Nick Carroll: Has COVID Exposed Competition’s True Place in Surfing?

29 Jun 2020 7 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Photo: WSL/Poullenot

Photo: WSL/Poullenot

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL
The Plague retreats, part two in a series

WHO CARES WINS?

Last weekend — in Portugal of all places — an extraordinary thing happened. They held a surf contest.

The contest was called the Allianz Figueira Pro and it was leg number one of Portugal’s five event national championships, a thing they call the MEO Surf League. (Won in da Foz’s fun beachies by Teresa Bonvalot and Frederico Morais, just so ya know.)

SEE ALSO – Nick Carroll: Are We on the Edge of a New Era in Surf Environmentalism? Thanks to Some Dumb Virus?

You’d never have heard about this event except for the fact that as far as I can tell, it was the first live surfing competition since the Aussie boardriders’ March club pointscore rounds.

For three months, surf culture — that is you, me, and every surfer we know — has been in the midst of a completely inadvertent experiment.

Thanks to the COVID, organised surfing everywhere has been flat on its back. Competition has ceased to exist. Surfing events generally have ceased to exist. Not just a little bit, but totally. This has never happened before in the modern history of the sport.

Yet at the same time, actual surfing, the plain old activity, has blown up almost as never before.

Right now we’re almost three months into the biggest sustained boom in surfing numbers since around 1991 — the last time Australia was in recession.

The boom is not confined to our little patch of the world, by the way, it’s pretty much global. It doesn’t seem to matter whether or not surfing was put on hold by the virus or not. If it was, like in parts of the US and Europe, then when beaches were re-opened, people charged in like baby turtles in hatching season.

If it wasn’t, like here, people just kept piling in. Surfboard makers like JS who, fearing the worst, had initially closed up shop, were forced to re-open, then to take on new staff to meet crazy floods of off-season orders. The crew at Onboard Mona Vale were stunned. “We stopped production,” one of them told me, “then everyone came in here with Scomo’s cheque.”

Wetsuit sales reached historic highs. Rip Curl, whose sales records go back to 1969, broke them all — the records, that is.

In this boom-a-rama, surf organisations have largely struggled to find a place. Smaller ones seem to have done better than big ones. Boardriding clubs in southwest WA were able to seriously influence the key debate over how to keep people surfing through the lockdown. Surfing NSW played a real role in the re-opening of Randwick Council’s beaches, after Maroubra and co were closed in a sketchy response to Bondi’s hectic late March overcrowding. Maroubra’s re-opening led directly to Bondi’s re-opening, and a return to sanity around the issue.

That was something. But in general, when it came to assisting the surf communities of Australia through this very weird time, the Surfings, state and national, could only fall back on advice listicles, published on their websites — you know, don’t surf in crowds, social distance, all that. If you’ve been surfing anywhere in Australia over the past coupla months, you will know what effect that had.


WE’RE ALMOST THREE MONTHS INTO THE BIGGEST SUSTAINED BOOM IN SURFING NUMBERS SINCE AROUND 1991 — THE LAST TIME AUSTRALIA WAS IN RECESSION.


It was a big tell about how much these organisations — and the surf communities of Australia — have changed in the past coupla decades. In mid-2018, in one of the quietly great insights of recent times, ex-Surfing Australia head Andrew Stark told CW in a post-SA interview: “I turn associations into businesses.” Starky’s efforts on that score drove the nation’s surf organisations into financial self-sufficiency, a vital change. It’s why they’ve largely become event managers — that’s how you make money.

Yet it also unlocked them from their once deep contact with those communities…and when the event-manager business model collapsed so utterly unexpectedly during COVID, they were stranded.

All those people charging into the water over the past three months don’t even know they exist.

Further up the chain, it’s even heavier.

The International Surfing Association, cock-a-hoop six months ago with the first surfing Olympics hovering in the middle distance, has had to fall back on a rescue package from the International Olympic Committee, presumably part of the $400,000 the ISA was slated to receive from the IOC in the wake of Tokyo 2020. All the ISA’s events for this year have been cancelled, including their once critical pre-Olympic qualifier in El Salvador.

The World Surf League, man, it’s suspended in mid-air. They haven’t been exactly idle. For the past three months, the WSL brains-trust has been hard at work trying to set in place a whole new world tour set-up.* The surfers are split on it. The events, they’d just like to run, whatever the set-up.

But right now, it seems almost academic. With the US in a dreadful state and international travel receding into the distance, professional sports that try to skim past the hard facts of the COVID end up humiliated. For an example, you don’t need to go further than world tennis number one Novak Djokovic, who promoted a pro tennis mini-tour in the Balkan states and invited international pros to join; he’s now got the ‘rona, along with his pregnant wife.

And surely it must be clear now to the WSL, after three months of replays, that if there’s no events, there’s no WSL.

Local and regional surf competitions will resume soon. Boardriders clubs around Australia will be prepping for next weekend and a resumption of “community sport”, ie monthly pointscores, BBQs, all that. The various Surfings are already scheduling events for August and beyond.


SURELY IT MUST BE CLEAR NOW TO THE WSL, AFTER THREE MONTHS OF REPLAYS, THAT IF THERE’S NO EVENTS, THERE’S NO WSL.


But there won’t be world pro surfing champions in 2020. What if there can’t be in 2021?

Now if you’re not a fan of competition in surfing, this may be causing you some schadenfreude. I dunno if I would rush in on that score, because there’s another lesson here.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve read and heard from disgruntled surfers of a certain age that pro surfing’s greatest evil is its promotion of surfing — that it encourages people into the sport, causing crowds and all the rest of it, thus destroying all our dreams.

Well I reckon the past few months is devastating proof to the contrary.

Maybe this is the biggest point of COVID as far as surfing’s concerned.

On the one hand, a massive numbers boom — on the other, an utter cessation of surfing competition. How do these two things match up? They can’t, unless you accept a fundamental fact about surfing’s true appeal, about what people hope for when they paddle out.

Competition has played a fascinating part in the evolution of surfing. Once, it was a way for the tiny tendrils of a barely formed surf culture to reach out and make contact; a meeting place of a kind. That’s why they used to call Bells a “rally”.

Then it became all sorts of other things. And it probably will again. Normal transmission will resume, eventually.

But it’s not why people surf.

*We’ll get to this, don’t worry.

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