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Crowd Surfing

After being forced to cancel Surfest in 2021 due to Covid impacts, the iconic Newcastle surfing competition will make its triumphant return this summer bringing with it a new wave of talent buoyed by an unshakable community spirit. Surfest coordinator, Warren Smith, talks to Swell about Surfest 2022 and the entirely crowd-funded Women’s Pro event.
Surfest

Since 1985, Surfest has been a fixture of the Newcastle surfing scene. With humble beginnings at Newcastle Beach, Surfest has grown considerably over the past three decades to become the largest surfing festival in the southern hemisphere. In previous (non-Covid) years, it generally attracts upwards of eight hundred international and national surfers.

Sitting pretty under the Surfest beach umbrella are nine individual surfing events staged for every spectrum of the sport including amateurs, cadets, high-school students, indigenous, and of course professionals. Making the most of the region’s pristine beaches, these events are spread over several months and three local government areas including Newcastle, Lake Macquarie and Port Stephens.

With humble beginnings at Newcastle Beach, Surfest has grown considerably over the past three decades to become the largest surfing festival in the southern hemisphere.

While Covid restrictions meant the 2021 festival had to be cancelled, the 36th Surfest event will return to the region’s shores in December 2021 beginning with the Lake Macquarie City Pro Junior wild card trials at Redhead Beach. With a month off in January, Surfest 2022 picks up again in February culminating with the main events – the Surfest Newcastle Pro presented by Burton Automotive and the Women’s Pro – which will be held at Merewether Beach from March 28–April 3.

One of the jewels in the Surfest crown is the Women’s Pro event. The first Women’s Pro title was taken out by Wendy Botha back in 1985 and its most recent recipient went to West Australian surfer Bronte Macaulay in 2020.

Surfest
Surfest

Surfest coordinator, Warren Smith, is cautiously optimistic about Surfest 2022, even though planning an event, at a time like this, is something he says you have to have an A, B and even a C plan for. Mostly though, he’s looking forward to being able to warmly welcome everyone back.

“We’re looking at it as a celebration for the community for pulling together to get where we are now. We’re hoping we’re going to be able to have it back to a normal – before Covid – situation, where people can come to their beach and watch these surfers and enjoy what Surfest is all about,” says Warren.

Warren says participation in the Women’s Pro has risen over the years along with the level of interest, the level of surfing and the overall level of professionalism shown by current competitors… not only for the way they present themselves as ambassadors for their sponsors, but also for the sport.

One of the jewels in the Surfest crown is the Women’s Pro event. The first Women’s Pro title was taken out by Wendy Botha back in 1985 and its most recent recipient went to West Australian surfer Bronte Macaulay in 2020. Warren says participation in the Women’s Pro has risen over the years along with the level of interest, the level of surfing and the overall level of professionalism shown by current competitors.

“It has changed significantly from the early days… when it was a free ride and the competitors just got their money and went on to the next place… to now. They’re fantastic – not only for the way they present themselves as ambassadors for their sponsors, but also for the sport. I’ve seen a maturity creep in and take over so it has become the accepted way these young athletes present themselves; both male and female,” says Warren.

This shelf-life Warren refers to meant the Women’s Pro actually didn’t take place from 1999–2002 because there simply weren’t enough sponsors to be able to present the event.

Surfest
Surfest

In 2020 the Women’s Pro made waves for providing equal prize money to both male and female surfers – a position that will remain unchanged for 2022. However, Warren says this wasn’t actually the first time Surfest has provided equal prize money.

“We were the first event to give equal prize money to the male and females and it was in the Pro Junior event. We did that two years beforehand,” explains Warren.

Yet despite the increasing interest in the Women’s Pro, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the event, particularly when it comes to sponsorship.

“Like any event that’s had a thirty-five-year history, we’ve had ups and downs. All sponsorships have a shelf life, and especially when you’re up into a naming rights level where you’re talking six figure amounts,” says Warren.

This shelf-life Warren refers to meant the Women’s Pro actually didn’t take place from 1999–2002 because there simply weren’t enough sponsors to be able to present the event. It commenced again in 2003 with Nathan Tinkler taking over sponsorship for a number of years before Kim Burton of Burton Automotive once again became the sponsor for a period of time.

It wasn’t until local bank manager, Colin Law, developed a unique crowdfunding model that sponsorship of the Women’s Pro finally found itself on solid ground again. Colin’s strategy, which sees local businesses sponsor a surfer in the event, was successfully implemented for Surfest 2015 and has been in place ever since.

“He put together such a good model that was so well received by the community, and I think the community just wanted to get in and support women’s surfing and women’s sport. It’s been such a successful model that we’re still using it now, with more crowd-funders than when we first started. It’s just been fantastic,” says Warren.

Each sponsorship contribution in 2022 will be $1850 which covers the event’s prize money, sanction fees and the entire infrastructure to run the event. In addition to sponsoring an individual surfer there is also an event held in December where the names of all sponsors are put into a barrel and the lucky business that is drawn wins the naming rights to the Women’s Pro. Cash prizes are also given to businesses whose surfer places in one of the top four positions.

Surfest
Surfest

With international travel still looking uncertain, the number of competitors in the Women’s Pro will be reduced from ninety-six in 2020 to approximately eighty in 2022. As a result, Surfest will be limiting sponsorship to a maximum of eighty local businesses.

Warren says the success of the Women’s Pro crowdfunding scheme comes down to two things: Colin Law and passionate Novocastrian businesses. Warren describes the crowdfunding committee as very energetic and acknowledges the event just wouldn’t happen without the support of local sponsors.

“They do it for the community, for the love of the sport or to support women’s surfing. They do it for whatever their reason, but without that, we can’t put the event on. So an immense thank you goes to them.”

In speaking to local Surfest competitors, Elle Clayton-Brown from Port Stephens and Amelie Bourke from Merewether, there is a shared sense of gratitude towards the community for Surfest and the Women’s Pro.

Elle remarked, “Seeing some of the best surfers near your hometown is pretty special and it has definitely inspired me and driven me. When Surfest is on I feel so supported by the local community. Surfest has been a massive stepping-stone in developing my surfing career and I’m so grateful for the opportunities that Warren and the Surfest crew have given me.”

Surfest, and in particular the Women’s Pro, has inspired me to become a competitive surfer because I was able to grow up watching my idols compete at my local break,” says Amelie.

“I have been lucky enough to see the progression of women’s surfing evolve which has inspired me to continue to push this progression.”

So while it may not be possible to predict the surf conditions and swells for Surfest 2022, one thing seems crystal clear. With the unwavering community support behind this iconic Newcastle event, Surfest will be around to encourage many more surfers for years to come.

Elle remarked, “Seeing some of the best surfers near your hometown is pretty special and it has definitely inspired me and driven me. When Surfest is on I feel so supported by the local community.”

Surfest
Words: Emily McGrorey | Images: Darren Anderson, Chris Patterson and Paul Danovaro courtesy of Hannan Photography Archive, Special Collections, University of Newcastle.

As seen in Swell Issue 12. Grab your copy here

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