A potted history by Phil Jarratt
Just before Christmas 1994, a Noosa house painter and surfer named John Lee phoned me out of the blue and asked if he could buy me a beer. I knew him slightly, or at least I thought I did. He was one of the better longboarders at First Point, the one with the mullet and the happy-go-lucky attitude. Sure, let’s have a beer, I said.
At the time, I was building a business in Noosa and surfed fairly infrequently on a Brad Mayes mini-mal. I had a Brothers Neilsen swallow-tail gun in the garage too. It was nearly 20 years old. I’d just motored past 40, and like so many in that time and place, couldn’t make my mind up whether I was a shortboarder or a longboarder, or just a has-been. Johnny Lee brought a bunch of posters and photos to the bar, and we sat on the deck and drank a couple of pots while I checked out an event I’d only vaguely been aware of – the Noosa Malibu Classic. I was intrigued straight up. It took me about three pots to fall in love with it and become a minor sponsor.
Back in 1992, a dozen or so core members of the fledgling Noosa Malibu Club (established in 1986 and celebrating its 25th in 2011) had come up with a a great idea. A longboard surfing contest that would celebrate Noosa’s perfect point break waves and unite the growing tribe of traditionalist surfers, just as the Malfunction event had begun to do on the Gold Coast in the mid-80s, along with the Alex and Byron Classics. A weekend amateur comp that quickly grew into Friday, Noosa was cool, rootsy and fun.
Groms lineup at the 1999 Festival. Current world tour star Julian Wilson is in the red rashie.
In 1994 club member Jamie Pradella shot the whole event on Super-8, cut some comedy with shaper/surfer Mike Davis and some interviews with stars like Bob McTavish and Ray Gleave and turned it into the funky longboard vid “Malibu Heaven”. Now the Noosa Classic was on the map!
Under Johnny Lee’s guidance, the Noosa Classic introduced professional divisions in 1996 and immediately attracted the best internationals of the era. Hawaii’s Bonga Perkins became the first multiple Noosa title holder from overseas and also the event’s greatest ambassador. In 1997, now a slightly more significant sponsor, I sat at a lawn table at Sails Café, overlooking First Point on finals weekend, with Quiksilver founder Alan Green and top exec and former leading pro Bruce Raymond. While we lunched and enjoyed the afternoon, we were periodically joined by many of the greats of surfing, who were in Noosa, invited or not, because the word was out. Noosa was fun!
“There’s something going on here, Jarratt,” Greeny said. “This isn’t a surf comp, it’s a party. Get on it!”
The something that was going on was a new recognition that surfing was a culture that embraced diversity, shortboarding, longboarding, paddling, tandem, whatever…Noosa wasn’t the first place to recognize this, but it was where the elements combined to make the perfect expression of that diversity. Inspired by Greeny’s enthusiasm and with Johnny Lee’s support, my new business partner John Brasen (now editor of Pacific Longboarder) and I approached the Noosa Malibu Club with an offer to produce a festival built around the existing pro-am surfing event. The club accepted and in 1998, the first Noosa Festival of Surfing came blinking into the fierce sunlight of a Noosa March.
By this time our company, The Blue Group, had begun to publish the Australian edition of The Surfers Journal, so I invited Journal founder Steve Pezman to come and give our festival some international credibility, and he convinced big wave legend Greg Noll to give Noosa a try too. I’d also been working on a book with pioneer surf pro Jeff Hakman, an old friend, and through Jeff I’d spent time with Hawaii’s royal family of surf, the Keaulanas. Three-times world longboard champ Rusty Keaulana agreed to come in a nano-second. My wife Jackie picked him up at the airport and drove him straight to First Point, where he saw shoulder-high perfect peelers from point to beach. “Oh no, dis is bullshit!” Russ declared, squealing with delight.
JB and I used the leverage of the new magazine to entice as many surf legends to town as we could, and I put the arm on all my old mates from the Free Ride Generation. Rabbit Bartholomew and Tom Carroll were front and centre at that first festival, with Nat Young and Bob McTavish representing the older guard.
We were blessed with great weather and perfect small waves that first year, and the Noosa Festival had a life. The following year, major sponsor, dairy company Pauls Ltd (Breaka Flavoured Milk) decided we were a good bet and backed our expansion program. The 1999 Breaka Festival went all out. We flew legends in from all over. We created the world tandem surfing championships. We stumped up good money for the pros. Buffalo Keaulana and Bill Wallace led the ho’okupu traditional opening ceremony, birds sang in the trees, Hastings Street was alive with surf buzz…and the northerlies came in and we got skunked for surf.
