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Papua New Guinea's Surf Scene is Blossoming

Opening ceremony Not even relentless rain could dampen the spirits of local tribes doing their traditional dances during the opening ceremony at this historical event. WSL / Tim Hain

This vision for the inaugural Kumul PNG World Longboard Championships has been a long time coming for president and co founder of Surfing Association PNG (SAPNG), Andrew Abel. Ever since he was studying on the Sunshine Coast of Australia in the 1980s, he has been deeply driven to use surfing as a vehicle to promote social change in his country, and empower remote communities by providing a viable alternative to the likes of logging and mining.

Complex traditional laws govern the use of coastal land and fringing reefs in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Able uses the phrase "traditional resource custodians" instead of "landowners" because, as he explained, "in Melanesian culture, familial clans are the current custodians of surfing resources that are passed on to succeeding generations. Also, women are commonly the custodians of the land and fringing reefs."

Chelsea Williams (AUS) winning her Round Two heat at the Kumul PNG World Longboard Championships. Visiting surfers like Chelsea Williams are inspiring Papua's young ladies to paddle out. WSL / Tim Hain

"Thirty years ago I had a vision, I started out on a mission to introduce surfing to PNG," Abel said. "[Surfing] is as valuable a resource as all the timber, gold, and copper that is now being exported out of our nation. As long as we maintain this resource properly in a transparent and honest manner, future generations will prosper -- and that is paramount."

In contrast to a top-down, foreign-led approach, Abel has devised a revolutionary bottom-up, community-centered approach to develop surf tourism in PNG, where locals are central players in decisions regarding the use of their surfing resources. Essentially, income intends to be generated with a low impact on traditional culture and the natural environment, so health, education and employment can flower. Here a hallmark of sustainability is keeping the locals stoked.

Nicholas Kirrwom and Andrew Abel Supreme Court Justice Nicholas Kirrwom and SAPNG President, Co-founder Andrew Abel's dreams have been realized with this inaugural event on their home country's soil. WSL / Andrew Nichols

SAPNG's surf resource management plan was first implemented at Nusa Island Retreat in Vanimo, New Ireland Province. Now, before the establishment of a surf tourism venture, SAPNG will consult with the local community to form a surf club, inspire village led surfing and review the capacity of the area for number of surfers, which will be limited per day in accordance with waves, infrastructure and local needs.

Tribal leader A representative of the local community, a tribal leader leads his surfers into the opening ceremony shouting 'Let's go surfing.' A youth initiative here in PNG. WSL / Andrew Nichols

"This strategic approach to managing surf tourism in PNG is groundbreaking," explained Dr. Jess Ponting, founder and director of the Centre for Surf Research at San Diego State University, and SAPNG advisor. "Surf tourists often travel to remote destinations, but a lot of research suggests the mismanagement of surf tourism has resulted in significant negative impacts on host communities. In PNG they are reversing this."

An incredible bonus to this event is the way Andrew Abel and SAPNG have initiated a powerful and innovative campaign to raise awareness about issues of gender equality and women's empowerment, using surfing as the tool to get local communities active through the so-called Pink Nose Revolution. With the help of Dr. Easkey Britton, an Irish surfer and SAPNG advisor, who's led a number of all-women surf days in Tupira, it's become just that -- a revolution.

Ruthy Kurumuk (PNG) representing her native country of PNG for the first time in a professional surfing contest at the Kumul PNG World Longboard Championships. Ruthy Kurumuk representing her country, and the Pink Nose Revolution, with pride as one of the first PNG surfers to compete in a WSL event. WSL / Tim Hain

"By painting the noses of half of all surfboards donated to PNG pink, female surfers are given exclusive ownership of boards and their equal status is made visible," explained Irish surfer Dr. Easkey Britton, an advisor for SAPNG who has led a number of all-women surf days in Tupira. "This is a simple tool to promote women's participation in surfing and to give women greater ownership and recognition in the surf. The development of surfing for social good in PNG is a powerful example of how constraints can inspire creativity and how a lack of resources can foster a breeding ground for innovation. Here, women are making waves of change on the edge of surfing's known frontiers."

"To be able to help the local community through surfing makes me really happy," said 2016 WLT runner up Chloe Calmon. "I can't wait to share some waves with the locals and get to know a bit more about their lives. I feel honored to somehow give back to the sport that gave me so many good moments. I think this event will be great to share the values and spirit of surfing."

Nicholas Kirrwom Nicholas Kirrwom addressing the crowd in attendance at the Kumul PNG World Longboard Championships opening ceremony. WSL / Andrew Nichols

A driving force to the growth of the Tupira Surf Club, and the event's partnership with the PNG Government and Kumul Consolidated Holdings, has been Supreme Court Judge Justice Nicholas Kirrwom, who grew up in Ulingan Bay and is passionate about the power of waveriding.

"The idea of bringing in surf tourism was to try to prevent further logging operations in the Bay," said Kirrwom. "The loggers used the bay as a log-pond where they loaded their logs onto the ships. We had so much damage -- heavy pollution in the water, no fish in the bay, the marine life was just devastated.

"So that's why we worked for so many years to stop this, and then this idea of surfing came along and we thought this was a better way to use our marine resources to better ends all around. Surfing is clean and healthy, and promotes a healthy environment."

Tom Wegener and Brian Gates Bryan Bates (back left) and Tom Wegener (back right) have helped this cause, creating a foundation for the youth of PNG surfing to build upon. WSL / Tim Hain

To ensure this movement continues to gain ground, Tom Wegener, with the help of Bryan Bates, has been at the forefront helping the youth of PNG begin to shape a future of their own. Wegner first recognized what the issues were in helping them realize this dream of surfing and providing the tools to then make a change for the better. Now, all directions are pointed toward an industry all of their own with the optimism to make it happen.

"Instead of creating dependency on getting these foamboards we wanted to teach them to create their own," Wegener said. "They've been making wood surfboards for millennium and so it seemed more natural to upgrade their skills so that they would be comparable to the foam boards. The biggest obstacle is to find a light wood and it actually took a bit of testing and experimenting to realize that the big green slabs of wood were actually quality balsa when dried -- and that's dream material for a board."

Future of Png The future of PNG surfing. WSL / Tim Hain

"To create a local surfboard industry is the goal and this contest for the locals, being held alongside the WLC event, is doing wonders by incorporating the wooden surfboards. Now, that'll be a part of the PNG National Championships forever."

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