Richard Marsh is event organiser for the UK’s one and (currently) only national stand up paddle surfing event – the BSUPA National Surf SUP Championships, held at Watergate Bay, Cornwall. Ahead of 2015’s wave head gathering, we caught up with Rich to find out the background on the man and the history of the event.
Tell us a bit about your background – when did you first see SUP and what prompted you to step on board with a paddle in your hands?
I’ve been involved in the watersports industry for 25 years, and like many started as a watersports instructor. I always had an interest in event management, so when the organisers of the Brighton Windsurfing World Cup event, which was part of the then Professional Boardsailors Association, were advertising for volunteers in 1994 I called up. I was offered the opportunity to be part of the team. A year later I found myself working for that same company, who had also been employed to oversee management and filming of the new formed PWA World Tour.
Also at this time, I organised bespoke events such as Beach Volley in Covent Garden, the country’s first ever floodlit night surf competition in Bude, and a lot more. We also produced a Youth Sports programme for Sky called ‘Wild Spirits’. In doing so I got to meet some amazing individuals as well as learn about and work with a number of youth sport associations. I have been the Tour Director for the European Pro Wakeboard Tour, and worked as an events production manager for one of the world’s largest advertising/marketing agencies. So, as you can see the event management gene has been there for a while.
I was first exposed to the wonders of SUP in 1994/5 over in Maui when I was representing Naish here in the UK. This was a couple of years before they produced boards commercially. We had a few boards to try out that were all hand shaped by Robby’s father Rik and the late Harold Iggy. I don’t think I actually stood up on the first board I tried, which was a tad annoying, but I could straight away see the potential. However, the next day I tried a slightly bigger version, and was hooked!
Where in the UK are you based, what’s your local put in and who’s your local crew?
I live in Cornwall where I grew up. I have been very fortunate in my life and career to have lived, worked and visited some amazing places around the world, but like they say “there’s no place like home”, and that’s Cornwall through and through. My local is actually not a surf break, but it’s so close to home and has beautiful crystal clear water, that it draws you out day after. Whether it’s just cruising around the bay or SUP fishing like I was doing a few days ago. Amazingly I actually caught a couple of fish too! If we get easterly winds, and there’s a low tide, we can get great swell for a couple of days. It’s not quite the same wave as Watergate Bay, but we have had some great sessions.
Did you have to step up or did you get offered the position of Watergate event director?
I like to put something back into sports I enjoy, and have known John Hibbard for a long time, so when he asked if I could give him a hand to put it together I simply answered yes. I think a couple of years later, John’s involvement with Red Paddle and Starboard meant he did not have enough time to give to the organising of the event so I took over.
How hard is it to put on an event like this each year? What motivates you to keep going year on year?
How hard? That’s a good question and not one I have overly thought about. It’s like any task: you just have to break it down into sections, however, with experience and working with some great people you gain the knowledge from them that assists you. But yes every year, at every event, you have large moments of controlled panic. The motivation to keep is simple: the best is yet to come! We started out at what I call the ‘school sports day phase’ and we have taken it to a National Championships, with individuals from these championships being selected to represent they country at the ISA World Stand Up Paddleboard Championships.
I also believe very strongly that this country has some very talented sports men and women in what we call free sports who do not get the credit or exposure they truly deserve. We have a huge array of European and World Champions out there that in other countries would be national hero’s and in some cases better known overseas. Here in the UK they might get a small mention somewhere but that’s it. So my motivation is to produce a championship that generates positive awareness to all those involved and the sport. The weekend is also more than just the competition. It’s a real gathering with people who share the same passion.
What part of helming the BSUPA nationals do you enjoy the most and why?
Every year is different. At the moment SUP is generating some positive media, we are seeing images of celebrities out on the water weekly in magazines, and papers. I’m getting requests from publications I’ve never heard of calling asking for press passes to the event, so they can interview competitors, which I find amusing. Year on year we are seeing the ever-increasing standard of competitor and competition, so I have to ensure the overall structure of the championship meets that. There’s no one special part just a great feeling when it all comes together. It’s always a good feeling to see the start of the first heat – months of planning have led to this moment.
How do you start with putting on a surf comp – talk us through the months leading up to the due date?
The key to any event is that of a date. Once you have that you start you planning and work backward. Time is never on your side when doing an event, so it’s down to the planning. We are generally working twelve months ahead of ourselves, and by that I mean we are looking at potential dates pretty much the next day after we finish the current. Sometimes it might be before we start the current one. Having organised for a number of years now, we have built up a great team of professionals. As soon as I have a date I contact them and get them to pencil that in to their diaries. I may not talk to some of them again until maybe a couple of months before the championships. During the year I’m talking to potential sponsors but the bulk of the work is two/three months beforehand. Then it’s everything, media, competition information, risk assessments, booking staff, trophies, medals and so on. There are lots of lists that I aim to get down to one page, which eds up being the for the weekend.
How does affiliating the comp with BSUPA work – what’s their involvement and who does that work with you? On you on the committee or do you syndicate the event to them?
