Surf festivals celebrate the very best of the sport’s exponents, allowing the general public a unique, first-hand perspective of the phenomenal levels of skill to which surfing has been taken. All eyes strain to the ocean, distinguishing competitors by their fluorescent rashies and marveling at their superhuman talent. Businesses pour sponsorship dollars into self-promotion, prize money and raising the profiles of their stable of athletes while groupies clamour like hungry gulls for signatures and snapshots.
This is the formula that was so vehemently stricken from the drawing board when Mike Jahn, Vanessa Thompson and James McMillan first began planning of the Byron Bay Surf Festival. The first glaringly obvious factor when you browse through the extensive list of the festival’s schedule is its almost complete lack of contests. In fact, waterborne activities are almost entirely absent, certainly in the vast minority, and are interspersed with art shows, music events, craft markets and workshops ranging from handplane making to pilates and yoga classes.
‘Surf Culture Now’ proclaims the festival’s colourful poster, and that is precisely what Byron Bay Surf Festival is all about. It isn’t ripping waves, point-scores, heats and buzzers. It’s about the life that we, the global tribe of surfers, immerse ourselves in no less fervently than in the ocean that brings us such pleasure.
Jahn, Thompson and McMillan have put a great deal of thought, not to mention countless hours of effort, energy and stress, into creating a consummate celebration of the diverse paradigm of surf culture. Bringing artists, craftsmen and women, surfers, musicians, educators, filmmakers and many more individuals together for the three-day event, the Byron Bay Surf Festival illuminates the town, from Watego’s Beach to Belongil, leaving barely a single venue unattended. Many local businesses are welcomed onto the band wagon, organising their own independent events to coincide with the festivities and the variety of activities, markets and crafts are such that even the most unsurfy types become caught up in the weekend’s stoke. It would almost be more appropriate to call it Byron Bay Festival of Oceanic Influence and Enjoyment.
The third annual Byron Bay Surf Festival has, as with its 2012 counterpart, swollen four-fold. That expansion has come in size and scale, the number of visitors and events, the renown and reputation, but most noticeably, it has come in its awareness and maturity. This was evident on many levels, from giving thanks and celebration to the local Arakwal people to talks on gender quality in surfing.
“I’ve been wanting to include the Arakwal and Bundjalung people for the last few of years but it never really happened,” says Jahn. “We are all passing through the land of the aboriginal people, so it is very important to acknowledge the ones who have looked after the lands and the ocean for a very long time. Newer generations have managed to destroy the environment very quickly, so it’s very important to bring people back to that sense of caretaking.”
A blustery and overcast Friday evening kept raindrops at bay long enough for the festival’s opening ceremony and presentation of the latest surf movie by Californian, Jason Baffa, Bella Vita, introduced by the film’s co stars, Lauren Hill and Dave Rastovich. Adelaide’s psychadelic rocksters, Wolf & Cub, blew the doors off the Beach Hotel, leaving none in any doubt that the festival had landed.
But this wasn’t a weekend directed to specific demographics. Jumping the gun by a day, local legend and linchpin in the evolution of surfing, Bob McTavish, proudly presented his latest literary documentation of surfing’s past, More Stoked. Incorporating art, craft and food market the length of Byron’s Main Beach, locals and visitors alike flooded the tipis, tents and stalls in the thousands, absorbing the history, diversity and camaraderie shared by all.
“We wanted to create more of a festival vibe and pull together the elements that were perhaps a little spread out in previous years,” says Jahn. “On Saturday, the aim at Main Beach was to create something very unique that Byron hasn’t seen before, to really convey the idea surf culture to people in one spot.”
As if to highlight the disparity between this and a more conventional surf festival, event co-founder James McMillan hosted a discussion at the Byron Community Centre entitled ‘State Of The Art’. Based on an essay in his 2005 book, Blue Yonder, McMillan invited Rusty Miller, Beau Young and Derek Hynde to reflect upon the oxymoron that is the commercialism of surfing, a subtle two-fingered salute to preconceptions and peers.
