Nick Carroll: Surf School's Out

27 Mar 2020 0 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer




THE PLAGUE DESCENDS – An Ongoing Series on How the Pandemic Affects Our Coastal Surfing Lives

With the steady closure of many surf schools thanks to COVID-19, Australian surfing approaches a state it’s never experienced.

You may not have noticed this, lord knows there’s been plenty of other things to think about. But in the past week and a half, organised surfing in Australia has ground to a halt.

Like, a dead stop.

Events of all kinds have been postponed or cancelled. In light of the National Cabinet’s current advice on outdoor sporting groups — no more than 10 people at a time — you won’t even be able to run a boardriders’ club contest.*

You can postpone or cancel club contests, or CTs, or the Olympics for that matter. Life will go on. Surfing will survive without a Drop Festival.

But what if you can’t run surf schools?

Hundreds of these schools operate around the country. We’ve all seen ‘em in action. Like boardmaking, they’re typically small businesses run by keen surfers who want to make a living while sharing the stoke.

Miles Niddrie does just that. Miles has a surf school business on the NSW Central Coast. His key beaches, Redhead and Blacksmith’s, were both shut last Sunday due to concerns about breaking the 500-person rule.

It threw Miles’s plans into some disarray. “I was OK till Bondi,” he told CW, referring to the famed beach’s shutdown last Saturday.

After the shutdown at Redhead on Sunday, nobody seemed super sure what would come next. “The lifeguard told me they were being advised not to put the flags up, because it’ll encourage people to go to the beach,” Miles says. “But no-one’s saying you can’t surf.

“My business relies on safe practice in any case. We could run while maintaining the social distance. But all this is happening overnight, we don’t know what’s next.”

Miles expects he will have to close the doors at some point. He points out he doesn’t have a big roster of casuals to lay off, unlike the bigger schools in Sydney and on the Goldie. “Winter is a quiet time for surf schools in general anyway, so it’s not as bad a time for it to be happening. But…I might be putting my hand out (for Centrelink assistance) before it’s over.

“It’s gonna hurt a lot of people in this business. But at the end of the day we want people to be alive and well.”

Keith Curtain agrees with Miles about winter being a good time for this nightmare. “It could have been far worse,” he says.

Keith runs the Go Surf School in Port Fairy on Vicco’s west coast, not super far from the South Oz border. The school, he says, is now effectively closed. The school groups that normally fill him up till after Easter have fallen through the cracks, losing him hundreds of students.

“All schools agreed that surfing was one of the few sports that abided by the current social distancing regulations …Our beaches are still open to the public.” But the risks of close transportation on buses, and the closure of campjng grounds, has stopped that in its tracks.

Go Surf has also been caught up in another mangler: the border closures between states. A session scheduled for next week, with 120 kids from a school in South Oz, had to cancel after the border closure would have meant them spending 14 days in isolation on their return home.

Keith is still open for business, and is encouraging the sale of vouchers among other things. The school is also open for private individual lessons. But, “The phone usually stops ringing in May, this year it stopped ringing in March … and if it did ring, it was a cancellation.”

Bigger schools are in a different boat. Their choices are not easy: keep running boot-camp style, with 10 students or less per class, or pull the plug now and protect staff and students.

Blake Johnston has picked the second choice. Blake runs the Cronulla Surf Academy, coaching everyone from beginners to budding supergroms on one of Australia’s busiest stretches of beach. It’s a big one, taking maybe 20,000 bookings a year.

Cronulla wasn’t touched by the shutdown mania last Sunday. But Blake still felt it was time to pull back. “We’re a big part of the community here,” he says. “And by being pro-active, we’re showing that we care about the community. Today people might be ready to listen to that message. Tomorrow they might not be.

“I know we could still be running. But I think — no, I know it’s the right thing to do.”

Around 50 part-time employees will be heading for Centrelink, something that hurts, but that Blake says can’t be helped. “It’s the uncertainty,” he says. “We weren’t touched by the GFC, for instance. Surfing’s an escape in a way, and people will need it more than ever.”

On Sydney’s northside, Manly Surf School’s Matt Grainger has gone with choice one — for now. “I’ve had five or six core people (teaching) with me now for about 15 years,” Matt told CW. “I want to keep them going.” This means he’s staying open until the government locks him down. Some staff will be fixing boards and looking after hygiene, others have chosen to sit out for now.

Like Keith Curtain, Matt’s lost a lot of trade from schools. “”We’ve gone from 400 bookings a day down to about 10. We’re grateful for one customer now.”

A handful of other big schools are still running in boot-camp mode, but it’s hard to tell for how long. Word continues to leak down to us from government and other sources that further restrictions are on the way.

For now, it seems, surfing in Australia is just pure recreation — in a way it’s never really been at any point in its history.

*(This advice had yet to be updated on Surfing Australia’s own advice page this morning, where they’re still going on the previous advice of 500 people in an outdoor setting — as long as they’re socially distanced, of course. We’re told an update will happen soon.)

See SA’s advice page

See Surfing NSW’s advice page

More Coastalwatch COVID-19 Coverage

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