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Virgin Islanders on our shores


Brigid Veale
19 July 2007
Just over 4000 people live on the smallest Virgin Island of St John, afloat in the turquoise waters of the stunning Carribean Sea. But as beautiful as this tropical paradise is, it’s not renowned for its surf breaks.

So to have three St John surfer girls – sisters Marjie and Coco Barbier and their childhood friend Chelsea Grenier – studying for their Diploma in Sport Management (Surfing Studies) at Southern Cross University’s Tweed Gold Coast campus this year is something of a statistical as well as a geographical anomaly. To explain how they’ve come to spend a year on the Tweed Gold Coast they cite surfing icon – Hawaii and world champion (and Gold Coast local) Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholemew.

“We’d met a friend in Hawaii during a working holiday (in a surf shop), who told us about the course and Coco and I had just finished reading Rabbits’ biography, which is what really inspired us to apply to Southern Cross,” said Marjie, 21.

“Marjie and I, and even Chelsea for a time, were home-schooled, so we weren’t looking for a large university campus,” said Coco, 19. “The Gold Coast sounded great: the warm weather, location by the ocean, and of course we’d heard of Snapper Rocks and Kirra Beach. Still, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision and Marjie had only two weeks to pack. But sometimes you have to flow with the moment. Any opportunity to travel or study you have to grab with both hands.”

So the trio packed up their 10 bags of belongings and surfboards and headed for Australia. What they hadn’t expected to find upon arrival was that their friend Tommy (Curly) Kaestner had also enrolled at Southern Cross University’s Tweed Gold Coast campus, to study a Bachelor of Business. That brought the US Virgin Islands contingent on campus to four.

“I guess it’s a little weird to have four of us here from the Virgin Islands, especially on such a small campus,” said Chelsea, 18. “But then again we’re pretty unusual back home, too, where most of the native West Indians don’t even swim. No surfing culture existed before we started surfing because the surf is so inconsistent. We started the surfing tradition for girls on the islands and now lots of younger girls are surfing. We go home and everyone wants us to teach them to surf.”

These surfing ‘veterans’ grew up together after Marjie and Coco’s parents dropped anchor on St John during a family sailing adventure. The trio has travelled widely together since they were teenagers, following big waves around the world.
Satisfying their passion for surfing closer to home proved a more complicated and expensive affair.

“Surfing was such a mission; the nearest good surf was at neighbouring Puerto Rico and that involved travelling a lengthy distance by boat, checking in to customs on the way in and out of the country,” Chelsea said. “We had to pay the customs charges and fuel costs, so it was an expensive day out.

“Here you get in your car and drive five minutes to the beach; it’s easy,” said Marjie.
“Australia is one of the world’s prime surfing destinations and the beaches are so accessible but the crowds are insane,” added Coco. “We’re not used to that.”

Known collectively on campus as “the girls”, they surf every day that there’s a decent swell but admit to being a little more reluctant in recent weeks. “We’re not used to this cold weather,” said Chelsea.

And while they have all but given up on their dream of making a career out of professional surfing, the trio has other surfing ambitions. Chelsea’s mother has bought a hotel in Costa Rica and they plan to offer mother-and-daughter surfing and massage travel packages.

“The business and marketing we’re learning in our course will be particularly useful for our future business venture,” said Marjie.

But as for the longer term, these gypsies are leaving their options wide open. “We’ll buy a one-way ticket to Costa Rica and work there long and hard enough to give us the money to go somewhere else,” said Coco with a smile.

Photo: Virgin Islands surfer girls Marjie Barbier, Chelsea Grenier and Coco Barbier at Snapper Rocks.