The annual arrival of the Quiksilver and Roxy Pros marks the transition from Summer to Autumn, an influx of elite surfing talent and an economic bonanza for the southern Gold Coast.
Here’s a tip for any keen meteorologists trying to discern the precise moment the seasons switch from Summer to Autumn on the Gold Coast. It is not the falling leaves, the running of mullet, a particular blossom or bird that marks this transition in our balmy subtropical climes, but rather the arrival of numerous high-end hire cars piled high with enormous surfboard bags strapped to their rooves.
The seasonal migration of the world’s top professional surfers to the surfing epicentre of Coolangatta is the true marker of the arrival of Autumn. Other tell-tale signs include frequent swells buffeting the Gold Coast’s famed pointbreaks, the booking out of all accommodation in Coolangatta, and the sprouting of enormous scaffolding and contest infrastructure at Snapper Rocks.
The Quiksilver and Roxy Pros have become eagerly anticipated fixtures on the World Surf League tour for more than 15 years, beloved by surfers, spectators and local businesses alike. Surfers flock from around the world to surf our sublime waves and to see the world’s best surfers in action. Warm water, perfect surf, feats of astounding athleticism, huge and enthusiastic crowds and a pulsating social scene after dark make for a heady mix in the Southern Hemisphere’s most famed Surf City.
As the season opener, the Gold Coast events are effectively the first day back at school after the Christmas break for the pro surfing world, where we get re-acquainted with our surfing heroes, and see who’s likely to make the grade this year. ‘It’s pretty much seeing all your friends after the summer break. I like it. I think everyone really has a good time here,’ says reigning two-time women’ world champ Tyler Wright. ‘The crowd and the vibe is really intense. Everyone really enjoys themselves.’
These events have proven a reliable form guide to the year ahead, the winners almost invariably featuring in the world title race at year’s end. In the men’s Quiksilver Pro, 11-time world champion Kelly Slater has won four times, while local heroes and fellow world champs Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson have won twice each. Last year, Owen Wright completed a remarkable comeback from a serious brain injury suffered at Hawaii’s Pipeline by winning the event.
In the women’s Roxy Pro hometown girl and six-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore has won a remarkable five times, including her first win in 2005 as a 17-year-old school girl who had to skip classes to surf her heats. Multiple world champions Carissa Moore and Tyler Wright have both won the event twice.
This year’s Quiksilver Pro offers an intriguing battle between a new guard of world title contenders massing to storm the gates as world tour veterans like Slater, Fanning and Parkinson approach the end of their careers. Speculation is rife that this may be the final year on tour for the three stalwarts, and fans will be eager to witness their potential swansong and see whether the veterans have another world title campaign in them.
The new breed of contenders are an intriguing bunch – the hyper-naturally relaxed Hawaiian John John Florence, already a two-time world champ, the peripatetic Brasilians Gabreille Medina (the 2015 world champ) and Felipe Toledo, with their array of dizzying aerial manoeuvres, America’s Kolohoe Andino and Japanese-American Kanao Igarashi, Australians Owen Wright, Matt Wilkinson, Julian Wilson and Connor O’Leary. Snapper Rocks provides the ideal racetrack for this spectacular assemblage of surfing talent to give full expression to their varied and creative styles – from deep tube riding to power carves to wild and gymnastic aerial manoeuvres.
In the Roxy Pro, all eyes will be on potentially the most hotly contested world title race in a decade – with Australians Tyler Wright and Stephanie Gilmore, and Hawaii’s Carissa Moore, all multiple world title holders, still at the peak of their powers. Snapping at their heels, Australia’s Sally Fitzgibbon and Nike Van Dijk, and Americans Courtney Conlogue, Lakey Peterson and Sage Erickson are all intent on challenging for the title.
“I think every year has been really competitive. The girls are really finding their own audience,” says Tyler Wright.
