09 Feb 30 years old and still kicking
By TED BASSINGTHWAIGHTE
Sitting in a café on Newcastle Beach recently I wondered how on earth Warren Smith and his team of friends have managed to pull Surfest together every year for the past 30 years.
At that casual get together was Warren’s life-long friend, Peter McCabe.
Warren and Pete have a very long history, some of which was recently revealed in a Newcastle Herald feature on Pete.
Warren and Peter were business partners making surfboards.
Their conversation was jovial and relaxed.
Sitting opposite Warren was another of his great mates, Kim Burton.
Kim is a very relaxed and self-assured bloke.
His warm handshake and big smile relaxes you every time you meet him.
His bubbling excitement for all things Surfest and surfing is always close to the surface.
Through our first cups of coffee and before any breakfast was ordered the conversation turned to Surfest 2015. Warren slips on his serious face when he talks about Surfest. The only international sporting event held in Newcastle every year for the past 29 years is very important to Warren and the dedicated team who work at the festival.
Warren would not be offended if I were to say Surfest has been his life for all this time.
A large part of why Warren puts his all on the line for Surfest every year is his determination to inspire young surfers and to provide a pathway for those surfers to experience high level competition. Sure the World Surf League (WSL), formerly the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP), six star Burton Automotive Pro men’s is the crowd puller.
But for Warren some of his most jubilant memories arise from witnessing the teenagers perform at the other events during Surfest.
I recall receiving an excited telephone call from Warren during last year’s High School Teams Challenge.
‘Ted … get down here to South Bar. You’ve got to see this.’
‘What’s wrong?’ I said.
‘Nothing … it’s the kids … I’ve never seen so many school kids and their parents. Get down here take some shots. This is unreal.’
Warren’s excitement was palpable. More than 350 high school aged surfers, both male and female competed for two days in one of the biggest events of its kind on any surfing calendar.
The café was filling with glum looking office workers and tousled haired surfers who wandered over from beach.
The noise was a little distracting as Pete and I talked about old school friends and who was still alive and who wasn’t.
Warren and Kim were deep in conversation. Warren looked concerned.
I turned to listen. Surfest in 2015 was going ahead without a six star rated women’s event.
Sponsorship dollars are very difficult to garner even in good economic times and this year it seemed Surfest would not hold a women’s event for the first time since 2002.
The noise of the café heightened distracting me. I looked around with a stern face in the vain hope that some of the noise makers would keep it down so I could hear Warren and Kim.
I turned back to Pete and we walked further down memory lane.
I remember thinking how Newcastle this conversation was.
I had been away from this town and these people for nearly 20 years but when we get together it always seemed like yesterday.
That is a real Newy thing that happens.
Glancing at my phone it was time to leave.
As I left I mentioned to Warren that I was hopeful of finishing the Surfest website today and could I remove the women’s page.
Warren shook his head looked at Kim and told me that there will be a women’s event.
The one star rated Burton Automotive Women’s Classic was on. What had just happened was a very Newy thing.
Kim Burton and the Burton family who own Burton Toyota at Maitland and Port Stephens have been involved in Surfest for more than 10 years.
Their early involvement saved the women’s event.
Since then their financial and emotional support has evolved to include not only naming rights to Surfest but to be now known worldwide as the name behind the much desired ‘MR’ trophy.
Surfest is 30 years old in 2015.
Every year many hundreds of professional surfers travelled to Newcastle for this iconic event.
In the early years Surfest was one of the richest surf contests on the world tour.
In its late teens and early 20’s the event, like a struggling apprentice on a pauper’s wage, barely survived but for the tenacity of the people who make it happen every year and the generosity of Newcastle businesses, Newcastle City Council and the NSW government. Because of funding hurdles and the exponential growth of the then ASP World Tour professional surfing, it seemed, turned its back on Newcastle.
Well, Newcastle didn’t turn away from professional surfing.
Surfest has always had a trump card. That card is four times world surf champion, Mark ’MR’ Richards.
When times were harder and prize money down one would often hear the professional surfers admit it was not for the prize money or the small amount of ratings points that they came to Newcastle. It was for the honour of having their name engraved on the ‘MR’ trophy.
Every year Surfest attracts some of the world’s best male and female surfers.
A look at the honour roll on surfest.com reveals that 13 men’s events were won by a world champion. Over the same period five women’s events have been won by world champions.
History matters. History is irrefutable evidence of success or failure.
Surfest’s 30 year history is the lifeblood of the event. It is a rich vein of community engagement and participation.
Surfest in 2015 is an enhancement of that history.