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Byron Shire
March 4, 2021

Interview with Byron Bay Surf Festival director James McMillan

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Celebrating the unique surf culture of our region. Pic Elliot Kirkwood

Multiple Events & Venues | Wednesday 20 to Sunday 24 Feb 

How did you get involved – is it just you now as the festival director?

I have learned that passion, naivety, and a creative mind can land you in some precarious positions. I had the idea with a friend back in 2010. I remember the exact moment on a farm at Skinners Shoot as I leaned over a surfboard with a piece of sandpaper in my dusty hand fixing a ding. I thought, ‘Yeah, I reckon we could do it. I’ll call up some mates who surf and are artists and if you can do the paperwork and phone calls and all that stuff we could pull it off.’ Nine years on and the festival is still here and humming along nicely. Different people have come and gone, because it’s not for everyone. It’s madness and depending on how many balls you can juggle while surfing will see you either stay or leave. So yeah right now it’s me with a small but amazing team, my awesome three sons, and a really great wife.

How would you describe the Surf Festival? What is different about it to the big-brand-name festivals?

BBSF is a non-competitive and all-inclusive event with a particular awareness of the environment we all play in. It’s a cultural event. I’ve always been into surf culture, into people and the arts. There’s a clear divide between surfing as an art and as a sport… Sit Gabriel Medina beside Craig Ando and there it is, both great surfers but they approach it very differently. I had a book published in 2005, Blue Yonder: A Journey into the Heart of Surf Culture. Before that I had my share of competing as a surfer but I was always into the culture, art, and the like. BBSF celebrates a different side of surfing where our focus is not on a contest alone but more about the boards, the shapers, art, film, and music, and bringing people together for a really good time.

What is it about the spirit of surfing that goes across the arts? I couldn’t imagine a tennis festival with tennis bands and films about people playing tennis?

I would not go to that! Surfing is creative; it’s not a fixed playing field and it puts you in direct connection with nature, sometimes totally alone. If you happen to catch a very good wave that allows you to get inside the tube then you could either touch god or you get smashed! Either way, when you leave the water and get into your car to drive home, by the time you get home you will be ready to do it all again. It’s addictive and I could tell you my theories why, but it’ll all get too weird. Let’s just say no mind state…

Surfing is a sport but it seems to be more…

As I mentioned before there is for sure a clear divide between crew; those who see surfing as a sport and those who look at it more as an art, and some probably don’t care either way. I’m biased because I hold the art-guy view on it. It’s like a dance, right. You’re basically dancing across a wave of energy as it moves towards the shore and before it disappears forever you’re making tracks as you react to the movements of its breakingness. This is all dependent on where you place yourself on the wave and that will surely depend on what board you’re riding. It’s much more than a sport. 

What are some of the unique events on for this year?

There are so many highlights but here are a couple: Tom Carroll (1980–1985) is our first event on Wed 20 February. Tom is a highly decorated Australian surfer, a two-time World Surfing champ and a Pipeline master, and also a photographer. In the mid-80s when Tom was dominating the competitive surfing world he was also packing his trusty Canon AV-1 camera and capturing the unique and crazy lifestyle of a pro surfer in that era. Tom will be there with his personal collection of images, live narrating them up on the big screen. Also showing will be the National Geographic short film Salt in the Blood featuring Tom followed by live Q&A. The Surf Legends Lounge on Thursday night featuring Dave Rastovich, Mark Occhilupo, Taylor Steele (USA), and Dick Hoole will be just so amazing too. To get all these guys in one room with one or two other very special guests for a live Q&A and discussions is just gold. And another massive one is on Friday morning – we have three amazing women surfing world champs at the Beach Hotel: Stephanie Gilmore, Lisa Andersen, and Kelia Moniz will be our guests for Women; Beyond the Curl with the World Champs. We also have Australian film premieres, the BBSF art show, photo comp, Sunset Cinema, the Surf Art Markets and our Freestyle & Stoke Surf Sessions on Sunday at Wategos featuring the McTavish Trim. And live music every night at the Beach Hotel. 

What are the challenges in running an event like yours?

Boring stuff like time, money, and the spreadsheets, which I do my best to not be a part of (it doesn’t work). And also chasing famous people with good ideas to tell them about my good ideas and then getting them to come to BBSF so we can show them our awesome town and learn from them, or just at least bask in their skills and glory.

How has the festival grown and changed since its inception?

It’s grown to be a little bigger with a few more events and better event locations. More people know about it so when the sponsor guys talk to the companies to get involved it’s a little easier ’cause we have a great rep as a fantastic event, doing good things. I also have a much better idea on how to make the festival happen for our 10th anniversary! Have already chatted to a couple bands and some artists.

What should people expect for this year’s event?

Expect everything that’s on the program and to walk away inspired. Our theme for this year is Connection… What Connects You to the Sea? Hopefully all these connections are covered at this year’s Festival.

Byron Bay Surf Festival 20–24 Feb. The 4-day festival activates over 10 events including surfing, shaping, art, music, film, yoga and environment with an awareness and focus on sustainability, education and innovation.
For more info go to byronbaysurffestival.com.au.


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