David vs Rip Curl.

After reading the red-covered Revolution issue of SW which had an article on politics and surfing I read with great interest Neil Ridgways comments about the proposed Search event for Lennox Head where he claimed “It’s not the Last Chance for Lennox at all …….it’s hard to walk away from”.

The implication was clear and unmistakeable : Rip Curl believes they are bestowing an honour, giving the citizens of Lennox Head a truly rare opportunity to benefit from their Corporate munificence by holding a professional surfing contest there.

Of course there’s another side to this story, from the residents and surfers of the area.

 This is one such story; not a cold blooded dispassionate weighing of the pros and cons, such as would be required by a court of law or a chamber of commerce but a personal account from a life long surfer who lives and breathes surfing at Lennox Point. The reader will be the judge as to how this passion has clouded the writers judgement and set it against the aims and aspirations of a Global Surf Corporation.  The debate is an old one and the positions polarised, the writer hopes that maybe some in the middle might examine the issue with a less jaundiced eye and consider the wider ramifications………

The following story is true : the names are real and the conversations reported easily verifiable. I write this fully cognisant of the implications, legal and otherwise, which may accrue.

 Let the chips fall where they will. 

I choose to start the story on Feb 16 2008. It was the day of the ceremony to inaugurate the Lennox Surfing Reserve. 

There was a carnival atmosphere on the headland, a sense of proud accomplishment and joy, as well as a strong sense of unity and goodwill.

The summer had been dire so far, marred by floods which left a massive fishkill washed up on the banks of the river and beaches. Less than two months later a young surfer would bleed to death on the beach after a shark attack. The stench and decay had sent tourists packing and left locals weary and depressed. In my own house the death of an unborn child had left a black shadow of grief which lurked in every room and sat in the soul like a leaden weight. An unborn child’s death presents a shapeless phantom of grief, one which has no memory to attach to, so the mind searches for meaning; sometimes in the readings of certain natural events. A slowly circling eagle or a turtle bobbing it’s head closeby can feel desperately like the visitation of the unborn spirit.  I was spending long afternoons on the headland staring at the horizon trying to put the pieces together again.

The morning had dawned with heavy rain but by the time of the ceremony the skies had cleared and the feeling of relief was palpable : it felt like the worm had turned. In the thick red mud there were aboriginal dancers, speeches from Brocky, Rabbit and politicians. Michael Peterson sat in the shade of the tent with his mum and the crowd shared in the feeling that something special was happening.

At the climax of the event the long term locals, luminaries, MP and pollies gathered around a foundation stone that had the words overlaid “Share. Protect. Preserve”. In the distance, out to sea, squalls festooned fore and aft by rainbows drifted north like the harbingers of better times. The feeling was intoxicating.

 Later on the crowd repaired to the Bowling Club and the party continued. Beers were drunk and a strong feeling of tribal camaraderie was shared by the celebrating surfers. At sometime in the evening a little drunk birdy whispered to me that Rip Curl were planning to hold a Search event at the Point. “What??”

“Your fucking kidding?”

“nah, so and so told me”

I dismissed the comment as hopeless gossip…..I mean why hold a Search event at a spot that had been discovered more than 40 years previously and was one of the best known Pointbreaks in Aus, if not the world. 

It defied logic.

I went back to Al’s place, a dental technician with a smooth style, country demeanour and predilection for big surf at the Point. It was a sticky summer night and under a fluoro light in Al’s kitchen we snapped the top off a bottle of vodka and began to drink heavily. Buoyed by the evening we began to recount the famous swells at the Point : Cyclone Bola, Mother’s Day ’96. Cyclone Sose, July 2001 and relive them in great detail : the particulars of each storm, the sand build-up before during and after, who was out, who got the wave of the day, who’s board got destroyed and a host of other arcane details of each event. Soon the vodka bottle was empty so we opened a bottle of tequila and rolled spliffs until we were stumbling, roaring  drunk.

At some point i put my hand up to Al with a gesture of finality and without saying a word staggered towards the door, and began the walk towards my place; through the village, up the hill towards the Point and down through the cow paddocks towards my house. When I woke up, I was face down in the cow paddock with a hot sun beating down on me and my wife standing over me. 

The hangover wore off after a couple of days and I remembered the little birdy who’d told me about the Rip Curl Search contest. I’d heard no more about it, nothing in the local news so I’d assumed it was just a scurrilous rumour but figured a quick phone call to the council was in order, just to check.

I rang and was put through to the general manager.

