Nick Carroll: Look Out, Here They Come! Surf Regions Brace For Frothing Visitors

16 May 2020 5 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

A classic Margs day. Photo from the User Photo Gallery by surfingmr

A classic Margs day. Photo from the User Photo Gallery by surfingmr

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL

After riding out the COVID’s first wave, Margaret River is readying for the inrush

“We’re gonna get a huge influx,” says Jerome Forrest.

This is a big weekend in Western Australia — the first for almost two months when travel has been allowed between the big state’s major regions.

That makes it the first chance for surfers who live outside the south-west surf bubble to go get some, and Jezza, current president of the Margaret River Boardriders, is very aware of it — though he sounds more amused than sketched. “I’ve had friends cooped up in Perth, texting me saying ‘I bet you’re scoring right now, uncrowded, such a good autumn,’” he says. “But it’s not really like that. Nobody’s working, so it’s actually been super crowded.”

As we all surely know, the south-west is one of Australia’s great surfing coastlines. The story of how it’s come through this extremely strange time in our history is a kind of microcosm — like and unlike the way things have played out elsewhere.

Augusta-Margaret River (that’s the shire’s name at least) was once all farmland and fishing. Now, with its wineries, restaurants and upmarket tourism attractions, it’s heavily dependent on exactly the industries most affected by the COVID-19 economic shutdowns. That’s without even mentioning the big WSL CT event, cancelled back in late March when travel suddenly became impossible.

Millions of dollars were gone in a moment. Equally suddenly, a lot of locals were out of work.

Jezza’s been fortunate. He works in the building trade, which has been way less affected. Jobs started have just rolled on, with the appropriate social distancing, of course.

But according to him, the first week or so of lockdown was marked by the same sense of uncertainty, even paranoia, that affected a lot of Australian surf zones. “There’s lots of backpackers around here who work at the vineyards, and they became targets,” he says. “They have accents, so they’re identified. Even the ones who’ve been here a while, working and living here, were targeted. People started talking about seeing them in groups, saying they were carrying the virus.”

In the Gracetown area, the holiday homes were suddenly full of people from elsewhere in the State, who seemed determined to ride it out vacation-style. This also worried many of the locals. “There was uncertainty about how to deal with it all. People were going, ‘Should we dob them in? We don’t want to do that, but … what’s the right thing to do here?”

Predictably, the beaches became a flashpoint. Fingers were being pointed at backpacker groups and others, who were slow to give up afternoon beers at South Point. There was some fear that beach closures — and no surfing — might result.

Instead, the Shire did something interesting: they asked the surfers to play a role. A meeting was called with boardriders’ clubs, the Shire and some residents. After some feelings were vented, a consensus formed around a simple idea: local people had to set the example. The boardriders’ clubs made an agreement with the Shire to take it on. Says Jezza: “Big signs were put up by the council, outlining how everyone should behave. Car parking paces were spaced out further using cones to separate them. The old boys here who love surfing main break and hanging around in the car park afterwards for hours, we had to say, you can’t do that anymore right now, let’s just surf and go.

“And people listened, they said fair enough and they did the right thing. The result was that the SW managed to stay open for surfing.” If you lived there, at least.

Six weeks down the track, again just as it has elsewhere, the original uncertainty and paranoia has worn off. “It’s pretty much back to normal now. Everyone’s aware of it and doing things differently, washing their hands, distancing. That’ll be a new way of life for six months or maybe a year.”

Club contests are still a while off though Jezza is talking with the Shire about running the Gas Bay Challenge, which was supposed to go off just as the pandemic took hold. “We might be able to split it up, run the juniors then move them out and bring in the opens,” he says a bit hopefully.

And as with all of southern Australia, cooler weather is beginning to set in, which is likely to keep the non-surfers and beach hangers away — maybe even dampen a few spirits among the frothing crew from Perth.

On the other hand, it might have a less pleasant effect on the local SW crew. International travel bans means there’s no Indo escapes in the offing, and the north of the state is still locked up for travel, so the traditional winter surf migration to the desert may not be on either.

“It could be just a really cold and wet winter at home,” Jezza says. “Cabin fever.”

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