Sean Doherty On: Greatest Pipe Masters Day Ever
Today demanded a stage.
Looking back on the high drama of what just went down, both in the water and out, it was fitting that they waited for real Pipeline. Today was for men, both primal and postmodern men, the prelude to the drama already happening back in Australia as we slept, while the swell built on the Pipe reef, a private tragedy that would raise the emotional quotient of an already emotionally charged day… and an emotionally tumultuous year for Mick Fanning.
One of the great truisms of running a Pipeline contest is that there’s a tendency to chase swells as opposed to chasing waves, and that leads us to where we were this morning.
They could have pulled the trigger on the contest at any time over the past three days. During the laydays Backdoor was as perfect as you could imagine it, like a Mentawai boat trip… but only three foot. Despite being drop-perfect it wasn’t even a consideration, not with the Aleutian swell brewing away up north due to peak today. It looked like a cookie cutter Pipe finals days, plenty of west in it, plenty of size, good wind. With a day and a half left to run it looked like the contest would hit it out of the park.
The first signs of trouble came yesterday when the swell filled in.
It had no shape, had plenty of north in it, and the current from Beach Park was chewing it up. It was terrible, and it forced the WSL Commissioner Kieren Perrow to wait for today. Late in the afternoon with the swell building quick, KP paddled out alone at Off The Wall, his modus operandi as it’s been for 15 years to pull into the blackest, heaviest pit he could find. With this guy in charge there’s no way he’s sending heats out at three-foot Backdoor. He was waiting for the swell, waiting for today, waiting until he saw the whites of its eyes.
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Well it was white all right this morning, but it looked all wrong. It seemed so north that it was closing out between Rockpiles and Beach Park, too strong and too straight for Pipe. One surfer quipped, “Can we surf yesterday?” The dawn crew on the peak could make no sense of it. There was bad craziness everywhere. Parko and I mindsurfed a 30-minute heat from the backyard to get a feel for how a heat might play out: I won a mindsurfed heat with two three-pointers. It was that bad. It wasn’t the bluebird day we’d been hoping for to decide the world title – not yet anyway – and it meant for the guys in that race were going to have to walk through the fire to win it.
Medina has become a Pipe guy. Proper.
It’s little wonder. Medina has become an everywhere guy. Medina has been deadly all winter here and the prediction of him being a swinging dick in the Pipe draw proved true when he dismantled Jordy without slipping third gear.
But the real drama started in the second heat of the day, when Bede Durbidge was scorpioned on a wave, bounced off the bottom, and was soon floating through the inside at Ehukai, clearly in distress. With his family rushing down the beach it initially looked spinal. It looked really bad. The latest is that he has a fractured hip and a torn kidney, and will be out of action for the summer. It was a sobering reminder that even with all the human drama that would play out here today, this was raw and dangerous Pipeline.
There’s been a surreal feel to this week, if for nothing else Kelly Slater’s name has hardly been spoken.
Out of the world title race and out of the headlines for the first time in living memory, it’s been interesting to observe his demeanour. He’s been dominating these perfect little Backdoor days, almost making a cartoonishly good one before spending the next hour explaining in detail to various people in the lineup exactly why he didn’t come out. You always figured though that he’d bat last in this world title race, but his more immediate impact was on the lineup itself, when he paddled out and summoned the first Backdoor wave of the day. The swell, peaking but plateaued, was still running strong but it was settling into a familiar apex shape. It was getting good just at the right moment.
It won’t be remembered as such, but possibly the most crucial wave in this year’s world title race was caught by Kai Otton, rated 18 and 20,000 point out of the world title running. Surfing in the non-priority heat he took off deep on a beast, only to be faded by Filipe Toledo, who had priority… and was well and truly in the world title race. Otto got smoked, Filipe made it out comfortably, but in the judges mind it left a crucial impression… Filipe wasn’t taking off deep. His heat with Mason Ho then came down to a small, last-minute tube with Filipe needing only a 2.27. The Brazilian crowd roared as their boy rolled on to an unlikely world title. Filipe had been dudded in an identical scenario in round one… surely not this time.
The score was announced as a 2.0. Filipe was toast.
A thousand Latin American voices on the beach fell deafeningly silent. For the second time the judges just wouldn’t give him the score, dead flat denied him, but it was the ghost of that Kai Otton wave that had come back to haunt him. To his credit, Filipe handled the controversial call with real grace. The only consolation I suppose was a breakout season that had almost singlehandedly forced a recalibration of the judging scale… but just not here at Pipe.
As Mick Fanning walked up the beach for his heat with Jamie O’Brien he had the thousand-yard stare we’re accustomed to seeing on days like these, the big days, the emotion bottled, the game face on.
But this wasn’t any other day.
Mick had woken to the news this morning that his eldest brother, Pete, had died in his sleep back home in Australia.
How much can be thrown at one man? After Mick had been bumped by the shark in Jeffreys Bay his mum, Liz, the matriarchal figure who’d guided the Fanning family through tragedy before and had watched Mick’s shark attack live on TV had said afterward, “I thought, the universe can’t be this cruel.”
In a year when the unthinkable has become commonplace for him, in a year where personal issues have compounded and a sense of bizarre, dark fatalism has followed him, a year where he’s risen above it all to be in sight of history, driven by a sense of manifest destiny, this was still something else for Mick Fanning.
My God. To find out your brother had died on this morning of all others, with the world title on the line and Pipe falling from the sky
Pipe was orchestrating this, surely, and not for the first time. Tom Carroll won the Pipe Masters here back in 1987 after learning that morning of the death of his sister in a car accident. Mick had said a month ago that he’d wear his heart on his sleeve with this showdown. That he wouldn’t detach emotionally as he had in previous campaigns, that he’d float with the tide of emotions as they ebbed and flowed.
But this was something else, and while he’s been here before with the loss of brother, Sean, back in 1998, this was raw. He’d taken years to turn that tragedy around. This time he had just minutes.
The news about Mick’s brother didn’t break till late in the day, so at that point it was simply burning in his chest, and his performance to beat Jamie O’Brien at Pipeline wouldn’t be put into true perspective till later. It was crazy brave… and just the start.
He was then drawn against Kelly and John John, with Pipe airbrushed and bombing blue teepees. It felt historic and it proved to be. Man, what a heat. All three held the lead at certain stages, and all three surfed out of their skin. With the toughest possible draw facing him, Mick surfed with the heart of Phar Lap, and when he shot like a tracer bullet out of a long Pipeline barrel you felt this part of the universal plan. But then Kelly took off on Backdoor, with seconds left, airdropped into a garage-sized tube, you couldn’t watch. A thousand thoughts must have scrolled through his head. Kelly was pitched to be the arch spoiler here at Pipe, but not like this, not now, not against Mick like this. A win would leapfrog Mick into the quarters, and put him in the box seat against the two remaining challengers for the title, Medina and De Souza. When the score was read out Kelly seemed almost relieved he didn’t get it.
He hugged Mick afterwards, but he’ll faced with an emotional conundrum again tomorrow after drawing Mick again in the quarters.
Greatest Pipe Masters day ever?
I can’t remember a more magnetic one, a day of surfing filled with more Shakespearean acts. A day that was a microcosm of Mick Fanning’s life – seismic adversity in the morning; something grand by lunchtime. A day sluiced with blood and tears and some truly great surf.
But today simmered more than scorched. Today kept the lid on the bottle but shook it up violently.
The cork pops tomorrow.
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