MEREWETHER Beach on a late summer morning is a picture of laid-back perfection. Under a flawless sky, the sea is irresistibly turquoise. On the sand, and along the promenade, sun lovers in swimwear stroll, while the more active are jogging or preparing to paddle out into the swell.
The last thing on anyone’s mind, it seems, is work. Except for Philippa Anderson. For the beach is her workplace. Anderson is a professional surfer.
“I feel like I’ve been competing for so long,” Anderson says, as she scans the waves from our outside table at the Merewether Surfhouse cafe. “Someone asked me this morning what year I won Surfest, and I was like, ‘I think it was …’.”
For the record, it was 2009, when a 17-year-old Anderson won Newcastle’s biggest surfing tournament, which attracts competitors from around the world.
As we have brunch, Anderson is mentally preparing for the 2018 Surfest. Just along the beach, infrastructure for the tournament has been erected, and out on the waves, early heats are underway.
Yet it’s not just the pressure of a past victory that weighs on Philippa Anderson. Merewether Beach is her home break. She lives with her parents, just five minutes away.
“It is hard here being local, because everyone has expectations,” she muses.
No one’s expectations are higher than those of Anderson herself.
She wants to make this her year to finally break through to compete on the women’s championship tour and be recognised as one of the top 17 female surfers in the world.
THE surf has always had a defining presence in Philippa Anderson’s life. Only the waves rolled onto a different shore when she was a small child.
She was born in South Africa and grew up across the road from the beach in a community near Port Elizabeth.
Among her earliest memories are being on the sand with her parents and older brother and sister. From about the age of eight, Philippa was on a board – and falling off it.
“Dad used to say I would get really angry at him for pushing me onto a bad wave and wiping out,” she smiles. “Now I understand it was never Dad’s fault, but I did blame it on him when I was younger.”
Philippa’s life was all surf and sunshine, but not for many in her country. The legacy of apartheid still affected everyday life. In the Anderson household, she says, there was no discrimination. The Andersons had nannies, who were black, and “they were part of the family”. Yet the vast gap in opportunities in South Africa later struck Anderson.
She recalls her parents hosting a pool party at home for her birthday. Philippa’s entire class from the all-girls’ school she attended were invited. For some of her black friends, this presented a new experience.
“Four or five of them had never been in a swimming pool before,” Philippa says. “Looking back, that is so crazy, the opportunities that as a white person growing up there we might have had.”
When she was 12, Philippa’s life was about to change: “My parents [Rod and Debbie] could just see a better future in another country for us. I remember being at the dinner table, and Mum and Dad were like, ‘We have some news. We are moving to Australia’.
“And I honestly didn’t know where that was on the map. Not that I wasn’t educated at school. I guess I was in that bubble of our awesome lifestyle. I actually went and looked it up, and it was ‘kangaroos’ and we were fascinated by that.”
Rod Anderson emigrated first, and his family followed about six months later. Philippa already felt sad and dislocated, leaving behind her homeland and friends, and those emotions only intensified during her first night in Australia. The family was staying in Manly, and, after dinner, Philippa asked for an ice cream. Her father said no, because it was about four times the price of an ice cream in South Africa.
“I remember being so sad, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be the worst place ever!’,” she says. “For a long time, that was hard for us. We had to leave that behind, because we couldn’t keep comparing to the [South African] rand. It would mess our life up.”
Rod’s sister, her husband and their children lived in Maitland. So the Andersons headed north and lived with their relatives. They frequently travelled to Newcastle, and the kids would surf at the local beaches.
However, the new arrivals had no idea what was on the other side of The Hill.
“I think one day we just drove over The Hill and we we were coming down this stretch [between Bar Beach and Merewether] and were like, ‘Woah, look at this whole other side of Newcastle!’,” Anderson says.
“Maybe that’s what made us fall in love with Newcastle.”
Her family moved to the coast, and Philippa started to find her feet on the sand at Merewether, joining the surf life saving and boardriders’ clubs and making friends.
“Friends made it feel like that hole was getting a little bit smaller,” she says. “The hole in your heart, from just missing home.”
Just as she had done in South Africa, Philippa often surfed with her older brother Craig, who already had a sponsorship deal and would develop into a well-known surfer.
Yet in her new home, Philippa quickly realised she was hardly the only girl on a surfboard. Back in South Africa, she had to compete in the boys’ under-12 division, but in Australia, Philippa noticed there were enough girls and women surfing to have their own contests.
“That’s probably the main thing that clicked for me,” Philippa says. “‘Oh, there’s a girls’ division. Let’s try this out!’.”
She began tearing down the waves against other up-and-comers, including the current women’s world champion, Tyler Wright: “Seeing other girls [competing] made me feel like, ‘This is what I want to do’.
That desire was fuelled by sponsorship from Roxy swimwear. As part of “Team Roxy”, the teenager travelled the globe with a chaperone and a coach. The experience, she says, gave her “a bird’s-eye view of the whole surfing scene, and how you can be a professional surfer and travel the world and do what you love as a job”.
Yet when she was 21, Anderson was dropped by Roxy: “That was a massive lifestyle turnaround.” She began working in a bar, sought new sponsorship, and her resolve hardened: “Every day you’ve got to wake up and tick the boxes.”
And that’s how it has been for Philippa Anderson, training on the waves and in the gym, working part-time jobs, grabbing smaller sponsorship deals, scrimping and saving to travel from one contest to the next around the globe.
Indeed, as soon as this brunch interview is over, Philippa has to dash to a babysitting shift. So it is not quite the idyllic existence many imagine.
“That does frustrate me, because a lot of people don’t understand that,” Anderson explains. “There’s a lot of us on tour who don’t have major backing, so a lot of us work. Last year there were three girls on tour who didn’t have major sponsors and they were among the top 17 female surfers in the world.”
Anderson says women’s prize money is not equal to the men’s, “but it’s a massive improvement on what it used to be”.
More than prize money, Anderson competes for points, hoping to crack into the Top 17: “I’ve been doing the QS [Qualifying Series] for almost eight years now, and I’ve come close four years now to qualifying.
“You look back and think, ‘There’s one heat, if I’d just made that, I would have qualified and reached my goal’.”
At the end of 2016, Anderson almost quit, after a trying year in the surf, and out of it. She was heartbroken after splitting with her partner of three years.
“That was a really bad year for me, surf-wise,” she says. “I just couldn’t put it together because of the heartbreak, and everything else just tumbled down. I was really ready to give up [professional surfing] that year.
“We had the last event [the Sydney International Women’s Pro]. I had done so bad all year, so there was no pressure. And I ended up getting second. And that was, I think, maybe a sign to give it another go.”
Anderson keeps giving it a go. She has the support of her family, and her Christian faith. She travels with a small Bible and the belief that “God has a plan for everyone”.
But she also has her own plans for when she eventually retires from competitive surfing. She hopes to study architecture and design.
As Philippa Anderson gazes at the waves rolling towards Merewether Beach, that day hasn’t come yet.
“Maybe I’ll never reach my goal of qualifying,” Anderson says. “But I guess I look and say, ‘You’ve had an amazing time surfing, and what it’s brought you’.”