The conversation went as follows :

“Sorry to trouble you mate, I just heard a rumour that Rip Curl are planning on holding a Search event at Lennox Point……do you know anything about this?”

“Well yes, we are in discussions with Rip Curl about this “

I was stunned. How could Rip Curl be in conversations with the council without anybody knowing about it.

“So what is the procedure ? Do Rip Curl need to lodge a DA for this ?”

“No they don’t. This falls under council’s special events Policy”

“Right….so who decides if the contest goes ahead”

“the Council”.

The first question raised is: how long did Rip Curl and the Council plan to keep this event secret and in the backrooms of council before letting the local community know?

From the conversation it was obvious that neither Rip Curl or the Council planned on letting the community know this massive event was being seriously considered while the ink was still drying on the Surf Reserve documents. 

There was a host of questions running through my head : to what extent is it appropriate for a Private Company to appropriate public reserve for their own ends ?, especially a site that had just been set aside for the express enjoyment of all.

Were they hoping to fly under the radar of the obvious public backlash which had derailed the Gnaraloo proposal and if so , for how long? Would we wake up one day to find the headland stuck all over with dinky structures selling trinkets, loudspeakers, sirens and flabby music…with the water filled with jetskis and cops clearing people out of the water ?

What is the social contract between ordinary citizens and Private Companies who wish to run surf contests ?

I rang the local Paper and asked if they knew that their was a major professional surfing contest being planned for the newly minted surf Reserve at Lennox Point. Nada. No idea. The next day my mug was on the front page of the local fish and chip wrap  with the headline : PRO SURF TOUR BID FOR LENNOX.

Immediately, the sparks started flying in the local surf community. Some thought the Surf Reserve had been gazetted with the aim of greasing the rails for professional surfing events to be held at the Point. This cast a severe doubt on the integrity of the members of the Surf Reserve Committee and caused massive friction and anger amongst it’s members. 

The letters pages of the local rag were filled with indignation from local surfers opposed and those who thought it should be held. I was heartened by the strong surfer support to keep the Point as a recreational surfing area but saddened by the sudden and fractious division amongst the local community where there had so recently been such unity and goodwill. For that reason alone I was angered by the Rip Curl Proposal. 

I’d been on the phone to Greenough straight away and he’d told me the threat of a contest was like a plague.

The Surf reserve was gazetted to protect and recognise iconic sites of environmental, cultural and historical significance to the Australian surfing culture. Was Ridgway completely ignorant about what this entailed in the case of Lennox Point? The trips up the coast to the Northern shangri-las, the shortboard revolution fired and glazed in the kiln of perfect empty Pointbreaks.

 It was freedom and experimentation : the very antithesis of rules and contests.

The summer dragged towards it’s conclusion and I spent the onshore afternoons riding my bike along the Point. I often ran into Brocky, the quiet and respectful Master of surfing the Point. A man who’s spent the majority of his adult life deeply in tune with the subtle nuances of the Points deepest rythyms. 

Brocky was philosphical : “Mate, there’s a massive housing estate planned for Ross Lane, it’s a flood and you can’t stop it”

“Yes, your right Chris, but why open the floodgates?”

“Well sure, but they won’t have the Connest here…no way”

His nonchalance bothered me….”Chris, they’ll push this thing through if they want”

He shrugged.

I rode away, deeply troubled.

 In private phone conversations the members of the Surf Reserve Committe had all expressed a desire to stop the Contest, yet had refused to come out publicly and say this.

Was there a feeling there that Lennox Point was already gone? Already trampled and yuppified and ripe for one last commercial indignity even as it had so-called been “preserved for future generations”.

In my mind, there was a concept of surfbreaks like fishstocks. Most were already fully exploited, some were sustainably harvested and some, very rarely, almost untouched.

In that line of thought Lennox Point would be on the verge of being sustainably harvested and fully exploited. During the week , local surfers could ride a few and get their share. Respectful visitors could have a  good surf.  Most days there is a functioning hierachy.

Is there a moral issue for surf companies to consider the state of the surf break when they consider it for a major contest?

Has Professional surfing outgrown the social contract between it and the recreational surfers who it shares it’s precious resources with?

What benefits accrue to the mass of recreational surfers from Pro surfing contests? 

Is it time we really considered these issues?

The argument that inprovements in board design filter down to rec surfers seems silly and retrograde when seen in the face of twenty years of design stagnation on the World Tour (with the recent experimentation by Kelly Slater being the exception that proves the rule). All the major improvements or changes have come from. outside the Pro tour(quads, fishes, epoxy materials for example) and a major argument could also be mounted that Pro surfing equipment as applied to rec surfers has actually held back most surfers. 

