Thirty-four surfers stand on the beach with longboards pointing perpendicular to the sand. It’s an eclectic mix. Guys and gals from countries around the world mixed in with Byron Bay locals with a dash of surf celebrity via Alex Knost, Jared Mell, Tom Wegener and a few others. Their only goal is to party-wave to the beach and run to cross a finish line. The guy who finished first was really excited. I could see the look in his eyes when he realized he might win. Suddenly, he started moving double-time, utterly disregarding the safety of his feet, dragging them across the rocks at Wategoes Beach, grinding them to what I presume to be a bloody pulp. So the price of stoke goes.
A few hours later I found myself in an earnest conversation with Cyrus Sutton about the meaning of life. Literally. We weren’t wasted, and it wasn’t even dark. We were just shooting the shit about his new film, Island Earth, and then inevitably the conversation veered to the depths – a place I like to go any time I have Sutton’s ear.
Last night, G. Love played a rockin’ set at the beach hotel, Aamion and Daize Goodwin premiered their beautifully-shot, real-life, Disney adventure film, Given, on the lawn to a crowd of more than two thousand. We went for a surf with longboarding’s Queen B: Ms. Belinda Baggs and her son Rayson. He says surfing feels like flying. Kimi Werner shared her new film, Smog of the Sea, and the folks at Take Three, Waves for Water, and Sustainable Surf shared literature to raise awareness for beach pollution, the virtues of clean water, and conscious consumption, respectively. Sustainable Surf also designated the festival as a Deep Blue Event for its commitment to sustainability. Tom Wegener shared his new book, Surfboard Artisans: For the Love. The book celebrates the virtues of the backyard shaper, but it also has chapters about Stoicism and Socrates. Festival Founder James McMillan curated an art exhibit punctuated by a dirty mattress he found on the street that said “GREENOUGH” on it. And we all surfed a lot. The Byron Surf Festival is exactly the refreshing jolt that I want to see alive and well in surfing. The players involved are diverse and impassioned, and most don’t care very much about who wins what.
While surfing has managed to develop an increasingly sophisticated infrastructure for competition and a monetary incentive to match, most folks can’t really, truly relate to competitive surfing – for a number of reasons. I’d wager that less than one percent of surfers have competed in a heat in their lives. And that doesn’t make their relationship with surfing any less authentic or valuable. I surfed in one ESA contest growing up, because I wanted a surfing trophy. I was miserable in my heats. Got frustrated and angry, and eked my way into the final, where all eight of us got trophies. As soon as I wrapped my claws around that little wooden surfboard, I was done with competitive surfing forever. It fueled an angry, darker force in me far more than the joyful, lighter force that felt natural to surfing.
In organizing a daily deluge of reporting on surf culture that often revolves around contest coverage and continuing my recent surf life in Los Angeles, a town with a lot of people who fight amongst each other for waves, sometimes it feels like the joy of surfing is tenuous. I hate that. It makes me wonder if folks like Cyrus Sutton, Gerry Lopez, and Greg Noll, who have moved away from the ocean – and instead pick their moments to surf – are the enlightened surfers. They’re masters of the craft who participate when they choose. Living by the beach doesn’t define their lives or identity as surfers.
But then I get a buzz from Byron Bay’s Surf Festival. It’s a backpacker paradise that I’m certain has no shortage of warts to expose if one desired to dive deep. But, then again, it’s steeped in an intriguing culture of mystics like George Greenough, Derek Hynd, Dave Rastovich, and a civilization of men and women whose second nature seems to cross-step the ruler-lines of the Pass. And the Byron Surf Festival wraps all that is special about Byron’s modern surf culture perfectly. As Tom Wegener told me, “This place embraces innovation and what’s new in surfing, largely free of judgment. It’s coming from a pure interest and desire to more thoroughly enjoy riding waves and nurture the artistic culture that has developed around it.”
For many surfers, Byron is Eden. And the town’s Surf Festival is its exaltation.