Surfing festival's success rolling in

20:55, Apr 06 2013
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EXPLODING SPORT: Sally Fitzgibbons competing in the New Zealand Surf Festival at Fitzroy Beach, New Plymouth, this week.

The women surfers competing on our shores are renowned for their beauty, grace and athleticism. But Taranaki's first ASP event, three years ago, was not welcomed by all. Matt Rilkoff finds out even those once against it now see a silver lining.

For the last seven days New Plymouth's Fitzroy Beach has been a centre of signs.

Left, right, up, down - there is nowhere to look without seeing one sponsor's logo or another at the TSB Bank New Zealand Surf Festival.

Now in its fourth year, widespread community support for the event is reflected in the 68 sponsors on board. But in 2010 the success of the festival and its drawcard ASP international women's event was not so assured.

In the months leading up the inaugural festival a group identifying itself as the Coastal Boardriders Club expressed fears via numerous headlines in this paper that the competition would bring unwanted international attention to Taranaki.

Legendary coastal surf breaks would become crowded with foreign tourists. The environment would be damaged. The beauty of the coast would be lost.


There was even a threat by some surfers to paddle out and disrupt the competition if it ventured out of New Plymouth, and hometown hero Paige Hareb, whose involvement in the ASP women's tour was instrumental in securing it for Taranaki, was abused while catching waves at Stent Rd. After three years and four events the fears have proven unfounded.

"Most of those who were against it will be at ease now," says Surfing Taranaki boss and festival director Craig Williamson. "In the beginning there was a bit of anxiety because they didn't know what it was going to be like."

The festival is like no other in its scope.

It now includes old, young and disabled surfers. Then there is the New Zealand women's open and, of course, the ASP Women's World Championship Tour event featuring the world's 17 best women surfers.

Off the waves there are movies, lectures, a charity ball, a photo exhibition and a community beach bash.

Almost everything is free and hundreds flock to the beach each day to watch the surfing.

"It's bigger and better than we ever thought it would be, but it's not big in terms of tens of thousands of people coming here. It's just not conducive to that," Mr Williamson says.

"Being an event that is very organic it is affected by weather and if it's bad nothing happens. But when it's on, it's on, and 95 per cent of people, including surfers in the region, really look forward to this event.

"There might still be a handful that hate it, but you can't please everyone."

Apart from on the first day of the inaugural festival when competition was held off Arawhata Rd near Opunake, all surfing since then has been done around New Plymouth. The "coast" from Oakura to Opunake would appear to be almost completely unaffected.

But Brigitte Luke, of the Coastal Boardriders Club, is far from ready to concede that is the case, and without actual data, impacts, good or bad, are purely opinion, she says.

However, the positive spinoff of the festival from her point of view is that it was the genesis of the Coastal Boardriders Club. From a loose collection of coastal surfers who many saw as angry isolationists, the CBC is now an officially recognised group with 160 members.

"We've actually moved past the competition, but it was always about people prepared to ask the hard questions. OK, it didn't eventuate, let's move on," she says.

Their group is now involved in coastal plantings at Stent, Paora and Komene roads. It works alongside the Parihaka Trust, Puniho Pa and the Taranaki Regional Council. Taranaki's coast is arguably better looked after than ever before.

"We are a group that can be contacted now and for us, as a community, it's really got us together and we have formed strong links with each other," Ms Luke says.

The festival has also brought benefits for New Plymouth surfing instructor and photographer Daisy Day, who says the number of women taking up surfing has increased dramatically in the last three years. Much of this she puts down to the young women of the ASP tour and what they have done for a sport traditionally dominated by men.

"There was a time, not that long ago, that the girls would have a nice board and take it down to the beach and sit on the sand with it, like it was a fashion accessory.

"But now they are getting boards and getting out there and it's great," she says. "Now they see these women surfers are athletes and they want to be like them. What is good about surfing is it can either be a lifestyle or it can be an elite sport where you strive to be the best in the world. Either way you can have fun."

Taranaki Daily News