What about performance ? Surely the Pro tour has led to improvements in performance that have enhanced individuals’ wave-riding experience?

Well, that again is quite clearly BS. Video segments, tow-in surfing have provided the major impetus in performance enhancement. 

In the face of this the average pro surfing heat teeters on irrelevance as a statement of the best surfing in the world.

The model used by Pro surfing since the Stubbies man-on man revolution of 1977 now looks decidely decrepit and in need of serious pruning.

Holding up a prime break utilised by thousands of rec surfers so a tiny minority, only a handful of which could legitimately be considered the best surfers in the world, can put on mostly second rate displays which benefit private companies bottom line and not much else is increasingly being seen as a tyranny.

The Public relations war raged on in the local paper. Neil Ridgway, the marketing manager for Rip Curl, weighed in , claiming he “grew up in Maclean, I know the area well”.  This spurious playing of the local card, as if Ridgway and Rip Curl were some mom and pop local business intent only on doing good for their local neighborhood was adding to a general feeling that Rip Curl were playing a dirty and underhanded campaign. 

Ridgway was acting as a potent symbol in my mind. The former editor of Tracks, the Australian surfers Bible for most of my formative years, had joined the stables of Rip Curl as a marketing manager. The evolution of the surfing press into a mouthpiece for the major surfing Corporations via this ever so cosy relationship has besmirched the idea and the reality of surf journalism in this country.

 The reaction of the Australian surfing press to the proposal for a major professional contest at Lennox Point : a deafening silence.

Not one major article detailing the issue.

A cursory mention without right of reply in a SW issue entitled (without irony) Revolution gives a clear indication as to the State of Surf Journalism circa 2009.

Petitions were signed from both sides of the fence, those Pro and Con the contest. It’s fair to say the community was and is deeply divided on the issue. 

The following events occurred over a period of a couple of weeks in late February/early March 08. I ask the reader’s indulgence in compressing them into a single day for the sake of the narrative.

A clean East swell had finally arrived late in the oppressive Summer and the feeling of relief was palpable amongst local surfers in the line-up. The wave commands loyalty and appreciation from a hard core cadre of local recreational and professional surfers.

It’s a joy to ride a 6ft wave at Lennox Point. The best waves feature a large knuckle of energy as a side wave bouncing off the Volcanic headland structure stretching to the south intersects with the main swell line. This creates a feeling of unrestrained energy and increasing speed in the wave as it moves down the line and the bouldered flank of the Point straightens out towards the hut. It’s got a unique feeling compared to other Point waves in the area and around the World. 

Walking back along the track post session I ran into a prominent local businessman and well known local surfer. We had a brief chat about the proposed contest. His take as a businessman was interesting. According to him he’d been in conversation with one of the captains of industry in Torquay; a founder of one of the multi-national surf corporations. This captain of industry described the disruption to the local surfing amenity during the Bells Contest as a “nightmare”. The local businessman’s conclusion: we don’t need this here. In fact this would do more harm than good and we should resist it.

Later the phone rang and I answered it. It was Neil Ridgeway calling me on my home number. 

It was a shock and I was taken aback. My first thought : would Neil accept a call from me at random on his private line? We’ll see the answers to this question soon. The conversation started civilly at first; Ridgeway outlining the event proposed and how they wanted to make it the best possible etc etc, how they were prepared to pay for improvements to parking, paths and what not. He wanted to meet with me in person to try and allay my concerns. That sounds innocent enough but is a common corporate strategy to silence dissent : divide and conqer. I told him I would be happy to meet as part of a community of concerned individuals.

I asked him why Rip Curl were interested in Lennox Head as part of the Search Concept. Surely, it had been well and truly searched for and discovered.

His response : It fitted in with a “classic” theme of the trip up the Coast to find the perfect Pointbreak.

“Your joking right?” I rejoined as the massive weight of irony from that statement hit me full force.

“You should sack your marketing department Neil, that is so lame. How happy do you think those people coming up the Coast to find country Soul and perfect Pointbreaks would’ve been if they’d stuck their head out the EH and seen a full scale Professional Surf Contest in action? Crowds and jetskis and all that……”

Neil promised to call back and make an appointment to meet with me and other members of the community but he never did. Somehow I think he got the idea that our opposition was intractable.

