SURFEST Newcastle Australia originated in 1985 when Newcastle’s movers and shakers were desperately trying to rid the city of its grime-ridden industrial image and showcase the beauty of Newcastle’s beaches and surf breaks to people from outside of the region.
Those visionaries developed the BHP Steel International as Surfest’s first incarnation and the richest professional surfing event in the world at that time. Yes, that’s right – it was the richest professional surfing competition on the planet.
In more than three decades since those heady days, Surfest has since become Australia’s largest surfing festival. The 33rd Surfest (there was no event in 1991 due to the reorganisation of the professional surfing tour) in 2018 will host 12 different surfing events attracting more than 700 surfers from around two dozen countries competing to get their names etched into the record books.
Surfest has always attracted the world’s best surfers because of the city’s unique hospitality along with a distinct February possibility of north-easterly swells coming in from either cyclonic activity in the Coral Sea or from low depressions sending southerly swells up through ‘pinball alley’ – the oceanic area between Tasmania and New Zealand.
Crowned a national surfing reserve in 2009, Merewether really lights up when southerly swells fanned by north-west winds barrel through from third reef, providing rides where a surfer’s ability can be fully tested. Those fabled right-handers were the training grounds for the likes of Mark Richards, Luke Egan, Matt Hoy, Simon Law and Nicky Wood and where they developed the talents that enabled them to mix it with the best in the world. Recent improvements to the area include terrific seating arrangements for those wanting to get a close-up look at the action.
The fabled right-handers that peel down the rock and sand bottom off Merewether beach attract both competitors and spectators. It’s at Merewether that the competition’s patron Mark Richards honed the dance that would see him win four world titles – more than any other male competitor in the world, except for the ‘Floridian freak’ and 11-time world champion Kelly Slater (who, incidentally, claimed a Surfest crown in 2004). MR – or the mayor of Merewether as locals admiringly refer to him – was named at Surfing Australia’s 50th anniversary as the most influential Australian surfer from 1963-2013.
Until 2006, Surfest set up its HQ at Newcastle beach, but moved permanently to the loved, iconic and revered Merewether beach in 2007. In 2009, Merewether was crowned as one of Australia’s national surfing reserves. On final’s day in 2006, due to massive southerly swells smashing into the eastern seaboard, the event shifted to Merewether. More than 10,000 people rocked up to check out the action during the finals dished up on Super Surfest Sunday. It was pure magic –the natural elements fired and the planets aligned and it was then that organisers decided to relocate the event’s HQ permanently.
Such a decision was not without a bit of argy-bargy, but the stretch of ocean from Merewether to the Cliff has proven a reliable swell magnet even when there is little commotion in the ocean. Surfest also has the ability to pack up and go mobile, as it did when it made the history books back in 2013 when it became the first pro-surfing event in the world to run inside a harbour. When a massive low-pressure system saw the stretch breaking out-of-control, reigning world champ Joel Parkinson showed his utter class by dropping into two-metre barrels inside the entrance to Newcastle Harbour. If you missed it, do yourself a favour and check out that incredible action on YouTube.
The jewels in the 2018 Surfest crown are two World Tour Six-Star events – the men’s Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota Pro and the crowdfunded Surfest Women’s Pro. In a world first in 2016, 73 contributions of at least $1650 by businesses in the Newcastle region saw the 2016 Surfest crowd-surf its way to securing many of the best female surfers on the planet. The prize on offer to the winning sponsor was naming rights to the event – and that great reward went to Newcastle accounting firm, Taggart Business Advisors. It was their company name that was drawn from a barrel by 2009 Surfest women’s champion Philippa Anderson. Hunter-based health fund nib has backed the junior event this year and the nib Pro Junior for both male and female surfers will run at Merewether beach from 19-25 February.
The 2016 Surfest Women’s Pro was crowdfunded with 85 shares at $1650 + GST on offer. A large number of 2016 crowdfunding participants returned for the 2017 event. Surfest created history again in 2017 with another crowdfunded WSL Women’s 6000 event – The Anditi Women’s Pro.
In 2018 Newcastle is one of the first stops on the World Surf League’s Australasian leg of the international men’s and women’s professional surfing tour calendar. The Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota Pro and the crowdfunded Women’s Pro will attract over 300 professional surfers from countries including Australia, the United States, Hawaii, Brazil, Japan, South Africa, Tahiti, New Zealand, France and western Europe.
But it’s not just all about the pro-surfers. What separates Surfest from many other professional surfing events is the emphasis placed upon community and grass roots surfing competition. In the past few years, Surfest has stretched its wings to run events in all three local government areas that cover the Hunter coastline – Newcastle, Port Stephens and Lake Macquarie.
The Orica Team Challenge is expected to draw around 100 of the state’s most competitive surfers from along the coastline of NSW. Now in its fifth year, the Orica Team Challenge will be hosted by Northside Boardriders club at North Stockton beach and will run from Saturday 3rd February – Sunday 4th February. With a $10,000 purse up for grabs. Organisers are expecting approximately 20 teams to take part in the Orica Team Challenge’s unique format.
The Wandiyali ATSI Indigenous Classic 2018 will offer the nation’s biggest purse for indigenous surfers. Aboriginal surfers from as far away as Western Australia hone in on Merewether to renew friendships and try and take home some of the $20,000 on offer. Indigenous surfers have always been welcome at Surfest and Wandiyali’s commitment through the provision of such attractive prize money cements a connection stretching back around two decades.
Surfest has always been conscious of ensuring the involvement of today’s kids who will be tomorrow’s champions. For that reason, opportunities for youngsters are weaved throughout the event. The much anticipated Sanbah Cadet Cup for 14 year old and 16 year old boys and the Dalton Lawyers Cadet under 16 years girls contest are the peak of our engagement with promising young male and female surfers. These professional contests will see some of the very best young surfers in Australia, with a sprinkling of international competitors compete in Newcastle.
In addition the Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota High Schools Team Challenge sees high schools teams form more than 50 metropolitan and regional high schools throughout the state come to Newcastle for the biggest high schools surfing event in NSW.
And what of the Surfest champions? The list of those who have stood atop the Surfest dais reads like a Who’s Who of world surfing champions. Gold Coaster Mick Fanning might be a three-time world champion, but he has also won Surfest on three occasions. Goofy-foot powerhouse Occy has won twice (with a 12 year gap between trophies), as has Tom Carroll. Women champs include Stephanie Gilmore and Sally Fitzgibbons, while Rebecca Woods and Pam Burridge match Fanning’s effort with three trophies each adorning their shelves.
Surfest organisers think that the event is more than a great surf competition – it is a celebration of a city and its people and their special relationship with Australian beach culture. Most of all Surfest organisers are thrilled that they can provide the people of Newcastle and the rest of the world – through an event webcast – with the opportunity to see how this former engine room for steel production has reinvented itself to host surfers to non-stop surfing action in one of Australia’s most beautiful cities.
Surfest Newcastle Australia is backed by major sponsors Destination NSW and Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota. Kim Burton from Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota has invested more than $1.3 million in sponsorship in a relationship with the event stretching back 17 years. Logistically, with the event largely reliant on the ongoing commitment and contribution of volunteers, every Surfest remains a big challenge. But it’s a challenge that Newcastle, a city renowned for giving people a shot and encapsulating the Australian ethos of a fair go – would not have it any other way.
Surfest Newcastle Australia 2018 gets underway with The Lake Mac Festival of Surfing at Redhead Beach on January 20, 2018 and will conclude on February 25, 2018 at Merewether Beach following the crowning of the Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota Pro and the Surfest Women’s Pro champions.