Sean Doherty On: The Human Wilderness

16 Mar 2017 1

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

Owen Wright returns in form, Photo by Ed Sloan/WSL

Owen Wright returns in form, Photo by Ed Sloan/WSL



You could imagine the stark contrast of flying straight in from Tasmania’s remote Tarkine wilderness and suddenly finding yourself out in the water at Snapper Rocks in the hour before the Quiksilver Pro starts. There were more people surfing the first set wave I saw this morning at Snapper than I’d seen in a whole week in the Tarkine.

The Tarkine is hundreds of miles of deserted coast and forest with more chance of finding a Tasmanian Tiger than seeing another person.


Snapper is human soup. It’s the hyper-crowded surfopolis of the future and it’s an experience not for the misanthropic. It’s an aquatic conveyor belt that carries lost souls down into the bay as an endless supply of fresh ones are fed into its maw. It’s the psychological equivalent of one of those industrial crushers that eats cars and refrigerators.

SEE ALSO: The Real Mikey Wright, Nothing To Lose

The crowds have been teeming here for weeks, the worst it’s ever been. There’s little room for humanity amongst all those humans, and even nature has been stripped of its natural cycles. The big swell last week threatened to wash the bank away, so the Great Sand Pump was deployed to vacuum the ocean floor and suck every grain of sand from over the border and deposit it behind the rock in time for today.

Even with the sand, the high tide this morning was creating a mongo dunny flush at Snapper that made finding a surfable wave kind of tough. Still, it was better than what the women had been sent out in yesterday afternoon, when it was barely two foot, howling onshore, and teeming with bluebottles. Everyone got stung, some excruciatingly so. Laura Enever was almost digested by one of the creatures.

And so the first day of the men’s season started today and driving up the Pacific Highway this morning I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I should have been kinda psyched. There are enough psychologically complex storylines to feed a whole season… and that’s just Kelly. But it just feels like something’s gotta change or something’s gonna give. We’re on the brink of something, I’m just not sure what.

There’s the ongoing disquiet about the future of tour that’s been simmering away for, well, pretty much since the tour started 40 years ago. Today, however, it’s existence is at the whim of one man, Dirk Ziff, and we have no idea of why he does it, or what he’s got planned for it. He’s been the tour’s silent backer since the WSL took ownership in 2013, and the guy who has been thrust into the CEO role – you’d imagine reluctantly – since the departure of Paul Speaker earlier this year. I say reluctantly, because spotting Dirk Ziff has been like spotting a Tasmanian Tiger. He’s never been interviewed publicly about the tour and has only rarely visited a tour event.

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And yet he’s here in Coolangatta. There have been sightings but then again MP was spotted down in Griffith Street last week as well.

By all reports he’s a solid guy who’s actually grown close to the crew around the tour, but for all we know he could just as easily as he could wake up one morning and decide his money is better off invested in pork bellies or Florida oranges than in pro surfing… if you’d ever deem pro surfing an investment. We just don’t know. Dirk could, of course, sit down with a reporter – this wheezy hack, even, over a beer upstairs at the surf club and maybe even the chicken parmigiana special from the bistro (10 bucks, pretty good, Coastal Watch’s shout) – and confirm he’s in for the long haul and that you should-just-wait-to-see-what-I-got- planned-bro.

Just throwing it.

You might remember a couple of years ago the final here at Snapper featured Gabriel Medina – then a spindly Brazilian kid – up against the Prince of Snapper Rocks himself, Joel Parkinson. Up until that point winning this event had been a fairly simple formula: Get barrelled behind the rock. Raise hands. Get pissed somewhere in Cooly. Parko paddled out that day and did just that, only to indignantly lose to the kid who was surfing so far down the point he never even saw him. At that point it was clear the goalposts had been moved and Snapper was suddenly a turn contest. That loss still bites for Joel. His second place trophy sits out in the backyard. The dog drinks out of it.