After the phone call I got to wondering: does Ridgeway have a home break that he cares passionately about, that he feels fulfilled by in some intangible way when he surfs ? Or does he just see surfspots in terms of places to hold “world class events”? Is there such a chasm now between the industry and the recreational surfers who are the core constituents upon which their brand is built that basic tenets like the joy and freedom of surfing at your home break have been subsumed by overwhelming commercial interests? I made a pact that I would try and call Ridgeway and ask him.

In the meantime I tried to examine my own motives. There was self-interest no doubt. The thought of the day of the year or maybe decade being run with lifelong Lennox afficianados being locked out and forced to watch remains distressing. The narrative of great and legendary days remains for the most part within the community of local surfers and this provides a sense of cohesion not found at spots like Snapper or Bells.

At present the Point remains within the realm of possibility as a functioning surf spot : when placed under the full worldwide media spotlight of a massive Pro contest that equation could easily tip into the mostly dsyfunctional range experienced at places like Snapper Rocks/Superbank.  At the moment and for the forseeable future that delicate balance seems worth preserving.

Fast forward and news filtered down that Rip Curl had flown a member of the Ballina Shire Council down to “witness” the Bells event. The lack of transparency and accountability was a sore point for local surfers. Some thought that Rip Curl was merely trying to curry favour with the Council by wining and dining them, whilst the community was locked out of any meaningful input by the twin gates of Rip Curls refusal to actually lodge a proposal and the lack of a DA required.   

At some point in the autumn it was announced in the front page of the newspaper that Rip Curl had withdrawn their never lodged proposal for Lennox head but they refused to rule out any further interest in the area…..an impression which was galvanised by the opening quote from Surfing World.

That takes us to an uneasy point of the narrative gentle reader: a moment when possibilites have been temporarily suspended but for how long who knows. It’s at this point that I will detail my efforts to talk directly to Neil Ridgeway and try and find out what Rip Curls’s plans were and how they planned to go about informing the Lennox Head surfing community of them.

I call this: Searching for Neil Ridgeway.  I first tried to talk to Neil Ridgeway on the 1st of September, 2009. I assumed he got my number from the phone book, so I tried that tack first; searching the yellow pages for Rip Curls’s head office. I rang a Victorian number and spoke to a man who called me Dude enthusiastically and persistently while loud techno played in the background. Eventually I was able to get another number for head office. When I called that I got a pleasant sounding secretary who informed me Neil Ridgeway was out of the office. I left my name and number and asked if he could call back. 

He never did. 

I’ve tried again recently but Neil is in Hawaii. I don’t have his personal mobile number so I emailed him. Here is the E-mail I sent to him:

Hi Neil, It’s Steve Shearer here. You rang me last year to talk about the Search Contest proposed for Lennox Point. In the Revolution issue of SW you alluded to the fact that Rip Curl were still interested in holding a Search event here. Could you tell me if Rip Curl still have concrete plans to hold an event here and if so when you would inform the local community of your intentions?

Regards, Steve.

Neil responded almost immediately to my E-mail. Here is his response : Hi Steve,
No plans at all in the next three years. Thanks for asking. Neil.

Sorry Neil but we both know those are weasel words and that is a patronising non-response. Does that mean we wait 3 years for the next bombshell to be dropped on the local community? The speculation is divisive and damaging and poses threats to the legitimacy of Pro Surfing Events who must rely on the goodwill of local communities.

Professional surfing will continue and I support that, even if not in it’s current format. There are ways and means of reducing the impact on recreational surfers : surf spots are by and large part of the global commons; restricting access for the gain of Private Companies treads a fine ethical line. Bottom line for the Surf Clothing Corporations who mostly control and sponsor the events is that they risk doing long term and potentially irreparable damage to their brands if they think they can steamroll local recreational surfers interests in pursuit of their corporate goals. 

Who writes this testament you may wonder: a forty year old father of two,lifelong surfer, part time bus driver from Lennox Head. At this very moment he stands here on a balcony in Lennox Head with a beer in hand, on the sixteeenth day of December in the Year of our Lord 2009. Looking south and east the volcanic ridge behind Lennox village  slopes upwards, away into the proud brow of Lennox Point jutting into the sky and the Pacific Ocean. The summer monsoon is brewing and towering banks of cumulus clouds are sending their visages skywards like stern and ashen-faced judges.  The majestic wave lies dormant, as it has for months, but the sand is packed and ready. Every local surfer knows this, and they wait patiently for the Autumn surf season. The sun is setting and along the ridge line a lone donkey stands in silhouette, braying loudly into the seabreeze.