Merewether Beaches National Surfing Reserve was declared in March 2009 and is one of Newcastle’s iconic surfing beaches. The reserve stretches from Dixon Park in the north to Burwood Beach in the south, some two kilometres of spectacular coastline. A breeding ground of many great champions, including 4 times world surfing champion, Mark ‘MR’ Richards.
Jewel in the Crown
The Majestic coastline of Newcastle is one of the finest jewels in the crown of the wave-lashed coast of this island nation. Merewether Beach may be only one of Australia’s ten thousand surfing breaks, but it ranks among the most loved, revered, and iconic of all on our shining blue ocean coasts. Indeed, according to the salt-encrusted Novocastrian surfing crew, Merewether is Australia’s undisputed ‘Crown Jewel’.
Few coastal communities enjoy the full gamut of intrinsic qualities, which make it supremely worthy to be chosen and dedicated as Australia’s seventh National Surfing Reserve. Merewether Beach meets the criteria on all counts: an enormous strength of surfing, heritage and culture, a unique and rare shoreline configuration, extraordinary environmental quality, a proud and dedicated local community, and naturally, one of the world’s favourite wave sites.
The Awabakal Nation
Just south of the Hunter River which separates the Worlmi nation to the north and the Awabakal nation to the south) lies the Merewether coast.
A water based Aboriginal nation, the Awabakal are the traditional custodians of Awabakal country and hence Merewether. The Sea Eagle is the Awabakal totem, a story linking sky, land, and sea.
Merewether’s present coastal form was established about 3-4 million years ago after the sea level rose at the end of the last Ice-Age. The Awabakal had established campsites probably tens of thousands of years before this event and continued living on the coast for thousands of years after. These and other changes added further mythical, symbolic and physical sustenance to the significance of the beach as a special part of Awabakal culture. The Merewether area remains rich in Awabakal history and meaning, and is still in use today for traditional Awabakal resources and teachings.
Merewether chert was an important source of stone material highly prized by the Awabakal people who traded this resource with many other nation groups. Revealing ancient Aboriginal linkages with other coastal places, Merewether chart was located at Narrabeen Beach (also a now-famous surfing place) in the 1930s.
Local Merewether Beach ochre was an important Awabakal nation resource. It is still used today for colouring seasonal grasses. Food stuffs important to the Awabakal, including fish, molluscs, a variety of berries and fruits were once in abundance in the Merewether area. Both Man’s and Women’s business were taught in this area.
An Aboriginal surfing culture commenced in Australia (Wreck Bay, Jarvis Bay) in the 1970s. It has grown steadily ever since and now has an established pakce within the Australian Aboriginal nations, especially coastal clans and mobs. Although the Aboriginal surfing movement had its first contest at Wreck Bay in 1993, Surfest (Newcastle and Merewether) has a proud history of involvement with Aboriginal surfers. To demonstrate a clear example of connection between the Awbakal nation and waves consider these comments from the 2002 Newcastle Surfest:
“Indigenous Ceremony turns on perfect waves. Prior to the start of competition in the Billabong Indigenous classic at Newcastle Beach, local Awabakal dancers and elders performed the traditional welcoming ceremony to the gathered crowd of competitors and spectators. After days of on-shore wind and rain, for the remainder of this event, competitors were treated to perfect 1-2m waves, with light offshore winds. ‘For one day of the competition it was almost to good to be true, ‘Surfest’ spokesperson David Cromarty said’.”
In 2008, Surfest moved its contest site from Newcastle to Merewether Beach and on Wednesday March 26th a “welcome to country” ceremony was performed by Awabakal dancers and elders. Once again the surf was at its best for the indigenous classic.
The Great Wave
No matter how many great surfers call Merewether home, the enduring star of this legendary locale is the wave itself. The craggy old headland bears too many scars inflicted since European settlement to be regarded as a classic natural beauty, and concrete and buildings have reshaped the backdrop of beach and sand hills until bears only passing resemblance to the place once known only to the Awabakal community. But process of waves breaking on the shoreline has remained constant.
As generations of surfers came to recognise, Merewether’s unique combination of rock shelves and reefs deemed it could be surfed at any time, on any tide, in any swell, wind or size. Whether it be the shallow cyllinders of The Rocks or four-metre monsters peeling off Third Reef, Merewether became a magnet for surfers looking to test themselves on a performance wave against the best locals raised in the unpretentious urban streets beyond the beach front. Among a handful of surfers riding an odd collection of hollow and solid boards and hanging around breaks like Poggo’s and Merewether Rocks during the late 1950s were Robbie Wood, Phil Woodcock and Jim Newburn.
Newburn was the first to show that the rock shelf waves wee something beyond a mere test of surfing survival. He demonstrated that Merewether could be a performance arena where surfers with the right blend of nerves and skill could carve as well as glide a nose-ride. He had a willing companion in the talented Wood.
When hollow boards were replaced by balsa and eventually polyurethane and fibre-glass, Newburn and Wood would step into the 1960s among the very best of Australia’s board-riding pioneers.
