Big surf contests have long been compared to a circus coming to town, and this year the ASP World Tour Big Top has focused on places that are circuses already. Billabong just wrapped up its event in Rio; when Quiksilver heads to New York in September and Rip Curl goes to San Francisco in November, they'll just be adding the proverbial bearded lady and a few giraffes to a year-round carnival.
O'Neill isn't part of the World Tour circus, having chosen to focus on star and prime events at the qualifying level, as well as expanding its Coldwater Classic in Santa Cruz, Calif. from one event into a series. Billed as "the most northern, the most southern, the coldest, and the most classic surf contests on the planet," CWC events have been held in wild and wooly locations like Tasmania, Scotland, South Africa and Canada's West Coast surf hub of Tofino, on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Needless to say, these are frequently not places where people want the circus coming to town.
On May 17, a Coldwater Classic event in Halifax, Nova Scotia, appeared on the ASP Men's Star Event Schedule for Sept. 19-25 and word quickly spread through the area's tight-knit surfing community. While O'Neill considered an event in Nova Scotia in 2008, it settled on Tofino because of the consistency of swell. Halifax surfers were concerned to see that a decision to host the event this year was made without their input. Surfing Association of Nova Scotia president Justin Huston, who also works as a coastal zone coordinator with the province's Coastal Management office, wrote a letter on behalf of surfers to the mayor of Halifax, Peter Kelly.
"SANS has been neutral, since day one, on whether or not this event comes to Nova Scotia," says Huston. "We just wanted more transparency, so the surf community and the locals can make informed decisions about what goes on. No one likes to be asked for their opinion after a decision has been made."
"As we understand it," said Kelly, "the application came from surfing's governing body and O'Neill. We were concerned with the lack of communication. Part of our commitment moving forward is to involve the community -- surfers and community at large -- on transportation, traffic, impact and other issues."
For the past two years, the Coldwater Classic Canada has been held in Tofino. Tourism Tofino, an organization geared toward attracting visitors to the fishing community, had even given O'Neill roughly $55,000 both years and planned to do so again this year.
"O'Neill indicated that it had a funding shortfall and asked for about $150,000 to bring the event back," said Lynda Kaye, of Kaye Public Relations, the PR firm contracted by Tourism Tofino, "but the budget had already been set and we weren't in much of a position to increase our contribution."
On Tuesday, the Halifax Regional Municipality approved funding O'Neill with $145,000 to hold the Coldwater Classic in its province as a marketing investment, but not without a provision suggested by Jackie Barkhouse, who represents the point-break heavy District Eight. The provision states that O'Neill and the municipality must consult with surfers and residents on issues leading up to and during the event. O'Neill has already contacted Huston, as a representative of the local surfers, to set up an initial meeting with a Canadian rep and then O'Neill global staff to follow.
The event stands to have some issues that no amount of coordination between locals and organizers will address. As a six-star event, it will draw about 100 surfers and require seven rounds of competition. Canada's Atlantic Coast would be a tough-skinned surfer's dream, if it weren't for the nature of the Atlantic. Like the U.S. East Coast, Canada's swells are fickle. Solid south swells set a series of points firing. However, these are usually local storms and rarely last more than 48 hours. This event will require five days of swell in a six-day period.
Still, Huston is focused on ensuring that O'Neill's event doesn't turn into the kind of circus that would be at odds with a surf community known for both its welcoming nature and the tight lid it keeps on protecting the fickle area from over-exposure.
"O'Neill stands to benefit from this event, but when the show packs up and leaves town, what's the feeling with surfers and residents going to be?" he said. "We have the same issues with parking and changing as anywhere else. We've talked with local residents around the breaks to work out issues. We're the ones who are going to be left to mend the fences, figuratively.
"I do get the impression that O'Neill wants to make this work. Since we've been in contact, they haven't thumbed their noses at us," added Huston. "But actions speak louder than words in surfing."