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Byron Bay’s famous waves were reportedly first ridden by lifeguards in the late 1920s, but it wasn’t until Bruce Brown (of The Endless Summer fame) showcased its famous right-hander, The Pass, to the world in Surfing Hollow Days (1961) that Byron became synonymous with surfing. While the days of riding perfect uncrowded barrels in this northern NSW town are long over, wave riders the world over continue to make the pilgrimage to paddle into its iconic breaks.
With its long, peeling right-handers, The Pass isn’t just one of the most iconic surf spots in Byron Bay, but in all of Australia – though Byron’s appeal among surfers also has a lot to do with the diversity and consistency of the Byron Shire’s breaks. With more than a dozen surf spots located on the Cape Byron peninsula and beyond, it’s a rare case when at least one spot in the area isn’t working. Byron’s laid-back vibe, spectacular seaside scenery and warm subtropical waters teeming with marine life only add to its appeal.
With more than half a dozen professional surf schools to choose from and a good selection of breaks suitable for beginners, Byron Bay is one of the best places on the planet to learn to surf, or perfect your technique. Surf schools offer the full range of classes from beginner group sessions to one-on-one tuition, with surf spots chosen each day depending on the conditions. Most classes are held at The Pass, Clarkes Beach or Cosy Corner at Tallow Beach, with Rusty Miller Surf holding an exclusive licence for private lessons at Wategos Beach.
Far from a secret spot these days, The Pass – a 20-minute walk east of the town centre – can see more than 100 surfers hit the waves in optimum conditions, with the winter months generally heralding the biggest swells. To avoid the crowds, sidestep weekends, and rather than heading straight out at The Pass, consider paddling out down the beach at Clarkes and picking off waves as they reform when they peel around the headland. It’s also worth checking out Sunrise Beach south of town, and Broken Head to the north, which have good waves for short- and longboards.
Byron’s Main Beach can be a bit dumpy, which makes it better for experienced shortboarders and bodysurfers. Better shortboard waves can generally be found at The Wreck, beyond the northern end of the Main Beach car park. Around The Cape, Tallow Beach is generally suited to more experienced surfers, as the strong currents can easily catch weaker swimmers unawares.
The key rules of surf etiquette in Byron and beyond are to respect locals, observe right of way, don’t drop in (take off on a wave already being ridden), don’t snake (jump the queue) and do apologise when you’re in the wrong. As Byron’s waves can become very crowded, it’s particularly important to choose spots that suit your ability to reduce the risk of collisions and other accidents. In recent years, Byron has experienced a dangerous trend in surfers eschewing leg ropes. Don’t be one of them.
Byron Bay has birthed dozens of surf and swim brands over the years. For custom boards, McTavish Surfboards, ESP Surfboards and Munro Surfboards are just a few local shapers worth checking out. McTavish Surfboards also has a men’s surfwear line, while ‘ladysliders’ are catered for via the likes of Salt Gypsy and Atmosea. Byron Bay Longboards is another locally owned spot to pick up surf gear, hardwear and more.
While there are no dedicated surfer hang-outs in Byron, The Rails pub is one of Byron’s most popular local haunts on a Friday evening.
There are myriad opportunities to get involved with Byron’s surf community. If you’re visiting on a Friday, throw on your brightest surf gear, head down to The Pass and join the weekly 7am Fluro Friday surf session hosted by OneWave – a not-for-profit surf community helping to raise awareness of mental health. Byron Theatre regularly hosts surf film screenings, and each February Byron gears up for the Byron Bay Surf Festival, with surfer talks, surf markets, surf competitions and more. Ladysliders can join the Atmosea Gurf Community on Facebook, and if you’re optioning a more permanent move to the bay, you may also wish to join the Byron Bay Boardriders club.
Check surf conditions before you head out via the Swellnet or Coastalwatch apps, which both have surf cams for The Pass and Main Beach. Be aware that northerly winds tend to bring in stingers (translucent-blue bluebottles are the main offenders), and that sharks are generally more active at dawn and at dusk. The Dorsal community-based shark alert app lists shark sightings at surf spots around the country.
Rental boards can be picked up at Byron Bay Surf and Bike Hire, or at surf schools including Blackdog Surfing and Soul Surf School, though if you’ll be staying for more than a week it might be cheaper to purchase a second-hand board from an online marketplace. Finally, as tempting as it might be to channel Byron’s original surfers by sleeping in your van by the beach, keep in mind that parking in Byron’s streets or reserves overnight carries a minimum fine of 110 Australian dollars.