The 5 Most Classic Moments in the History of Surfest

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The scandals, the performances, the waves and the history of Surfest

Surfest, that legendary surfing competition held every year in the once-scuzzy-but-now-less-scuzzy coal mining city of Newcastle, is officially a wrap. And with its conclusion comes a new crop of future champions, a wealth of tall tales to tell and a renewed appreciation for an event that’s now in its 34th year.

Sally Fitzgibbons (AUS) and Alex Ribiero (BRA) claim victory at the 34th annual Newcastle Surfest. Photo: Surfest

But Surfest wasn’t always a beacon for international competitors, nor was it founded in tandem with the wine and music festivals that now accompany it. In fact, Surfest was initially formed in response to Newcastle’s need for a change of image – from one that was fixed to a rough and tumble coal mining reputation into one where the city’s beaches became its major attraction.

With this goal in mind, local pundits got together and organised the BHP Steel International held in 1985 – a competition that at the time was the richest in the world. The BHP International signalled the birth of Surfest as we know it today and kicked off a two-decade-long process of gentrification and regeneration throughout the city.

Surfest in 1996. Photo: Hannan Archive, University of Newcastle

Since those heady days, Surfest as evolved into an iconic event for the region, supporting the tourism and events industry in Newcastle. It has also become a proving ground for some of the best young talent from around the world, with 2019 seeing surfers from 29 different countries competing in its main events and more than 700 enrolled across all divisions.

Top dog of Rad Season, Oli Russell-Cowan, managed to catch up with Warren Smith and some of the other head honchos at Surfest this year and had this to say.

“It was amazing catching up with Warren Smith and the other Surfest founders, Warren, Glen and Dave, at this year’s 34th Surfest at Merewether Beach. The stories that came up during our chat were unbelievable. There’s so much history to surfing in Newcastle and Surfest has been the pinnacle event in the region for over 30 years.” 

So, to celebrate the success and the history of Surfest and put an exclamation mark on its 34th year, we’ve decided to share some of the founding members five most classic moments from what is now the largest surfing festival in the southern hemisphere in an article that we hope the unofficial mayor of Newcastle, Mark Richards, would be proud of.

1. Massive Swell Maxes out Newcastle Beach

Massive swells battered the coastline in February of 2013 and rendered much of Newcastle’s exposed coastline unsurfable.

In what is a subtle twist of irony though, the event was then moved to Newcastle’s Harbour, which is ground zero for the city’s coal activities… the same ones Surfest originally served to divert attention away from.

There were barrels aplenty at the 2013 Surfest in Newcastle Harbour. Photo: WSL

For those of you unfamiliar with the intricacies of Newcastle Harbour, it breaks every now and then and can deliver some fun waves. When the swell is maxing out everywhere else though, it turns on and breaks more like a heaving reef slab.

The only difference is that instead of hitting coral if you fall you’ll be more likely to land on rusted metal. Either way you’re going to hurt.

This decision to move the event means it became the first professional surfing event to run in a harbour. It also resulted in big names such as Joel Parkinson and Sally Fitzgibbons getting barrelled of their tanned melons in some seriously epic conditions.

2. Playboy Model Wins After the Worst Interference Call Ever

An interference is called when a surfer hinders another surfer’s ability to maximise their scoring potential while riding a wave under priority.

This can result in the offending surfer having only one score count in their two-wave total, a fine in extreme cases and more often than not some very entertaining tantrums.

Pam Burridge and Wendy Botha all smiles on the podium. Photo: Newcastle Star

Interference calls are often very controversial, as was the case at the inaugural Surfest event in 1985 when Wendy Botha (who once bared a bit of skin in Playboy) and Pam Burridge both took off on a wave together.

The hullabaloo of this may not be so clear as we sit here now, but for all those watching on the beach, the interference call caused something of an outrage.

The reason being that both surfers were more than half a kilometre apart, which practically makes any type of interference impossible.

A good case for testing the eyesight of all judges if we’ve ever seen one.

3. Expression Session Turns into Battle of the Sexes

Surfest in 2004 saw the Energy Australia Open held in contestable conditions at Newcastle beach.

In addition to its main event, organisers also scheduled an expression session to run before the finals giving surfers a chance to showcase their skills with nothing on the line except pride in a more relaxed competitive environment.

The whole easygoing appeal of the session, however, was quickly swept aside when it was announced that world number ones Andy Irons and Layne Beachley would be competing against each other.

Andy took his expression session heat against Layne seriously. Layne, however, was a little more relaxed. Photo: WSL

Now for the competitors and the crowd, this was largely interpreted as being somewhat of a PR stunt. What elevated it from a simple homage to the sport of surfing into an all-out battle though was Iron telling the press that he believes women can’t surf as well as men and that they should be earning vastly less in tournament prize money and sponsorship deals.

This kicked off a media frenzy with Layne making it clear that her participation in the event was not intended to undermine the men’s contest and that she would be happy just to make it through the heat.

Irons, after all, was and is the sport’s most lethal competitor and definitely not someone who would react well at being beaten by his female counterpart.

Luckily for him the result went in his favour and the history of Surfest had another rich chapter, albeit one with a bit of misogyny.

4. Man Dies Three Times Before His Heat

Some people are born with good luck while others seem to suffer misfortune at every turn. Ex-pro surfer Matthew Coogan, however, seems to be in a category all on his own though after a misadventure at the Newcastle Surfest some years ago.

The story takes place on a clear day at Merewether right before a heat between Coogan and fellow competitor Pierre Toski. Reports are hazy as to the exact details but apparently conditions were almost perfect, however, there had been a single menacing cloud hanging over the contest site, barely big enough to warrant any consideration.

As the hooter sounded for the start of their heat, Coogan and Toski took off down the beach. Just before they hit the sand though, a bolt of lightning struck Coogan in the back of the head.

Coogan went down hard and died three times before paramedics from the Newcastle Hospital manage to revive him with the paddles.

Coogan soon recovered but never did get to surf his heat. To top it all off, the poor bloke was hit by a double-decker bus only a few weeks after his brush with Zeus.

The real kicker though?

He’s still alive and still turning up to Surfest events to watch his daughter compete.

Wearing gumboots we’re sure.

5. Best Surfers in the World Don’t Read Rule Books

An interference call at the 2014 Surfest Burton Toyota Pro against Tommy Whitaker in his finals heat shattered all chances he had of winning the event and gifted a victory to West Australian surfer Dion Atkinson.

Whitaker reportedly said he didn’t see Atkinson and was too focused on catching the wave – a mistake Atkinson was more than happy for him to make, given that it allowed him to claim his first ASP win after only ever finishing in second place in ASP events.

“Me? Interference? Never!” Photo: MarkYourWaves Surf

Taj Burrow, who was the hot favourite to win at the time, was also hit with an interference call and lost his second scoring ride, handing the heat to underdog Lincoln Taylor in the process and proving pro surfers really don’t check to see who’s on the inside before taking off… even in competition.

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Lachlan Campbell

Lachlan is a freelance copywriter from Australia who loves travelling the world writing and surfing. Based in Portugal, he spends most of his time scouring the coast looking for a decent wave, that is unless he’s in the home office creating content for major companies such as Wrangler, DAVIDOFF or Heineken. Lac also manages his own blog, The Barefoot Vagabond, which provides freelancers who share his passion for surfing with humorous and sometimes useful advice.

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