The contentious sale of a key asset has left a national sports organisation teetering on the brink of civil war.

Surfing New Zealand, which could potentially be represented at the Olympics for the first time in Tokyo 2020, is wracked by in-fighting as management and board face accusations of incompetence and questions concerning elections. All these issues are likely to be raised at the sport's national championships, which begin in Gisborne tomorrow.

The schism seems to be formed loosely along territorial lines with a board, dominated by Raglan and Auckland and having the support of Sport New Zealand, under fire from a loose Gisborne-Taranaki alliance that appears to have widespread support among surfing community.

On a wider level, the split is philosophical and cuts to the heart of what a national sports organisation should look and act like, but the flashpoint for the latest and most bitter dispute comes down to the sale of The Ultimate Waterman (TUW) event, which was developed by longstanding Surfing NZ chief executive Greg Townsend.


Townsend has been at the helm of the organisation since 1995, making him the longest serving chief executive of a national sporting organisation. He has indicated he will step down towards the middle of next year but in the meantime has negotiated the sale of TUW to an organisation of which he is a shareholder.

The board of Surfing NZ has given a green light to the sale - which stands to net the organisation $30,000 every year the event is held and five per cent of any profits - and voted down a motion at their most recent AGM to have the terms reviewed by an independent body.

Surfing New Zealand chief executive Greg Townsend. Photo / Photosport
Surfing New Zealand chief executive Greg Townsend. Photo / Photosport

The vote was split 5-5 but chairman Chris Fougere - who was involved in the negotiations with Townsend - used his casting vote to ensure the terms of sale did not go to a review.

"The sale process was such a conflict of interest," said Tony Kemp, the former Kiwis and Newcastle league star who tried unsuccessfully to get elected to the board in 2014.

"It's so far from best practice, it's not funny," echoed Damon Harvey, a former board member who left this year, but not before sending a fiery letter to stakeholders outlining his dissatisfaction with a number of elements of Surfing NZ's governance. "Every time we have tried to get details on the sale process, we've been shut down."

Multiple sources who attended the most recent AGM claim that Townsend, when pressed on the sale of TUW to himself, said he could just change the name and not give Surfing NZ anything if the review went ahead.

Townsend declined a request for an interview but instead sent the Weekend Herald an emailed response to queries around the sale of the Waterman and governance issues.

"It is a shame that a few negative comments by one former board member is clouding the incredible success of The Ultimate Waterman in New Zealand and the wonderful work Surfing NZ is doing every day with the limited resources at its disposal," he said.

"Like any sporting organisation in New Zealand, Surfing NZ is constantly looking for funding to keep itself afloat - particularly after a funding criteria change meant our government funding was slashed by half in 2016," Townsend wrote.

"Our plan has worked perfectly, providing crucial funds over the past three years to help develop the sport and provide more opportunities for surfers from beginners through to the elite. It's always been about the surfing.

"The Ultimate Waterman event is my legacy to the sport and to the organisation and it is a gift that should keep on giving."

Fougere said the sale terms were discussed in detail at board level and there was unanimous support for the decision to sell.

"We as a board felt we wanted to move in a different direction, away from the Waterman and in a more traditional direction."

The sale, he said, means Surfing NZ stands to gain money for nothing; in his words, "collecting rent on an empty house".

Some believe the decision to sell might have been unanimous, but the way it was conducted was fraught. They say the TUW, a multi-disciplined event now being taken to Hawaii, was used as a personal plaything of Townsend and had little or no long-term benefit for Surfing NZ.

"I would say that's a very cynical way of looking at it," said Fougere.

Critics believe the cynicism is well founded, saying Townsend spent seven years collecting a centrally funded CEO's salary and spending about $1.5m in major events and Ateed public money on an event that will have little lasting legacy. All the while surfing's more traditional events were left to wither.

The sale has lit a fuse under some members, but in truth it is only the latest spark in one of New Zealand's most combustible sports organisations.

