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The Best WSL Event You Never Heard Of

No electricity. No running water. No wifi and no pins dropped. The Namakwa Challenge was core as fuck.

// Sep 14, 2021
Words by Craig Jarvis
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Perfect a-frames were pouring over the bank. Shifty and thick, each one represented endless possibilities. 

There were plenty of scores in the excellent range on the opening day of the Namakwa Challenge. Getting two of them, however, would not be easy. 9s were sitting side-by-side with 2s. Pocket 7s weren’t a thing here. 

The event was held at a campsite situated about an hour away from any sort of civilization. It was as rugged as it gets. No electricity, no running water, no wifi, no shops, no fuel stations, no medical facilities, definitely no McDonald’s. In the distance, a tractor slowly trundled down a beach path. Nearby, a dog barked. Out front, another perfect 6-foot set loomed. This was anything but your typical surf contest. 

Many different competitive formats have been attempted over the years, with varying degrees of success. Some have fallen flat — like the recently axed Surf Ranch Pro — but many have been great. The Billabong Challenge events in the ‘90s, for example, were unique and very successful. Matt Warshaw describes them in Encyclopedia Of Surfing as “Small, elite, mobile professional surf events, held from 1995 to 1998, designed as an alternative to the often-bloated World Championship Tour contests.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fiHalmJuH2I&ab_channel=MisadventuresOfAronski
Scenes from a different era.

The concept of the Billabong Challenge — which is to take a handful of surfers off the grid and give them ample time to score the best possible waves for their heats — was recently revived in the form of the Namakwa Challenge. From August 23 – 31, the WSL-sanctioned specialty event went off in a secluded zone in the Northern Cape on SA’s West Coast. 

With Covid hitting villages on the West Coast, event director Kai Linder decided to whittle down the contestants and event staff to an absolute skeletal crew.

If the event was to go ahead, the surfers needed to climb on board and do the hard work required for it to run. There was to be zero prima donna tolerance here. World champion longboarder, Steve Sawyer, was one of the cooks. A contest official doubled as toilet-maker, digging long drop pits for the contestants to use. Everyone there had a task. Thus, the crew numbers were kept to the bare minimum.

Welcome to the Namakwa Challenge Resort. Please make yourself at home.

“We chatted with some surfers beforehand who were happy to assist us with things like kitchen work. Then, they got to work and got to surf in the event, and everyone was happy,” said Linder. “We also worked the groms, something I certainly feel they need more of. We made them clean up, help with water carrying, assist with the water safety, and even taught some of them how to change tires on the 4×4 vehicles.”

In so doing, the risk of Covid was minimized, and the small crew formed a bubble with no external members joining the party.

One of the issues the event faced was that it held smack bang in one of the most secretive areas on South Africa’s West Coast. It’s a surf-rich zone that was discovered years ago by diamond divers working in the area and has been largely kept under wraps ever since.

No names, no pins, and no coordinates were to be shared with the public — which is challenging when you have a media team at work. 

“I think it’s not as low-key as some people think,” said Linder. “Koa Smith and other huge video guys have been shooting there with the assistance of some key guys for years. While we were there, a famous big wave crew was also on the coast shooting with a US documentary crew. We took some South African surfers to a spot that most normal surfers would not surf in their lifetimes. We managed to not give away the exact location. We benefited the local community, Protect The West Coast, and tourism in the area.”

Good morning, Namakwa.

Protect The West Coast is a coalition of people (including many surfers) trying to stop the destruction of the West Coast’s shoreline from rampant mining by Australian mining companies. The Namakwa Challenge chose to partner with them on this event.  

Protect The West Coast’s Managing Director, big wave surfer Mike Schlabach, was on board for the Namakwa Challenge. Some people thought that having an event in such a secluded area was disrespectful. However, Schlebach’s feelings were, “Rather surfing than mining.”

“We always knew this day would come. Unfortunately, the reality is that there really is no other way to punt alternative uses of the West Coast other than actually promoting them,” said Schlabach.

User friendly? Maybe not. Matt Bromley contemplates possibility.

After an initial offering of good waves, the West Coast did what she often does this time of year and got smashed by a savage winter storm. The crew sat tight for a few days in the rain at a wind-lashed campsite, far from anything glamorous.  

“It got crazy cold when that storm pulled in,” said Matt Bromley. “I woke up on the first morning of the storm, and I was literally floating on water in my tent. The thing is, everyone was helping each other out. It was such good vibes.” 

Eventually, after a week of chores, scrubbing, cooking, campsite maintenance, and cold outdoor toilets, the competitors were getting restless. 

“My anxiety levels were growing every day as we watched the ocean going mental and the charts kept changing. At one point on the second last day we even tried to test another slab point, but the two surfers, Adin Masencamp and Joshe Faulkner that paddled out to test it, told us it was way to big and crazy and they thought they might get into serious trouble. That afternoon we got a slim chance of epic conditions for the final morning, so we decided to run the second round in slightly onshore and very big conditions at the beach.” -Kai Linder

“The worst thing about the whole experience was that the long-drop toilets were dug too wide, and the seats kept slipping in,” said Bromley. “The long drop experience, on the whole, was pretty wild, with a bit of see-through netting around your seat. You’d look over first thing in the morning, and see someone next to you.”

It’s an interesting exercise to re-imagine it in today’s context. Note that the OG Billabong Challenge featured many of the best surfers in the world at that time. 

How long would our superstars last if they had to wish dishes that fellow competitors had eaten off of? Would they be happy spending the waiting period filling in bush toilets and digging fresh ones? Would they be ok without their iPhones? Would they handle sleeping in the back of a Ute for a few days in a bid for an event win? 

Would they buy into the vision to showcase another dimension of our beloved sport?

This, in many ways, is more relatable to the experience of the everyday surfer than a full-roter on a 3-foot wave.

Let’s not be naïve. The Namakwa Challenge doesn’t hold much commercial value for the WSL with its current model. Running an event at a location that you can’t broadcast from — or even publicly name — won’t have advertisers chomping at the bit. Back in the day, the Billabong Challenge was packaged up and made into a surf film by Jack McCoy, which quickly became adored by the core surf audience. You’d have to employ a similar storytelling approach if you were to revisit the concept today. 

However, if you did right, an event like the Namakwa Challenge on a larger scale could easily grasp a considerable wedge of passionate fans. It’s raw and rugged. The waves are real; the human element of camping together — especially amidst a storm — is hardcore. And even when you go somewhere remote, the potential exists to align such an event with a good cause. 

“We need to protect this coast, but you don’t do that by hiding it away,” said Linder. “You protect it by shining a light responsibly on it and actually going there, supporting the people and respecting and appreciating its beauty.”

And that they did.

Once the storm had passed, the surfers at the Namakwa Challenge woke up to amazing surf for the final day. The remaining competitors traded off tubes while the rest of the crew cheered from the dunes. Dale Staples took it out and won 45,000 ZAR (just over $3000 USD) for his efforts. 

Dale Staples, angling for the win.

As the contestants emerged from the signal-free Namakwa zone and a successful event, they all caught up on the 21st Century. Emails and WhatsApp messages went crazy on their phones, Tweets pinged, TikToks danced at them. One news snippet, however, was banging through to all the top competitive surfers in the country: the entire WSL Africa QS series had been canceled for the year.

Perhaps the story doesn’t end here. 

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