“Byron has always been a really good place [for such an event]” says long-time Byron resident, Rusty Miller. “We don’t have a Quiksilver Pro here, or anything similar, and we won’t.”
Affirming the strength of the festival’s independence of the more commercial genre, Derek Hynde reflected that “with a complete embrace of what people experience in this weekend, they can carry that message forth. If it’s just something to do for three days before returning to normality, then perhaps not so much, but if they are doing it for themselves and applying themselves – that’s what I’d like to think can happen from this.”
One of the largest celebrities of this year’s festival was Californian ex-pro surfer Keith Malloy, though his admirable humility would beg to differ. All too familiar with the circus of the professional competition scene, Malloy could be forgiven for showcasing a new-release, high performance shortboard film, complete with exorbitant budget through excessive sponsorship and a high-octane soundtrack to compliment. But, befitting the festival’s ethos, he brought with him instead Come Hell Or High Water, and its accompanying photo-book, Plight Of The Torpedo People. This duet of visual indulgence is completely surfboard-free, focussing on the entirely non-commercial discipline of bodysurfing.
“I came here to talk about bodysurfing and my book and I feel that fits right along with the festival because it offers so many alternative boards and crafts – it just seems like a real healthy take on surfing – and that goes hand in hand with bodysurfing. A lot of times, you go to festivals and things and all you want to do is get out of there, but for me, I’ve loved every aspect of this festival.”
The final day of the festival brought clear skies, the gentlest breath of an offshore wind and, unlike almost every single day of the two months leading up to the festival, perfect little sliders at the day’s venue of Watego’s Beach. It were as if some greater power had been listening, staving off the advancing weather systems, embracing the bay in protection for the event. Bodysurfers abound, tandem surfers impressed, Corona enhanced the ethos of camaraderie for the $1,000 Party Wave Invitational and Dave Rastovich embodied absolute stoke on the mighty board of kings, the 16-foot, solid timber, finless olo. Live music graced the airwaves, while all were invited into the ocean’s waves. This was not an elitist display of surfing prowess, there was no right or wrong craft or style or ability. This was the very definition of the aloha spirit, a union of all ages, genders and preferences, bound solely by a love of the ocean and the culture it inspires.
“This has probably been the best two days of my entire life” frothed eternal grommet, Tom Wegener. “Yesterday we were helping people make wooden bellyboards and today we’ve come down to the beach and I see all the boards that we made yesterday in the water.
“This not being a contest, the pressure’s off – you don’t need good surf – and I find that to be a really relaxing. It’s nice to not have to worry about showing up for a heat – I don’t want to surf in a heat, I want to share a beer with 200 of my best friends!”
And that is it in a nutshell: sharing a beer – or a wave – with friends. After all, isn’t that really what surfing’s about? Not heat scores or wave counts, who can get the biggest or best or most. It’s not about localism or surf rage – these things were never a part of why we first paddled out.
“The Byron Bay Surf Festival is definitely pointing the way for surfing to go,” says Wegener, “non-competition, all sorts of craft in the water and a lot of intellectual ability. A contest is a contest, with very nominal intellectual stimulation, but the Byron festival is full of it. We’re all talking about ideas, different projects, different board shapes, different events – there’s so much to it. There’s even an ecological side to it, using the wooden surfboards made from locally grown paulownia – it’s dynamic and exciting.”
While this aspect of surfing, this underlying richness to the global surf community, has always been and will always endure, to illuminate this within the parameters of a festival is an incredible feat, testament to the hard work, passion and love flooded upon the project by Jahn, Thompson and McMillan.
“Jack McCoy gave me some incredible feedback,” reports Jahn. “He said, ‘you guys have achieved something that’s very, very special and unique – you have given the aloha that you hold in your heart back to the community.’ He gave me a hug on Sunday and said, ‘this was the most amazing festival I’ve ever been to, don’t let them take it away from you.'”
– This article first appeared on Common Ground Australia on Nov 3, 2013
All Photos: ©SubCutanea