Big Kirk Willcox – a better bloke you'll seldom find. (Bob Barker)

“I never wanted to write people off. Surfing to me was something to celebrate.”

Surf journalist, Kirk Willcox, shares wisdom from a life spent in the ocean.

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Kirk Willcox has had a career involved in and around surfing for over 30 years, his first full-time involvement starting as a 23-year-old when he was appointed Editor of Tracks. He then went on to a Managing Editor’s role, freelanced for a number of years, and was a part of Stop The Ocean Pollution group, which was instrumental in the cleanup of Sydney’s beaches in the early 90s. In 1995, Kirk was offered a position with Quiksilver International, a role he held for 12 years. Kirk then joined Surfaid as the Marketing and Communications Manager and it’s been a job that’s had a profound effect on his life. It’s been a long and varied career for a surf-obsessed kid from Maroubra and Big Kirky’s passion for surfing, the ocean and people is the common thread. If he ever retires, Kirk will be able to look back on his career with a degree of satisfaction that most of us can only dream of… and with plenty of yarns to share as well.

Journalism… I decided I wanted to be a journalist when I was 16 and ended up getting a cadetship on The Daily Mirror in 1976. Working in news was full on. I covered some pretty heavy crime stories, but then I realised that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I had covered a couple of surf contests in Sydney for the newspaper and had met Phil Abrahams, the Associate Editor of Tracks at the time. I heard he was leaving and applied for the job. Turns out they’d already given Nick Carroll the role, but they offered me the Editor’s position. It blew me away. That was my lucky break. I was 23 and Nick was only 21, so I knew we were the right demographic and we had a huge passion for surfing. All we were trying to do was share that stoke. I never wanted to write people off because I had come from five years of hard core tabloid journalism, I was over destroying people’s lives. Surfing to me was something to celebrate.

Surfers… It’s been great working with surfers. When I first started I was in complete awe of a lot of them. The surfers then were larger than life, all very distinct personalities – MR, Ian Cairns, Simon Anderson, PT, Rabbit – they were real characters. It was a bit intimidating at first. But that’s been the greatest thing, having been involved in surfing ever since and to have become good friends with a few of them, shared a lot of experiences and travelled the world together.

Scenes of Kirky riding a horse, hanging with old Tracks mates Tim Baker, Nick Carroll and Reggae Elliss and at Surfaid. (Willcox / Nolan)

 

Breaking New Ground… I was International Marketing and Media Manager for Quiksilver, that was an extraordinary job and it was 12 great years of my life. It covered everything, The Crossing, pro events, films and managing the media for the international team. I had Kelly, Lisa Andersen, Tom Carroll, Ross Clarke-Jones and we were trailblazing in a lot of areas. We did one of the first live webcasts out in the middle of the ocean off the tower at Cloudbreak using a satellite phone, one camera and one commentator – you, Mr. Elliss! Before that, in 1995, we did the Quiksilver Pro in G-Land. Bruce Raymond had hired me and my first job was to publicise that event and he said we really had to make an impact in Europe because they’d invested heavily. The only way I could do that was to get Reuters in there and get international coverage. They came down and we ended up getting five tapes out. We had to get them on the boat, then a motorbike, then a flight from Bali to Jakarta, then to Europe.

Surf Magazines In The Digital Age… There’s a lot of choice out there now and you can access the news cycle as soon as it begins. We used to cover contests and they’d be read two weeks later. Now you watch it live. It’s put pressure on the mags to provide something deeper. You still like to look at a beautiful colour photo in a double page spread, read a good caption giving unique insight, have that tactile experience. We spend so much time looking at computers and there are moments you need to get away. The role of magazines now is really about making sense of stuff, taking a helicopter view. For example, coming into this World Title you really wanted to know where Mick and Kelly’s heads were at – that’s the story, everyone was anticipating the showdown at Pipe. It’s really just trying to get a conversation going with people where you can scratch beneath the surface.

Surfaid… When the tsunami happened on Boxing Day, 2004, Bruce Raymond sent me to help Surfaid with their efforts. Surfaid was in a holding pattern: watch and wait to see if we can respond. They were in the Mentawais and a lot of other agencies were focused on other islands like Aceh. Then Martin Daly [original Mentawais explorer] said, “Look, Nias has been really smashed and no one is going up there.” And that was it. Quiksilver and Billabong came through with some money and they had access to the charter boats which were in their off-season and that’s when Surfaid moved into emergency response. That experience really had a huge affect on me. After that I continued to give Surfaid advice on communications. Then, seven years ago I was made redundant at Quiksilver, Surfaid found out and offered me a job. I took it on the proviso that I lived in the field. I wanted to be close to what we were doing in the islands, understand it and document it, take television crews in there, media – I just wanted to live it so that I could better communicate the challenges. It’s definitely the most extraordinary experience of my life, getting to know those local families. The thing that really struck me was just how hard their life is, even without a disaster.

“I never wanted to write people off. I had come from five years of tabloid journalism, I was over destroying people’s lives. Surfing to me was something to celebrate.”

Charging solid Bronte. Onya Kirky ya legend! (Tony Nolan)

Generosity… In Australia, we are particularly privileged, and all we’re trying to do is make people aware that they have an opportunity to help someone here, and really help them. But people need to work out their own motivations and whether they want to do that. They don’t necessarily have to support Surfaid, it’s about supporting something. Actually find something in your consciousness that you feel a connection with. You’ve got your family, your friends and some people go beyond that and do work in their community and then there’s a whole other level of people actually thinking of others in communities abroad. These people live very tough lives. Just putting a meal on the table every night is a big deal.

The Rewards… When you work for a not-for-profit organisation, you often feel like you can do a lot more than what’s being achieved and there’s a lot of frustration sometimes, because it’s a slow process. Then little things happen that remind you of how you’re changing these people’s lives. I was there a few years ago with a filmmaker and we went to Masokut, a village that had been wiped out in the 2010 tsunami, and we’d helped rebuild the village up on a hill, away from danger. I’ll never forget meeting those people. We met a couple who had three kids, but lost their two daughters and only their little boy survived. I saw them again last year and they fully appreciated what we’d done. We’d helped with building materials and put water into the village and they we’re so appreciative. It’s like, “wow we really are having an affect.”

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