Silhouetted by a molten winter’s sunrise, three generations of boardriders sat in the judge’s chairs as backlit lines of groomed swell tapered along the reliably structured sandbank of Queenscliff beach.
It was always a race to beat the inevitable onshore breeze on these crisp Sunday mornings, and so a series of gazebos were hastily being erected around the figures by excitable, wetsuit-clad grommets. Regardless of it being the first heat of the morning, the first speckled crew of coloured rash-vests darted around the lineup as if it were their last.
Established in 1978, the stomping ground of Queenscliff Boardriders Club (QBC) strays to the northern end of the iconic Manly beach and is one of the most successful surfing associations to dot the idyllic, wave-rich coastline of Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Duke Kahanamoku’s introduction of the act of board riding in Australia occurred only one beach over at Freshwater Beach in 1915. It is within the fabric of grassroots clubs like QBC that Australian surfing’s core culture has been born and bred.
Need A Chat?
This article discusses sensitive topics such as suicide and mental health.
If you feel like you could use some support, don’t be afraid to reach out.
Lifeline: 13 11 14 or lifeline.org.au
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636 or beyondblue.org.au
Headspace: 1800 650 890 or headspace.org.au
One Eighty: http://www.oneeighty.org.au
“Being apart of a boardriders club is what it’s all about as an Australian young surfer”, says Danny Wills, national surfing icon of the 1990’s, “It’s like the clubbies, just that family spirit that you get knowing everybody within the community.
“It truly is the thing to be involved in, especially if you’re an aspiring, young surfer that wants to be a professional”.
With eight club competitions, various club vs. club boardriders battles, tag-team challenges and training camps every season, boardriders is designed to offer a deeply competitive, yet social environment. By the time a young member turns 18, it is not uncommon for them to have performed in over 500 heats. The competition structure and judging system mirrors that of the professional series and many clubs require each competitor to perch themselves upon the judge’s throne between their own heats.
Meanwhile, non-surfers are just as equally ingrained within the anatomy of the club, with spectator memberships forming the crux of a community shaped by the sea.
A Uniquely Australian Coastal Collective
Within Australia’s coastal townships, the most prime beachfront real estate will almost certainly be that of the surf lifesaving club, usually painted an obnoxious sun-bleached blonde and bustling from first light to sundown. Ghosts of past achievements, champions, presidents and fading photographs line the walls of these distinctly Australian cultural artefacts and mark an incredibly unique kind of coastal livelihood dictated by salt and swell. It’s understandable that in a country where nine out of ten of its residents live within 50 kilometres of the ocean that its sprawling coastline will forge an aqueous identity for many.
Australia’s first surf lifesaving club was established in Bondi in 1907, though it was not until the mid-1960’s that official boardriders clubs began to appear around the country, the first on the Northern Beaches in North Narrabeen. Those involved with boardriders are routinely quick to denounce their association with the archetypal Australian “clubbies” to maintain their position as the breed best equipped to harness the power of their coastline’s most abundant resource.
Wayne Deane was an east-coast surfing icon both in wave riding and shaping before his death in 2018. His younger years were shaped by the fledging boardriders culture that was soon to envelope the sport of surfing.
“It’s been a strong thing ever since the early 60’s I guess, stemming from surf lifesaving organisations”, said Deane in an interview with Red Bull in 2015, “But because surfers were so different and so rebellious they pulled away from that aspect.
“I think that’s the way [boardriders] evolved because it’s such a different angle on beach culture”.
Rebellion underlined the formative years of boardriders clubs as the momentum of surf lifesaving associations began to accelerate and deconstruct a laid-back typecast that the first generation of Australian surfers had developed. In a territorial response, surfers were forced to form clubs of their own, and the idea of protecting the waves and sandbanks that have moulded their livelihood has persisted.
Steve Coulter, professional ironman and lifetime QBC boardrider since the club’s formation says this approach has allowed conflict to become continually synonymous with the culture.