Questions have been raised about the leadership of the organisation, the high-performance pathways, the accurate recording of minutes at meetings and, most damagingly, issues over the board election process..

"The [election] process lacks integrity," said Kemp.

He was managing junior world champion surfer Ella Williams and was encouraged by Bay of Plenty and Taranaki clubs to run for the board in 2014 but was beaten by Hawke's Bay Sport chairman Damon Harvey.

Damon Harvey.
Damon Harvey.

The vote was split at 6-6 but the chairman, at the stage Steve Poulter, went for Harvey. In an extraordinary resignation letter last month, Harvey admitted he was "pretty much recruited" by chief executive Townsend, "who was wanting to ensure that another candidate didn't get appointed to the board".

That person was Kemp.

Surfing New Zealand chairman Fougere said his organisation disagreed with some of the contents of Harvey's letter but others, such as Surfing Taranaki chief executive Craig Williamson, describe the accusations as entirely "credible".

Harvey also told the Weekend Herald that to be eligible as North Island rep he had to belong to a club so was enrolled as a member of Piha's Lion Rock Boardriders, even though he had never set foot on that beach.

"It's just a joke," Kemp says. "I have confronted the chairman about this. It happened to Trevor McKewen before me and happened again last year when Alexis Poulter was elected to the board."

Kemp said another candidate, Taranaki's Williamson, had far more relevant experience and qualifications but Townsend and Fougere did not want anybody on the board who would challenge them.

"With all due respect, Alexis has no right to be on that board. She has no board experience, no understanding of director's responsibilities yet she somehow won the vote over a candidate that had far more to recommend him."

Of the election process, Williamson would say only that he felt he delivered a compelling case to be elected.

Craig Williamson. Photo / NZPA
Craig Williamson. Photo / NZPA

Fougere said that like any election, there would be winners and losers and the losers were bound to be disappointed.

Townsend has some strong support within surfing circles.

When the election brouhaha was bubbling away ahead of last year's annual meeting, Lion Rock Boardriders' secretary and surfing identity Phil Wallis also penned an open letter to clubs.

He claimed Harvey, Williamson and Kemp were out of line for their attacks on Surfing NZ.

"Pull your heads in," he wrote, before adding this curious interpretation of an annual general meeting: "AGMs are not where we solve operation issues, or even board issues."

(Kemp would reply that AGMs were exactly the place to discuss board issues.)

Harvey's letter had excoriated the election process and levelled a number of serious governance allegations.

"As a board member I have never seen [Townsend's] employment contract," he wrote. "The [CEO] role and performance are not annually reviewed by the board - there are also no [key performance indicators]."

Harvey wrote that Townsend's conduct as CEO was demeaning and unprofessional. "When challenged his conduct becomes extremely abrasive," Harvey wrote.

"At a strategic day held in Auckland this year, I was verbally attacked by the [CEO] for my views."

Townsend did not respond to these accusations directly - as previously mentioned he chose not to be interviewed - but did say in his email: "I have learnt over the years that you can't please everyone and usually the loudest critics are the ones who do the least to help."

Harvey said he was most disappointed by the lack of action taken at board level to modify Townsend's behaviour.

Where Harvey failed to make the changes he felt necessary to bring the organisation and sport in line with best practice, Williamson now wants to try.

While Surfing NZ continued with their TUW strategy, Williamson said his organisation instead brought the world's best female surfers to Taranaki for the New Zealand Surf Festival.

"Surfing Taranaki has been doing what Surfing NZ should have been doing," Williamson said.

"Surfing in New Zealand has enormous potential. It's in a really exciting space but it's hamstrung by its leadership and misguided focus on The Ultimate Waterman.

"That has sucked up all the major event funding, when they could have been running shortboard surfing events - which is what all the kids want to do."

With most of the surfing community apathetic to, or suspicious of, administration and authority, Williamson said it was important for the leadership to make more effort to connect with its diverse constituents.

"It's not too late," he said.