25 years of pure stoke

Phil Jarrett shares a pottedhistory of how the Noosa Festival of Surfing grew into the event it is today

on Friday, 11 Dec, 2015

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.

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 agree that our magazine, Noosa Blue, would become a sponsor.

Back in 1992, a dozen or so core members of the fledgling Noosa Malibu Club (established in 1986 and celebrating its 30th in 2016) had come up with 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. A weekend amateur comp that quickly grew into Friday, Noosa was cool, rootsy and fun.

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 a couple of surf industry heavies. While we lunched and enjoyed the afternoon, one of them leaned over and said: “There’s something going on here, Jarratt. This isn’t a surf comp, it’s a party. You should 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 industry enthusiasm and with Johnny Lee’s support, we 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.

There’s something going on here, Jarratt. This isn’t a surf comp, it’s a party

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. Surfing elders 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.

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 rebel surf legend 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. It didn’t matter. The town buzzed with Dora sightings.

After some years away working abroad, I was asked 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. 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.

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 of the 1960s, 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.

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 team, the Noosa Festival continued to grow in spirit and style. As a long-term 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.

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 for three years.

As we approach our 25th anniversary in 2016, Sam Smith’s management team at Phil Jarratt Communications are preparing to rack up their eighth consecutive year running the festival under licence to the Noosa Malibu Club. Over this period the festival has overcome significant hurdles and grown to become the largest surfing event in the world, by participant numbers, with huge support from Tourism and Events Queensland, Tourism Noosa and Sunshine Coast Destination Ltd.

Earlier this year I stepped down from the festival director’s role in favour of Sam, who had been doing the hard yards for years anyway. I’m still involved – I’ll always be involved – but now I’m trying to put myself in a position where I can catch breath, surf a few heats with old mates, and enjoy the festival for what it has become: the greatest celebration of the surfing spirit in the world.

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