Surfing’s liberating qualities meant the majority of surfers never felt the call of club and were happy to free surf in perfect anonymity. Consequently, a host of brilliant surfers has danced across the Merewether screen without an entry in the official record. Along with those who stood on paddleboards, long boards, malibus, single fins, twins and thrusters over the years have been others who rode skis, mats, surfos, kneeboards and boogieboards. Yet, the history of the place is defined by the exploits of those who graduated from the ultra-competitive local ranks to establish Merewether Surfboard Club as one of the proudest surfing communities in the world.
The Waves and the Reefs
At the dawn of the Surfing 60s, two distinctly different groups of boardriders marked their territory by erecting beach shacks near the respective stormwater pipes.
The Little Pipelines were a bunch of adolescents whose shack stood near the long-gone smaller outfall near Coane Street. The Big Pipeliners were an older crew, some of them part of a former group known as The Beachniks, who erected a shack near the large pipe just north of the Merewether flags area. The groups surfed the nearest breaks with the little Pipeliners favouring a break adjacent to the John Parade property once the home of the Pogonoski family of Newcastle printing fame. Typically, Poggo’s is a small left-hand break that can, on the outside bank, with the right wind and tide, be as good a tube as you will find anywhere. It works best in a northeast swell when it can be surfed from half a metre to three metres.
The centre is the locale for Merewether’s goofy-footers. Never quite the same quality as the nearby Rocks it is nonetheless rideable on almost any swell. This bank can offer both lefts and rights and, because of its proximity to the flags area, has caused much grief for surf club patrols and lifeguards over the years.
On rare days out the back of The Centre, a large east or south swell can deliver waves reminiscent of Kirra at its best. On one memorable day in the early 2000s the damage toll was 15 snapped boards as The Centre invited tube riders to take on its ruthless barrels. This bank seems to work at its best when the north-running flow from the nearby rock shelf has shaped the sand bank.
Compared with today, only the bravest of the pioneering boardriders ventured south of The Centre. The essential reason was that, in those pre leg rope days of the long board, losing a board on a wave usually meant a frantic swim followed by an afternoon of ding repair. Over time, this unique combination of rock formations and shelves has been justly recognised as the critical element in Merewether’s reputation for producing quality waves.
The Rocks is the wave that best defines Merewether. Revered for its consistency, this right-hander will work in south and east swells and can even be at its best with a bit of north in the wave direction. It has never been better in living memory than in the aftermath of the Sygna storm of May 1974. With huge swell and the rock shelf exposed all the way to the promenade, The Rocks was sensational – at least for those game enough to step off onto bare rock at the end of each ride. It was no mere coincidence that leg ropes became popular at Merewether after that storm.
Best at 1-1.5 metres on a mid to low tide and primarily when the rock shelf is totally devoid of sand, The Rocks is Merewether at its most competitive. Despite its reputation, at half a metre or so it is a perfect introduction for kids to learn what its like to paddle into a consistent wave and ride 30 metres or so into the shore break.
In an east or southeast swell, Second Reef often links to The Rocks offering a combination of clean wave face, critical sections and the prospect of a backdoor tube ride.
The Bombie is home to an eclectic crew. Its here you’ll find soul surfers, wave mystics and anyone dancing to a different drum. This right-hander works in most swells. It may be soulful, but it is no less competitive than its neighbouring breaks.
Third Reef will start breaking at 2 metres and handle anything up to 4.5 metres, or 15-foot in surfing parlance. Often breaking more than 300 metres off the beach, even on the biggest days, there is always somebody willing to take on the massive challenge of getting out through the break to ride the big right. Some will jump off near the Pump-house at the northern end of the Baths where it is safer but still critical if you mis-time the break. Others will try near the blocks at the southern end of the Baths. If your timing is good, you make it. If not, you can get washed back into the baths or worse still, encounter a near-death experience of being hung up on the rock shelf. On a heavy day you might duck-dive 20 or more waves to make it out the back.
Alternatively, surfers have been known to jump off Dudley Bluff and paddle three kilometres north to ride Third Reef. Whatever the route, paddling out at Third Reef in big surf is a test of courage and endurance and certainly adds to the mystique.
4 x World Surfing Champion
Mark Richards graduated from the Merewether surfing incubator to win four successive world titles. From 1979 to 1982 he was the best competitive surfer on the planet. His introduction came in the gentle waves of Blacksmiths but it was his loose-limbed mastery of Merewether that earned him “the wounded seagull” nickname and conviction to take on the world.
Born in 1957, he was raised in a flat above the Hunter St West car business where his parents, Ray and Val, had made room on the showroom floor for the new fibreglass-coated boards.
In his late teens he was a regular in Hawaii, experimenting with twin fins and adopting the famous MR logo modelled on the superman badge.
In 1979, suspecting that his career lay in shaping surfboards rather than competitive surfing, he missed vital rounds of the world tour but took the final event to win the first of four crowns. In Hawaii, surfing’s spiritual home, he was revered as much for his humility as his surfing. When his competitive days were done, MR built his family home with a perfect view of Merewether Point, continued to run the surf shop founded by his father, shape more than half the boards ridden at Merewether and serve as Merewether National Surfing Reserve patron and committee member.