The 12th Annual Point Michaud Surf Classic
Open surf, Kids surf, Junior boys, Junior girls, Bodyboard, Tandem surf, Team expression, Team relay, Skimboard, Kayak surf, Shortboard, Mens surf, Womens surf, Longboard…
As I stand here weighing my options, I wonder how many categories I could handle before I collapse from exhaustion. I sign up for 4. Loads of people sign up for double that. What kind of surf competition is this? It’s the 12th Annual Point Michaud Surf Classic, and anyone will tell you it’s a different breed.
What can I say about Point Michaud beach? If you’ve been there, you know. It’s a long crescent shaped beach with a hook of land jutting out to sea and ending in a nearly eroded headland. It’s sandy and shallow for a long way out, sculpting a perfect cruisy longboard wave – when it’s on, think mini-Waikiki. I can easily see why the welcome sign calls it a ‘world class beach.’ It’s stunning. For contest day, conditions are small but surfable and trunks are a realistic option. It’s glassy with a hint of cross shore breeze, thigh high on the sets. You take your chances when you lock in on a single contest date. I reckon the Point Michaud Classic gets a good dose of positive surf karma. The weather is perfect, that’s for sure. Sunscreen is most definitely required.
People are milling around the parking lot, waiting for Michelle Richards, the competition organizer and go-to person for all things Cape Breton surf. She arrives in a cloud of dust, her beast of a truck packed with gear and Akona swag. Michelle is decked out in a flowy purple dress, big sunglasses, and a floppy white hat. She has curly red hair and a larger-than-life smile. To make it to the beach on time, Michelle flew from Los Angeles to Moncton, landing at midnight and making the 5 hour drive home to St. Peters, grabbing gear on the way. She is functioning on one hour of sleep. Even so, when she shows up, everybody moves. She starts working on a sign-up grid while the dozens of volunteers – from young kids to her own parents – start unloading the truck and storage hut. Longboards come flying out, wetsuits of all sizes are hung up, tents are erected, fins are installed on paddleboards, a small barbeque is set up, and flags are stuck in the sand. Within minutes, Michelle is ready to collect the $10 admission fee. If she is exhausted, it doesn’t show. So far, this contest is a well-oiled machine. There’s a reason why it’s the 12th annual. People power.
Michelle laughs a lot too. As we gather around to hear her instructions, she says ‘hey!’ to people in the crowd. She tells us how it’s going to work. Each category rolls on to the next, punctuated by her air horn blast. If you’re signed up for the open surf, get out there. Everyone surfs together in the same heat and party waves are highly encouraged. Michelle paces the beach with her clipboard and awards points to the most stylish and skillful surfers. At the end of the heat, we come out of the water to hear her verdict. First place gets 5 points, along with 1 point for participating in the event. Points count down from there based on Michelle’s call. The main prize is a brand new Pulse stand up paddleboard, awarded to the person with the day’s most points. In other words, if you want to win, you have to sign up for as many events as possible. Everyone keeps track of their own points on a big piece of blue Bristol board. Though Michelle is laughing most of the day, she’s still very much on it. Again, the Point Michaud Surf Classic runs with institutional ease.
Plus, everyone’s having a blast. Michelle’s dad Stan puts it best when he says to me, “You know what this contest is all about? Family. Families set it up, everyone participates, and everyone gets in the water.” The team expression session proves Stan’s point. All of a sudden, a tickle trunk opens and every surfer is decked out in costume. Pirate hats, mini harmonicas, bushy mustaches – the beach is looking like a Village People concert. Again, Michelle is there, jotting notes on who has the best spirit in the water. The winner of the heat is a man, his wife and their young son who converted a surf kayak into a pirate ship, complete with bad ass red flag. They catch one wave and capsize, hooting the whole time. Major style points.
On a whim, I brought my rarely-used skimboard. At this point in the afternoon, I’ve caught the fever, so I join in for the heat. It’s me and a handful of teenagers who look like they take skimboarding seriously. I, on the other hand, have only tried it a few times, with limited success. My first attempt is doomed from the start. As soon as I get speed, I find myself drifting sideways, totally out of control. Then the bottom catches me. Bam! Flat on my face. I get a good dose of positive encouragement and ‘ohs’ for my effort. This is a safe place. The young dudes are throwing shove-its and styling all kinds of smooth rides. By the end of the heat, I manage to put together a somewhat respectable ride. According to Michelle, I fell somewhere out of the top 5. No worries, I still got a point.
The highlight of the afternoon comes when we line up for the Mens surf division. It’s me on my 6 foot fish next to a bunch of longboarders. Seconds prior to hitting the horn, Michelle calls out in her hoarse voice, “Just before you paddle out, I want to call your attention to the surf royalty among you. Gerard Taylor, over here, is 75 years young and still ripping. Meet the very first person to ever surf Cape Breton!” I look over and see a tanned man with a full head of hair. 75? 65, maybe. I jog over and take my place beside him, eager to glean some of his wisdom. “Yep,” he says, “I love surfing. Been doing it since the 60s right here.” The horn sounds and we paddle out together. I’m in awe to be around one of the true pioneers.
Gerard wins his age category and it doesn’t even matter that it’s by default. We all cheer anyways. It’s late afternoon and most of the heats have happened. Participants are all friends now, trading boards and laughs. At no point did I see anything that resembled a ‘competition’ in the true sense of the word. Yes, people were trying to surf their best. That’s a given. Even though the contest is unorthodox, there’s a drive that pushes most surfers to let rip. It’s the sheer lack of surf ego, today, that is noteworthy. Michelle, in her eye-of-the-storm presence, keeps things light and mellow all day. We just follow her lead.
When, in late afternoon, my daughters show signs of flagging, we pack up our gear and make for the campground. We miss the closing ceremonies, presided over by – who else – Michelle. I never found out who won that paddleboard. It almost seems irrelevant. We all won.
Back at Battery Point Provincial Park, everyone is refreshed and fed and the place is buzzing. Michelle moves the tickle trunk to a central spot so even the families with the youngest kids can take part in the after party. We take a family stroll at dusk, my wife Genny and I packing some red wine in our travel mugs. After chatting with new friends, we run into Michelle one last time. She’s zipping back to her place for a guitar and she’ll be back in a few minutes to put the finishing touches on an epic day. Stan sees her off and then coaxes our girls to give him a few laughs.
“Family, that’s it. That’s what this is about,” Stan muses again. “I wouldn’t be here so late, helping out year after year, if it wasn’t such a positive thing for families. Michelle is my daughter and we’ve always been close. She’s the energy of this thing, isn’t she?”
“Yes, definitely,” I respond.
“And what about you guys – you think you’ll be back next year?” Stan asks.
Genny says “For sure!” before I can even chime in.
Camping, surf, sun, good vibes – this is the kind of tradition we were looking for without even knowing it.
There’s no doubt that Halifax is the epicenter of surf in Nova Scotia. Sheer numbers of surfers make Hali ground zero for the scene. What the Point Michaud Surf Classic reminds us is that the true soul of surf in this province is wherever people are having the most fun in the water. This past weekend, I can safely say that Point Michaud was that place. Props to Michelle Richards and all the volunteers for making the magic happen.