot where two refracting currents create a channel making it possible to get out in almost any conditions. And while the open coastline was badly affected by mid-morning by the strong sea breezes, Pipe remained offshore turning to glassy later in the day. For two days Pipe delivered and on day 2 when conditions were forecast to decrease the swell doubled and spectators lined the shores marvelling at the outer reef cloud breaks that were bombing and then swinging onto the bank at Pipe. There were some incredible waves seen and a fair few ridden. Conditions were such for a contest that many senior legends of the sport that have been present or witnessed National Championships surfed for 40 years plus were calling for the premier division the Open Men’s to be completed in these type waves. This is a weeklong tournament however and in the interests of attempting to give every division a fair go in decent surf it can’t be all about the Open.
For the remainder of the week the contest moved to Red Bus at Makorori which delivered epic contestable waves for the remainder of the contest, the bank offered short rights and long peeling mechanical lefts through all tides. Ironically when we mention how the Open Men’s tend to get the cream of the conditions, it was this very push in scheduling to give other divisions a go that lead to the demise in several of our top surfers. From our point of view this was the only decision by contest organisers that
indeed offered unfair conditions. All morning the bank offered up 2-3 foot walls in both directions but by the time the Open quarters paddled out, the sea breeze had kicked in and the tide was nearing full meaning all they had to work with was 1 foot mush with no form whatsoever. One point that was raised that holds substance was that these conditions were still better than lot of WQS contests which our international surfers must work with, yet when one wave peels through and the next ten which all look the same fade out into a deep hole it simply became a matter of luck. First went 6X National Champ Billy Stairmand, Next 4X Champ and former WCT surfer Maz Quinn, along with Bobby Hansen and Taylor Hutchieson, the race for the Open Title had some been blown wide open and it was anyone’s for the taking from here on in.
The draw - Once the draw is released it offers a picture as to the potential match ups if the favourites do make their heats, what we had this year in the Open Men’s was a massively stacked side of the draw and a rather weaker side, without any disrespect to those surfers. What this meant is potentially we could have many of our top talents all meeting in the quarter finals and three of NZ’s top surfers all in one semi-final. How this occurred was driven by years of demand for accountability and transparency, rules were written and processes etched in stone. But when you have several of your top surfers competing overseas for years and having not competed that much in the nationals which previous results dictate your seeding, then even though everyone knows those surfers are the top dogs. To follow the rules which everyone requests, draws such as this will occur. Many surfers that ended up on the stacked side of the draw and were crying foul, calling it a set-up and so on, but Surfing NZ simply gave the people what they asked for.
Women’s Surfing - Female surfing has boomed in the last ten years and to be honest it is the females that have flown the flag for us internationally more so than the males in recent times with Paige Hareb and Ella Williams performing so creditably and there is also an un-precedented amount of our girls taking a shot at the World Qualifying Series. The surfing these women are doing is a pleasure to watch, and while the reality was that in the past, the beaches emptied and the ratings plummeted once women’s divisions took to the water, it is no longer the case and our very own women’s heats are intense and entertaining. However this year, driven by rumoured legal action, Surfing NZ opted to run the same divisions for the women as those offered to the male counterparts, despite the fact that in some of the senior women’s divisions only one female had entered. What this ultimately meant was that those females that paid their entry fee and pulled on a rash shirt, were already crowned National Champions and were Gold Medalists before they even paddled out! Five females paddled out for one heat and 5 champions were crowned, none of them were competing against each other or even themselves. The title was cemented by paying the entry. Now if we are to look up the definition of a championship the way surfing is run, it is a contest, where one or more competitors COMPETE against another to decide which individual is the champion.
So, we struggle to see where the competition was in these divisions at a National Championship during a surfing contest. As a whole the women’s surfing, even in these senior divisions, was an epic watch for the entire tournament and we applaude these ladies for their determination and efforts, and lets hope more females will enter in years to come but for now we struggle to see how this decision indeed helped the sport of women’s surfing.