For the only time in the event’s history, not one heat was run at First Point. Fortunately, a peak off the Castaways’ car park proved adequate for the contests, and for the many exhibitions, including a rematch of the 1964 world title final, won again by Midget Farrelly.
Legends lineup at 1998 Festival. Contest director Johnny Lee is bare-chested second from right.
While many people still remember the Castaways year as the first great height the festival had attained, it was ridiculously hard work for our small management team, operating on a secondary podium 15 minutes out of town, and some sponsors felt let down by the resulting coverage. So in the new century, we took a small step backwards on budget, but consolidated with the backing of surf companies like Surftech and Golden Breed, and the ongoing support of the Noosa community.
By the 2000s there was never a problem talking overseas stars into coming to Noosa, and many became regulars. Wingnut Weaver was Surftech’s front man and major party dude for several years, Brian Keaualana, Dave Kalama and Dave Parmenter became our waterman regulars, while Aussie superstars like Layne Beachley, Mark Richards, Peter Townend, Rabbit Bartholomew and Tom Carroll never tired of supporting the event.
Personally, my greatest coup was enticing Miki Dora to be a special guest at Noosa in the final year of his life. It wasn’t easy getting him here, and it wasn’t easy when he got here, believe me. Miki wanted a contract so I wrote him one, but I don’t recall too many of the provisions on his side being met. What the hey, Dora was in Noosa! People were stoked. I’ve written about this elsewhere, so I’ll keep it brief, but at the end of a torrid week I wanted to kill Miki, but unfortunately we were flying out on the same plane. It was a gnarly drive to Brisbane Airport, and things got worse at check in, where he discovered that he was in economy (I bought the ticket) and I was in business (Quiksilver bought the ticket). We caught up in the Qantas lounge at Singapore and, after facing off like wild animals for a bit, sat down and shared a bottle of wine. Soon we were laughing our heads off, and I never had a cross word with Miki again.
After some years away, I was asked by Norm Innis (a Quiksilver friend who had become president of the Noosa Malibu Club) to come back on board as a consultant to the festival in 2007. How could I say no? I’d flown back every year I’d been away to compete and hang out. I loved it, always will. I was an easy get. Through various committee changes, the Noosa Malibu Club had done really well in keeping the momentum of the festival going, even when the vollies had to do all the work and money was hard to come by. It was a pleasure to come back into the fold and see if we could crank it up again.
Joel Tudor and Bonga Perkins came back in ’07, and our big coup was to present the Delightful Rain concert, featuring those great surf bands The Atlantics and Tamam Shud. Darren “Flex” Landers was on board as media man and we got enough coverage to attract a license offer from USM Events, creators of the Noosa Triathlon and many other world class events.
As a result, 2008 was a little like ’99… the genie got out of the bottle. Everyone came, it was sensational, and in one inspired night of madness, a dozen world champs helped us raise more than $100,000 for charity. That night, when Surftech’s Dave Byrne bid $10,000 to partner Shaun Tomson, and Global Surf Industries’ Philippines distributor peeled off $11,000 cash for Tom Curren, will go down in my memory as one of the greatest moments of a great surfing event, one that I’m proud to have had a little bit to do with.
Around the middle of the decade, Noosa was very fortunate to have Global Surf Industries come aboard as major sponsor, at a time when the festival could have taken a very different path. Largely due to the enthusiasm, stoke and altruism of Global founder Mark Kelly and his core team, the Noosa Festival continued to grow in spirit and style. As a long-term secondary sponsor, Nick Van De Merwe’s Golden Breed also helped ensure the survival of the world’s best surf festival. Just as Noosa-based sponsors like Classic Malibu Surfboards, Madill Toyota and others took the weight in the formative years, GSI and GB kept the torch alight through some difficult years. More recently we have partnered with PJ Burns Builders, and Snapper and Tony and the PJB team have helped us establish a wonderful beach hut look for our festival village and bar.
In 2013 we were joined by Crick’s Noosa motor dealership and Jeep, who jointly took naming rights to the festival. Matt Murray and his team proved to be fantastic “hands-on” sponsors, and now that they have signed up again for 2014, the future looks bright for the Noosa Festival of Surfing, as long as the next generation recognizes the values inherent in this celebration of the surfing spirit and steps up to the plate to help run it. We’re all getting a bit long in the tooth to be taking down the tents and emptying the bins, dudes. Start thinking about year next!