“When Aboriginal people are in the ocean, they know they are in their country. They belong to it. They don’t own it… Surfing’s about being part of the wave.”
The Banaam Indigenous Surf Titles will be the Gold Coast and Tweed’s first official Indigenous Surfing competition in over a decade. Running 11 – 13 September at Fingal Beach and expected to attract around 100 contestants, it’s much more than just a surfing contest. It’s a celebration of the Indigenous surf culture of Australia.
Blank’s Mella Lahina and Samantha Morris caught up with three of the team involved in bringing the event back to life: Joel Slabb, Rory Togo and Christine Slabb.
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The Gold Coast and its beaches have provided hundreds of Indigenous tribes with a sanctuary to hunt, gather, live and socialise (including surfing) for centuries – part of a special relationship salt water mobs have had with the ocean for more than 40,000 years.
Joel Slabb is a Director of Banaam Indigenous Surf Titles – a known local surfer with a few competitions under his belt. He grew up on the beach at Fingal. He’s a Coonjinburra man, from one of the north eastern tribes of Bundjalung Country.
“It was sort of a natural progression from fishing. Our family is a fishing family and grew up on the ocean. We started riding anything we could to make it fun while waiting for our parents, and progressing to what it is today and surfing,” he said when asked about how he came to surf.
He says there is still a strong presence of Aboriginal families around the Fingal and Tweed areas and there’s a strong cultural connection compared to other places too. Joel said they were pretty fortunate around Fingal with two of his
Elders being the first Aboriginal surfers to join Snapper Boardriders, who are partners in delivering the Surf Competition.
“The First contest I went to was in Black Rock near Nowra, in 1993 or ’92,” he said. “It ran there for a couple of years and then moved up to Fingal in ’94 or ’95, something like that. And was there until 1999.”
According to Joel, that’s the last time an Indigenous surf competition was run there – some 16 years ago. So what happened? “It was the perfect storm,” Joel said. “I got told Billabong went through some changes and the Surfing Queensland border changed from Byron back to the border. That all happened in the same year. So it just didn’t happen.”
Fast forward more than a decade and surfing group Surf Support Agency started to give young people surfboards in Fingal. Joel was a part of that. He says it sparked a few ideas and everyone was keen to see it happening again.
“But putting it together was hard – especially finding sponsorship after 16 years. There are no corporate sponsors – just personal sponsorship,” Joel said. “We had a family group donate $10,000 to the event. They live in Fingal and they see it as a real close the gap initiative and they want to give money to something that’s working.”
Joel credits surfing with helping him to not ‘drift’ as a youngster. “As a lifestyle choice, surfing has been the right one,” Joel said, adding that the catchphrase for their event is #seeyaoutthere. “It’s sort of an invitation, to draw people to the water and enjoy what we enjoy. There are lots of people with drug and alcohol issues… we want to change that, to just get that message across – to see them out on the water other than doing destructive things.”
Two of the elements the team is most excited about are the kids’ program and the allstars event. That will see a team of Indigenous surfers go head to head with surfers from Snapper Boardriders.
I ask Christine whether there’ll be a large contingent of women. She said surfing as a sport is still growing in the eyes of Indigenous women. “Over the last couple of years, with all the grom girls coming up, it’s starting to get popular,” she said. “The younger generation are more firey, more competitive.” And then we asked her how she came to surf.
“Joshua my husband, was a junior pro surfer back in the day and I got sick of sitting on the beach, watching him surf, so just decided to pinch his board one day and go surfing.”
Joshua will be competing in the tournament and so will their kids. All four of them surf. Rory, who has joined us for this conversation, will also be competing. He’s done quite well in Oceanic Cups and says his favourite spot is Cloud Break in Fiji. We talk about his island heritage – his dad is a South Sea Islander and his mum is Aboriginal “I suppose our parents see it as a good outlet for kids,” he said. “My parents were nothing but encouraging, they would drive the whole east coast of Australia driving me to comps,” he said, quickly adding he’d absolutely do the same for his kids.
The Banaam Indigenous Surf Titles will include a bunch of events – Open Mens, Womens, Juniors (male only), Masters (over 35) and Longboards for both pro and upcoming leagues. It runs from Friday 11 – Sunday 13 September at Fingal Beach.
There’ll be live music, performing arts, market stalls and food and drink plus surfing and cultural exchange activities to create a festival atmosphere. There will also be surfing lessons and sand castle competitions, artist workshops and a wooden surfboard expo as well as an Exhibition on the History of Idigenous Surfing with live shows, painting, installations, archives and story-telling. And as if that’s not enough, the program also includes a screening of the 1999 documentary Surfing the Healing Wave featuring vintage footage from the first Indigenous surf competition in Fingal. Traditional opening and closing ceremonies will also be performed by local dance troupes.
Joel’s father, Aboriginal Elder, organiser of the first Fingal Indigenous surfing competition and a highly regarded member of the community gives the event a firm stamp of approval.
“Having been part of the surf festival in the past, I found it be the most rewarding and positive experience for Indigenous People,” he said. “It’s like the old days, the gathering of people, Coroborree, meeting of all tribes throughout our great nation. What a venue. Tweed, Gold Coast, Bundjalung Area.”
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Banaam Indigenous Surfing Titles | Fingal Beach | 11 – 13 September