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Byron Shire
May 12, 2021

Interview with James McMillan, founder of the Byron Surf Festival

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The Festival runs from Friday until Sunday 28 Feb

With the Byron Bay Surf Festival just days away, founder James McMillan took a few minutes to talk to Seven about the awesome things planned for the coming weekend.

What are the highlights for this year’s Byron Surf Festival?

This year’s highlight, for me, is that we’re actually doing the festival! It wasn’t an easy decision to make with all the health regulations that affect where and how we can do things right now. We didn’t fully decide to go ahead until early December ‘20 and that decision was largely based on wanting to step up and do something for the community, something unifying, purposeful and fun. Three months hasn’t been much lead time for the tiny team that we are.

A couple of major highlights this year are the opening night at Byron Theatre with our feature film Girls Can’t Surf, Billy Otto playing live and our environmental short films presented by Pure Scot, Dr Bronner’s and Patagonia.

The environmental campaign that we’re supporting this year is a huge one, launched by Pure Scot, it’s for Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef.

How have you taken the COVID Safe restrictions into account for creating your festival this year? Was it a challenge?

It was a challenge for sure, but challenge has been on everyone’s plate lately, right? So we’ve had some training. We had to shuffle the format and flow of the event and unfortunately some things couldn’t happen owing to time restraints and those annoying (but relevant) rules. So no markets, no artshow and no big venue live music gigs this year.

During COVID I noticed the waves were full of surfers – was there a bit of a return to the golden age of the Pass and such beaches during the lockdown?

The surf was incredible from March through to July. My wife and I surf the Pass and Wategos a fair bit, but I’m a goofyfooter so I mostly surf on the other side of the Cape where there’s a couple of lefts. We had so many amazing days over there through the covid period. I can’t remember one swell or the other because there were so many.

I had quite a few surfs with my mate, Byron Bay’s Bananaman, and just a few other locals, out on absolutely perfect days. It was a real trip, really peaceful. I guess it felt like some kind of golden age on those days, for sure.

How do you want the community to engage with your event?

Like they always have, open hearts and smiling. The vision for BBSF has always been to share a surf culture that is creative, innovative, mindful and inclusive. I really dig how the festival brings so many different and varied people together.

There seems to be a very close relationship between surf culture and the environment – can you elaborate on the intersection with activism and the climate crisis movement?

The ocean is what gives a surfer their joy and purpose, so of course we love the ocean, and we protect what we love. As a kid there were no examples in front of me of activism for the environment. And then I saw Peter Garrett from Midnight Oil in Tracks magazine making noise about it. I think it was called SAND (Surfers Against Nuclear Destruction). I loved it!

We have some strong activist voices in Surfing, Dave Rastovich has obviously been one of them for a long time, and more recently Sean Doherty from Surfing World magazine is hardcore on the justice trail, and he is keeping our culture informed daily on all things climate, environment and political and rallying the troops to act. And it’s working big time.

What underpins surf culture for you?

It starts with our number one – the ocean; to respect the ocean and be grateful for all that she gives. The waves are freely given and happily received. There’s no real surf culture without the ocean. And second to the ocean are the surfboard shapers; surfboards allow us to access the waves in such a cosmic way that we are subliminally affected on a very deep level.

Can there ever be too many people out on the waves, James?

Yeah, I think there can sometimes be too many people on the waves and in the surf, but there’s no controlling it, and there shouldn’t be. It’s free space for all and needs to remain that way. It’s a tricky mix, particularly here in Byron though, ‘cause you have top level surfers mixing with intermediates and beginners. I think, at locations like the Pass, it would be handy to have some kind of surf etiquette illustration sign in a highly visible spot so the visitors and learners are at least aware that there is a kind of way to go about things in the lineup, and that those unwritten and unsaid codes have been embedded in surfing for a long time.

What should people expect from this year’s event?

Expect little, receive lots. See you there!

The opening night event is this Friday, and along with James McMillan, features conversations with Glen Casey, Dave Rastovich, James McMillan and CEO of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, Andy Ridley. The Festival runs from Friday until Sunday 28 Feb. byronbaysurffestival.com.au.

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