Surfing on a wave of community support

It attracts some of the world’s best surfers to the shores of Newcastle at the end of each summer, but Surfest is more than just the city’s biggest sporting event – it’s also a celebration of community spirit.

People are often surprised when you mention that Surfest began its life as the world’s richest professional surfing event. Then known as the BHP Steel International, it was initiated by Newcastle City Council alderman John Manning and Jeff Parker, who believed the city could capitalise on its beautiful beaches and the success of local four-time world surfing champion Mark Richards to promote tourism in the area by hosting an international surfing contest.

A small committee was formed to drive the event featuring a strong contingent from the local surf community including Warren Smith, who remains the event’s organiser to this day, the late Robbie Wood, who acted as contest director for its first five years, and long-time NBN weatherman Nat Jeffery, who convinced the television station to come on board as its live broadcaster. It was launched in 1985 offering $100,000 in prize money, with steelmaking giant and Newcastle’s biggest employer, BHP, its major sponsor. The inaugural event was embraced by the local community, who flocked to Newcastle Beach in their thousands to see the legends of the surfing world battle it out on the waves in what was, at the time, the world’s richest surfing competition.

While it was later surpassed by other events on the world tour in terms of prize money, Surfest has remained rich in the community spirit that helped the fledgling competition evolve into Australia’s largest surfing festival.

“I like to think that Surfest is Newcastle’s event, it’s home grown, it’s run by locals and it’s something that I think everyone really loves to be a part of in some way. A lot of good people gravitate towards Surfest and I can’t really put a finger on why, I think it’s just a good community event with a lot of good people around it.”

Warren Smith, Surfest Organizer

One of those good people, according to Smith, is local business banking manager Colin Law, who put forward an idea in 2015 to crowdfund the women’s side of the competition as it was struggling to attract a major sponsor and was at risk of no longer being run. Law became the driving force behind a world-first campaign that saw more than 70 local businesses purchase a $1500 ‘share’ in the women’s event, which not only allowed it to continue in 2016 but also return to its high ranking status as part of the World Surf League’s qualifying series. “All you’ve got to do is ask and people will come and help, you’ve just got to ask and Novocastrians are fantastic in helping,” Smith said. “It’s unbelievable, and it brings a tear to your eye sometimes when you sit back and think about it.”

Story Michelle Meehan, photography courtesy of Surfest; surfer image Paul Danovaro, images of Warren Smith, Doyle Partners, Mark Richards and Wendy Botha by Greg Meyer

Read more in the Autumn issue of Hunter&Coastal Lifestyle Magazine or subscribe here.