“All of a sudden there was an authoritarian role instilled by these so-called ‘clubbies’, surf lifesavers telling surfers where they could and couldn’t surf”, he said, “This created some kind of mortal conflict that took place and raged, pretty aggressively and violently, for decades. It was clubbies vs. surfers.
“The boardriders had to become tightly connected on their beach, and that extended, at least here on the Northern Beaches, in the face of those coming from the suburbs. I suppose it was like two tribes coming together, boardriders and everybody different”.
This sense of preservation and intolerance of those foreign to the norms of a rather insular coastal culture undoubtedly became embedded in the mantra of the early boardriders clubs. Though even now, more than 50 years after their conception, similar beliefs striving to maintain the cultures’ exclusive roots have persevered.
Outdated Norms in a Crisis Area
Australian boardriders clubs have actually long been criticised for their old-school approach to the waves with the continuous yearning for beach ownership raising a schooner toward conservatism. On the Northern Beaches contemporarily, this has tied in with the rampancy of toxic masculinity and localism to leak into the attitudes of its community.
As a gay boardrider, Chloe McGeachie has struggled to come to terms with her sexuality and share it openly with her surfing peers within QBC. She says that the culture is innately cliquey as it grasps onto outmoded beliefs passed down from its crude, male-dominated beginnings.
“It’s very much a boys crowd”, she said, “If you don’t fit the description that they’re looking for they can push you out to the outskirts and you’ll find it hard to fit in.
“The surf culture, and the way that they all think, has just been passed down from generation to generation and it’s just the way it is. It’s going to take time to be more open and more welcoming to everyone, including those that are gay or trans.
“Mental health is also a big one. I feel like that’s not talked about at all… more pushed to the side”.
The last decade has seen the coastal fringe become an epicentre of poor mental health with a spate of 30 suicides in 2018 ushering a reevaluation of support services within the area. Though even with these new programs, medical practitioners are saying that more that 40 people have been lost already this year.
James Carrington is a Northern Beaches psychiatrist and youth coordinator for the Sydney North Health Network. He says the main area of concern is centred around young adults, particularly young males, and highlights a toxic pack mentality that has transcended through coastal youth culture.
“I would definitely say that young men are more at risk on the Beaches than in the North Shore, North Sydney and other affluent areas”, he said, “When you are not socially accepted because of your perceptions and actions it’s basically social suicide.
“I feel that these men are forced to think and behave in certain ways in fear of losing respect or being isolated from their peers, and so unwelcoming attitudes persist and cause considerable damage. Males from a young age need to be more accepting of everyone”.
In response, a new wave of surfers are attempting to subvert the tired values that still linger within the boardriders scene. They are striving to lower the barrier of entry for anyone deviating from the stereotypical “waxhead” demographic and return the culture to its roots of lovers and subjects of the waves.
The New Wave
On this particular crisp Sunday, the QBC contest area spilled over the entire width of the grassy patch separating the road from the sand. Gazebos proudly flaunting the club’s many local sponsors shaded a patchwork of surfboards of all shapes and sizes.
Forced to delay the competition during the COVID-19 pandemic, the points for the latter part of the season were to carry extra weight, and such the large turnout was hungry for scores. Men, women, enough grommets to sink a battleship and plenty of furry companions were present to enjoy the competitive family spirit synonymous with QBC.
“Unless you’re a bad sportsperson”, says Matt McSorley, QBC president, “There isn’t a single reason someone should be unwelcome here.
“The past of a toxic boardriders culture should remain there in the past. Outdated, conservative attitudes have no place here, and really in any boardriders club across the country”.
A hooter sounded and a fluorescent few made their way up the sand to the tents. McGeachie, donning a blue rash-vest, had already paddled out.
Although the sun was only just revealing its entire self, the sound of cracking stubbies resonated among a group of young men atop the surf lifesaving station. Among them was actor and professional surfer Samson Coulter.
“I think surfing’s in the best place it’s ever been in terms of inclusivity and making everyone welcome”, he said, “It’s definitely come a long way”.