“From a World Surf League perspective, Bells Beach is sacred to us, it’s been running over 50 years and ringing the bell is in many ways … the Wimbledon of surfing,” he said.
“We love that event and we desperately wanted Bells to be the first opening event of the Australian leg, but it wasn’t possible and that wasn’t a decision that was in our control.
“We were [offering] to pay for our flight, all our own quarantine, we weren’t asking the Victorian government for a dollar, we just needed them to allow us to land a plane and go through their quarantine system and they said no.”
On Sunday the state government said constraints associated with Victoria’s hotel quarantine program were partly behind the refusal, as the main aim of the quarantine program was processing returned travellers.
The same program has in recent weeks hosted 1200 tennis players, officials and support workers from overseas for the Australian Open, which began in Melbourne on Monday, in addition to returned travellers.
But Mr Stark said the WSL never wanted to take the seats of returning Australians. Instead, it had asked for permission, outside of the cap on returning travellers, to land its own private charter plane.
Despite the refusal to land in Victoria, he said he respected the state government’s decision and was understanding of the fact the WSL permit request came at a time when there were tense negotiations taking place around the Australian Open.
“We did everything we could to work with the Victorian government and gave them every opportunity and, to be quite honest, we waited till too long. We nearly waited to the point where we ran out of time to get it done somewhere else,” he said.
“I do believe the Victorian government underestimated the significance of Bells Beach to the Victorian people. We certainly didn’t feel we were as important as the tennis.”
Mr Stark said at the height of the chaos, Visit Victoria stepped in to try to broker conversations with ministerial departments including the sports and recreation portfolio, but it too failed.
When the request was denied about January 8, Mr Stark said it forced event organisers to make a desperate appeal to the NSW Deputy Premier for help.
Within two weeks, he said, NSW secured quarantine approval on the agreement one leg of the tour would be held in Newcastle.
“The NSW government … seized an opportunity and we’ll be forever grateful for them saving the tour this year,” Mr Stark said.
“It’s not a long-term thing, this is crisis management mid pandemic.
“It’s just timing sometimes isn’t in your favour.”
Surf Coast surfboard shaper Maurice Cole said while the coastal community had previously been firm in its refusal to move the Bells Beach leg of the tour from its traditional timing of Easter to May, he said they were now open to negotiations.
“It’s desperate times,” he said. “If the Australian leg doesn’t go ahead, we won’t get [a] world champion this year.”
This Easter will be the first time since 1961 that the Rip Curl Pro surfing event is not held on the famed break near Torquay, 100 kilometres south-west of Melbourne.
On Monday a state government spokesman said accommodating returning Australians remained its priority.
“Given the stated priority … we were unable to provide the World Surf League with a guarantee regarding quarantine places for international surfers within the time frame required by them,” the spokesman said.
“We continue to work with the World Surf League on plans for the Rip Curl Pro and will have more to say in due course.”
NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro revealed on Saturday that his government had secured the opening round of the World Surf League championship tour for Newcastle from April 1-11.
Start your day informed
Our Morning Edition newsletter is a curated guide to the most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up here.
Erin covers crime for The Age. Most recently she was a police reporter at the Geelong Advertiser.
Chris Vedelago is an investigations reporter for The Age with a special interest in crime and justice.