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The Inertia

A recent “Walk For Peace” rally in Biarritz, France was a rare case of the surfing community showing its solidarity for the people of Ukraine. Can we do more? 

The war in Ukraine has of course been dominating world events since Russia invaded the country on February 24. The unprecedented, and demented, aggression by Putin has led to death, incredible suffering, and global upheaval. 

The response from the surfing communities around the world has been fairly muted. This too is perhaps understandable. There’s no doubting most if not all, surfers sympathize wholeheartedly with the plight of the Ukrainians. However, before the invasion, most would have had very little knowledge of the area. And while there are both waves and surfers in Ukraine, mainly centered around the port of Odesa, known as “The Pearl of The Black Sea,” it isn’t exactly known as a surfing hotspot. 

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That didn’t stop Ukraine from being the 109th country to join the ISA back in April, 2021. The ISA was also one surfing organization to formulate a response to the invasion. They announced that in line with the International Olympic Committee’s recommendations, no athletes and officials from Russia would be invited to participate or attend ISA events until further notice. 

“We remain in contact with the Ukrainian Surfing Federation to offer support to the Ukrainian surf community and we hope peace is restored as quickly as possible,” the organization stated.

Obviously, if the series of sanctions targeting Russia’s banks, oligarchs, oil refineries, and military exports haven’t deterred Putin, the threat of Egor Volkov not surfing or competing in El Salvador in July ain’t gonna cut much mustard. 

Yet the effectiveness of the protest or the sanction, maybe isn’t the point. Or as Mahatma Gandhi put it, “Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.”

Surfers have more recently shown that mass action can make a difference. The Fight For The Bight, which eventually led to Norwegian energy giant Equinor abandoning its plan to develop the Great Australian Bight as a deepwater oil field, was a prime example. 

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That movement grew from a tiny grassroots group down in the Bight to a national movement involving tens of thousands of people — surfers and coastal communities stood alongside campaigners from The Wilderness Society, the Great Australian Bight Alliance, and Surfrider Foundation Australia.

More recently UK-based Surfers Against Sewage made international headlines when hundreds of surfers staged a paddle-out protest off the coast of Falmouth, England during the G7 summit to demand world leaders acknowledge the ocean’s crucial role in tackling climate change. 

In terms of the Ukrainian invasion however, there has been little obvious action from the wider surfing community. One exception was mid-March in Biarritz, the Atlantic resort town, where surfing in France first started. On a Sunday, more than 400 people, including a large proportion of the local surfers, joined a Walk For Peace rally through the streets of Biarritz and down to the Grande Plage, the city’s main beach and the former site of many a pro surf event in the 1980s and 1990s. 

The rally came a few days after two Russian activists were arrested after breaking into and occupying a luxury villa in Biarritz owned by Kirill Shamalov, a Russian billionaire and former husband of Putin’s younger daughter, Katerina Tikhonova. The activists proposed that the villa could be used to house refugees from Ukraine. The French police had a different interpretation and broke down the door, arrested the two activists, and held them in custody.

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The Walk For Peace however was a far more, well, peaceful event that concluded with children sitting respectufully on a large Ukrainian flag. The protest came under the banner of We Are One People. The organizations aim is to create a forum for people to show support for Ukrainians and to inspire them to act. They also raise funds to assist the work of Aide Médicale et Charitative France-Ukraine (medical and charitable aid). 

Olena, a Ukrainian who has lived in the Basque Country for 17 years, spoke to the crowd about her country, the horror of the invasion, and the need for people to unite behind peace. She said, “In Ukraine we say that alone you are just a drop in the ocean, but together we make up the ocean. Let us be the ocean of love, freedom, and solidarity. Think big, think far.”

For the surfers that attended the rally, it was a rare chance to come together and vent their opposition at the injustice of the current war. To debate just what the day achieved on a geopolitical scale is missing the point. As bystanders and shopkeepers applauded the march, and Ukrainians broadcasted the event to their family and friends, this was a surfing community coming together to protest and send a message. If we can all do that, it has to be a positive, right?  

You can find out more about We Are One People here. 

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