BSUPA had recently been set up when I took over organising the event at Watergate, and I was asked if I would be interested in joining the committee, which I did. The big advantage was, and still is, if you can have the backing of an association it givens the event creditability when speaking to individuals and companies – whether that be inside or outside the industry. BSUPA has a small but great team of individuals (we are always looking for and encouraging more people to get involved with the association) who all work hard to promote, and develop UK SUP. Whether that is through training, events, media or awareness and building relationships with other sporting associations. Pretty much all are involved to some degree with this competition. BSUPA uses these championships to select individuals to represent Team GB at the ISA World Stand Paddleboard Championships, through our association with Surfing GB.
What are the biggest hurdles you have to get over each year as far as comp goes?
The biggest hurdle is pretty much financial. An event of this level and nature has costs, which need to be covered. Then it’s logistics, and from there on in the list grows. Each year there are new challenges, but you address them as they come all.
You generally get a lot of support from paddle surfers but how do you think you can attract more riders?
That is a tough question. We have received positive support from competitors over the years, and it has been great to see how both they and their equipment has developed. I think the first comp we were all on 12ft boards, now some are riding sub 8ft! It was great a couple years ago when we had a couple of other top surfers enter from overseas. That made us think the sport is fully here.
Undoubtedly we have seen a huge growth in the recreational side of the sport, which in turn has brought people to racing, or adventure paddling – which is brilliant. Anything that gets the sport out there and people on the water is very positive. I certainly do not see the surf side as elitist, but you do need a location that has a wave. Also, the environment is such that it can be very daunting to some.
Our highest percentage of participants in men is between 45 – 55 year olds. It is a new sport and as it develops we will see growth leading to opportunities, event sponsorship and possibly Sports Council funding for development – its all out there. Combinations of all these factors will I’m sure increase participation in all the areas over time.
Is there scope for getting on the judging panel if you don’t want to compete?
We have a fanatastic team of judges who we have worked with for a number of years now, all of them are either ISA level II or level III international qualified judges. We cannot get any better. With the championships being used for Team GB selection, it is 100% important that we work with the best we can, so regrettably there is not really the opportunity for individuals to get onto the judging panel. BSUPA has in the past offered to host entry level judging seminars, but sadly at that time we did not have enough people wishing to attend. As more people become interested we will look to run these again. If you are interested in learning about judging speak to your local surf club, and if they are running competition see if you can help out or shadow judges. It’s like most things, you need to earn your stripes.
Do you get the opportunity for a dip during the comp or is it all hands on deck?
Easy one to answer, no. Never the time, too much to be doing. OK not totally true: I usually get my feet wet! I hardly even get to watch much of the competition. Last year Alex Murray pulled off a 360 on the wave face, a massive move by all accounts. I was walking up the beach at the time with my back to the water, and all I heard was cheers of the crowds.
Any plans for further SUP surfing comps around the country or maybe a series?
We have been working with British Kite Sports Association for a couple of years and run a joint competition which is one day kitesurf and one day surf SUP. It’s may not as intense as the BSUPA Championships, but the Legend of the Bay crown is fiercely fought for.
It would be great see a national SUP series. BSUPA was the first to run a national series, back in 2008 when the sport was just starting, but with most things you need financial support. I seem to remember we had a couple of organisers pull out at the last minute and we were left trying to put events together at short notice. From that we took the discussion to focus on delivering one good event from that point. Things are starting to change but there’s a lot of groundwork required for a series. Would be great to see though…
What do you think of the standard of UK wave riders? Do you think there’s scope for more surfing comps?
I have never seen such a consistently high standard in competition as this country.
Why do you think the BSUPA event is the only surf event in the UK at the moment?
There’s a lot to get your head around, I’m still learning. There is a big finical outlay. Officials, water safety, insurance – it all costs, and there’s a level of commitment required to organise, which can put people off. If you want to do it, talk to your local surf club, ask if they would be interested in adding a SUP class to their club events, and then work with them to organise.
SUP is still a growing sport, as we all know. Where do you see stand up paddle surfing heading in this part of the world? Can we compete with global nations do you think?
It’s great to be part of a growing sport and be able to put an event together which allow individuals to compete and showcase their skill. We will see growth, but it has to be cool to do. Can we compete with other global nations? Team GB have always done themselves proud at the ISA Worlds considering the limited competitive scene we have in the UK. The more competitions you can compete in, the more competition fit you become. It would be great if funding for development could be found. The sport is still very young and the best is yet to come.
In years past racing also made up part of the weekend – why was this dropped? Any plans for it to come back or is Watergate going to stick with surfing only?
When we first started the event at Watergate Bay we did a bit of everything. As it became established, it became too busy to do everything. We were seeing surf entries increase and it was clear that we could not really achieve everything in one day. Holding the surf event over two days allows us a degree of flexibility in heat timing. I think for the moment we will just stay with surf.
Any further plans for the comp moving forwards you let us know about?
Always happy to share further plans as and when they materialise.
Any final shout out and thanks?
Firstly, I would like to thanks the Ashworth family owners of the Watergate Bay and the Extreme Academy and their staff especially Alison Payne and Carl Coombes. They have always been keen supporters of ocean sports and hosting competitions in particular. There can only be one winner, but for everyone who goes out on the water to compete, a very big thank you! Officials, volunteers who help out, BSUPA and anyone else who has given and time around the event – thanks yoU!. Finally my friends who I have lured to Watergate Bay for a weekend of moving flags, hanging banners and just providing extra set of hands to do stuff! Thank you to everyone and look forward to seeing you all on the beach in a few weeks.