Many pro surfers arrive well before the event to acclimatise, test boards, train and score some of those classic Gold Coast point break barrels. Reigning two-time world champ John John Florence generated a buzz around the Gold Coast when he flew into town for a swell a month prior to the event. The recent Cyclone Gita swell generated what some were calling the best point surf in 20 years and gave local pros the ideal warmup for the events.
Hometown advantage has been a powerful factor throughout the event’s history, with local surfers claiming the men’s title five times in the first eight years. It’s seven times in the first 11 years if you count recently retired WA pro surfer and former world title runnerup Taj Burrow, who based himself on the Gold Coast for extended periods. American Kelly Slater virtually qualifies as an honorary local and has had a base on the Gold Coast for much of his career. Include Slater as a pseudo-local and Gold Coast surfers claimed the men’s title 11 time in the event’s first 12 years. Retired local pro surfers Bede Durbidge, Josh Kerr, Dean Morrison and Mark Occhilupo have also finished strongly in the event.
All the major surfing nations are represented on the beach cheering on their country’s surfers. The so-called “Brasilian Storm”, a surge of surfing talent from the teeming South American nation, has led some to dub Rainbow Bay “Rainbow de Janeiro”, such is the concentration of Brasilian flags and swimsuits on the beach. Locals pack the Rainbow Bay surf club to cheer on their home grown surfing talent while others have been known to drag entire lounge suites down to the beach to take in the action in comfort.
This year’s event will also incorporate the WSL Juraki Teams Challenge in which eight Indigenous surfers will be paired with pro surfers in an innovative teams’ competition. The Indigenous Welcome to Country is a hallowed ritual at the event, traditional dance and song welcoming competitors from around the world and wishing them good waves and safety in the ocean. Bundjalung man Russ Corowa has been a regular fixture at the event for years, blessing the surfers and summoning up the swells as he plays his didgeridoo at the water’s edge at Snapper Rocks throughout the event.
Dining out in Coolangatta becomes a game of “spot the surf star” as eager fans frequent their heroes’ favourite eateries in the hope of enjoying an acai bowl alongside Gabrielle Medina or a plate of sushi next to Kelly Slater. Early morning and late afternoon free surf sessions allow the average punter the opportunity to share a wave from Mick Fanning or duck dive a Felipe Toledo aerial, the kind of close proximity few sports fans will ever enjoy with their idols.
Other celebrities with a keen interest in surfing are also drawn to the event – other professional athletes, musicians, actors. Who can forget music legend Jimmy Buffett’s impromptu post-contest concert in 2014, with guest appearances by Kelly Slater and Stephanie Gilmore?
For extra-curricular entertainment, it’s hard to go past the Drop Music Festival, just around the corner at Ebenezeer Park, Duranbah, on Saturday, March 17. Held in conjunction with the World Surf League events at Snapper, Bells Beach in Victoria, and Margaret River, WA, the Drop Festival line-up features Saffia, Dune Rats, San Cisco and Holy Holy.
The World Surf League has foreshadowed major changes to the tour in the year’s ahead, with the addition of Kelly Slater’s revolutionary wave pool, the Surf Ranch in California, in 2018, and new events and a shortened season likely in 2019.
Whatever changes may be made, there’s no doubt the Gold Coast events will remain firm favourites with fans and surfers alike. Some 40,000 fans flocked to last year’s events and the total economic impact to the region is estimated at $20 million.
No matter who gets to hoist the trophies and over-sized cheques at event’s end, the opportunity to surf perfect Snapper Rocks with one or two other surfers, and a packed beach cheering your every move, remains one of the most alluring rewards in pro surfing. ‘I think they are up there with the most watched events on tour. It’s super exciting and entertaining,’ says Tyler.
The Quiksilver and Roxy Pros waiting periods run from March 11 to 22, with a call made on each day’s schedule at 7 am depending on surfing conditions. For more information or to watch the live webcast of the events visit: www.worldsurfleague.com