The Fairytale - In 2013 Waihi Beach’s Levi Stewart was living the dream, his surfing had gone from strength to strength and he was picking up big results; sponsors were knocking on the door and he was attending the Raglan Surf Academy, everything a young competitive grom surfer dreams of achieving. Then during one foul swoop while competing in his last ever scholastics event at Piha Beach, Levi took a heavy wipeout out on the bar which saw him break his spine in two places. Levi’s world came crashing down when Doctors delivered the verdict that he may never be able to surf at a competitive level ever again. For a year Levi was simply battling with recovery and couldn’t even attempt to surf. Once he was confident that his injuries were rehabilitated enough Levi began to swim and had the odd surf on a longboard. For another year Levi battled with the fact that he would never get to surf again how he once did. He spiralled into deep depression and put on a lot of weight and he calls these years “the darkest of his life”. One day around eight months later he recalls waking up and thinking I’m sick of this shit, and he immediately set a goal to prove the doctors and critics wrong! He began training that every day, and day by day he improved his strength, his mobility and with that his state of mind. It was a long hard road and another year passed before Levi began to once again ride his shortboard, a few small local comps followed and the confidence returned. Levi trained his ass off everyday, building up muscle and strength to support his injury. On day 1 of the event Levi was out at first light tearing apart the big Pipe walls, onlookers were asking “who was that?” And after several more rounds of progression when he came up against 6X Champion Billy Stairmand along with his grommet-hood sparring partner Paul Morretti and took down the defending champ. Everyone from then on had the name Levi on their lips, learnt of his story and he took on the role of the ‘Peoples Champ’. Every heat Levi’s mum stood at the edge off the water and greeted him with a big cuddle when he paddled in, a celebration of milestones that for so many years seemed impossible. When Levi paddled out for the final of the Premier division, the beach was his! Sure, Ricardo was there along with Elliot two of our international campaigners with all the experience in the world, he was also sharing the final with this childhood bro Paul Morretti. After word got back to the Waihi Beach community a heap of his mates and other supporters had driven through the night to support their brother, and they lined the beach shoulder to shoulder. For years Levi had probably lived this moment in his dreams, he’d probably gone over this scene in his head thousands of times as he searched for motivation to overcome his obstacles, and with 15 minutes of the 25 minute final he was leading! The international experience of Ric and Elliot began to shine through in the dying minutes and Levi finished a career best 3rd, oh so close but at the same time oh so far from where he had come. From a grom who was told he’d never surf again, to a contender! We look forward to the many epic moments that will follow in your career mate.
A Rivalry - It’s been a long time since there was a heated rivalry and a bit of mongrel on display in a NZ contest, and it was great to witness! While four surfers took to the water in the Open Men’s final, two of them were locked in an intense battle; one experienced legend of NZ Surfing in Ricardo Christie and one young buck wanting to stamp his mark in Elliot Paerata-Reid. Intense rivalries create drama and great viewing and not since the mid 90’s and the battles of Daniel Kereopa and Damon Gunness has there truly been one of such proportions, think Andy and Kelly and you get the drift. While Ric has all the accolades and experience in his camp, the type that others respect and generally roll over in awe of, Elliot on the other hand was there to win and he wasn’t taking a backward step! The type of heat strategy that Elliot brings to the water is exactly what is missing from many of our international reps when they take on the world tour, being able to technically match the other surfer they often fall short when it comes to tactics and taking it to the other competitors. With two minutes remaining in the final Elliot was in the lead and Ric required a big score. Elliot held the inside position and wasn’t giving it up. Words were spoken, and the battle heated. With a minute remaining Elliott's supporters were beginning to raise their arms, while Ric’s supporters had their hands over their face. Then with 45 seconds remaining Ric sold Elliot into a wave that was nothing but a dud. Realising his mistake Elliot pulled out and somehow managed to get back onto the inside of Ric as he was committed to taking the next wave no matter what. The two stood up together with a small piece of whitewater separating them, Elliot pulled off in frustration and Ric went to work, having to leave everything he had on that wave. The crowd was silenced! Would the judges call an interference on Ric? (They had called them all week long for much less) or would Ric get the score he required? When the judges dropped a 9.67 that answered the questions. Ric with 22 seconds of the final remaining took the title, his second after becoming our youngest ever champion 13 years ago aged 16. An obviously unimpressed Elliot stood waiting at the water’s edge. More words were exchanged and then the two embraced each other in a man hug in respect for what just went down and it was left at the water’s edge. The mongrel was back and a new rivalry born, let’s hope we get to see a bit more of this out of our surfers. Ric got to thrust that trophy etched with history for his second time and Elliot went on to be awarded “The Most Outstanding Performance” an award reflective of his efforts over the week which he dedicated to a recent fallen friend and offered the words of recognition to Ric. “I was stoked to put on a good performance and have a good battle with the best surfer in New Zealand at the moment but obviously it is a tough pill to swallow, I made a mistake and if you don’t win you learn I guess”.
The last time Gizzy Pipe delivered waves like this was probably back in 2009 and the last time these type conditions coincided with a competition was around 1997. For two days Pipe simply pumped!
Elliot Paerata- Reid was one of the few competitors to be seen taking to the air during the champs.
The Champ invited the next generation to come and share the moment. TOP TO BOTTOM: Open Womens Champion Raiha Ensor is a silent assasin, she can plod along with a few low scores in a heat and then in one swift blow drop a 9.67 with a couple of huge turns, and that's exactly what she did to take the win.
6X National Champion Billy Stairmand came looking to defend and ad to his run, early form suggested he would be hard to stop, yet fell like many other top seeds to adverse full tide 1 foot onshore conditions.
The consistent left bank with the odd right delivered great contest waves for the entire week.
Keone Campbell is a big human and when it gets big and juicy his power surfing comes to the fore.
The heat of battle can take one into places they've never been before, Ric and Elliot settle their dispute man to man.