The judges today laid it all out there. For the first time in a long time, head judge Richie Porta got on the broadcast and put it on the record that Snapper was no longer simply a barrel contest. It was however explained in riddles and metaphors, and if I’d been a surfer in a heat listening to it I’d have even less idea about whether they wanted barrels or turns.

Gabe Medina was happy to do both. One backhand turn he unleashed this morning was so electric it literally shocked Claw Warbrick who was sitting in the competitor’s area a hundred metres away. He jumped like someone had put voltage through him. Then Gabe slid under a heavy section, kick stalled on his backhand like Tom Carroll circa 1986, then stood tall inside a decent sized pit. When he tried to complete the Holy Trinity and launch a double grab backhand alley oop, however, his front leg flattened with a crunch. He surfed the rest of the heat, but was melodramatically carried up the road afterward, his MCL the consistency of cooked spaghetti. At one point, his old boy Charlie – who’s been banned for a year from the competitors area over an outburst at the judges over breakfast in Portugal last year – was forced to wait with the hundreds of Gabe fans lined up to get the campeão’s autograph. Oh, the indignity. It would be a shame if Gabe’s knee was serious, because for 15 minutes of his first heat of the season, Gabe looked like the world champ.

SEE ALSO: Weak Wrap, Chuck Norris Shoots Surfer

The heat featuring Mick and Kelly was the headliner for the day; Mick back after a year off surfing empty sand points and Kelly taking the old bones for one last tilt at the title. Why Kelly is still here after 22 seasons is one great mystery… how his body has held together over all that time is another. Gabe was still being carted off to the meat wagon when Kelly went for a big forehand air reverse and landed cold and hard in the flats… and promptly resurfaced and paddled away without a scratch. He’s 45. Kelly drew some interesting lines out there today, looked spritzy at time but skittery at others. Mick looked more solid – all he’s done is surf Snapper for a month – but was lucky to get the score he needed to win the heat.

The best heat today was put together by Parko, possibly in response to the news that tuberiding was dead, man. He caught a wave in the very first second of the heat and went all fruit ninja on it for the highest score of the day. When it was announced it was a 9.23, Parko’s dad, Brian chipped, “That was a six!” Triangulating between the Snapper dunny block, the third Norfolk Island pine on the hill, and Occy’s unit, Joel was never out of position in a tricky lineup that wasn’t quite out the back, but wasn’t quite inside either.

Parko was challenged for the win by French rookie, Joan Duru, who looked great. Duru then watched on as Cascais’s own Fred Morais took down Filipe Toledo in the next heat. Fil’s dad watched the screen as the scores dropped and it became clear his boy had lost. He didn’t even bother swearing in Portuguese. It wasn’t the best day for the rookies, although Ethan Ewing in the final heat of the day gave the judges something to dine out on. Naturally unhurried, coming from Straddie, he sat and waited for his wave and torched it, surfing low, coming from behind the section and pinballing smoothly down the line. It was a shame he couldn’t find a second wave, but on the strength of today he’ll do something this year.

SEE ALSO: The Weekend Surf Forecast

The emotional quotient of the day was raised in the final heat when Owen Wright paddled out. His first heat back since suffering a brain bleed at Pipeline 15 months ago was a huge moment for a guy who, for most of those 15 months, has been stuck on a couch thinking about it… and for a time wondering if it was ever going to happen.

Chatting to his dad, Rob, you got a sense of how much the family went through last year, and also how unsure they were of how he’d go today. Not only would Owen have to surf a heat, but he’d have to do it in front of a big crowd. Rob, with an economy of words, put it best though: “He already won when he pulled up in the car park today.”

Owen hung out for most of the day in the contest area carrying his new grom, Vali, watching on quietly, a little gaunt but sporting that same Labrador grin. No one was really sure how this might play out, but they needn’t have worried. Owen dropped into his first wave, drove off the bottom, then straight up and through the lift. It was a process he repeated several times before the wave – and Owen – gave out. Tyler was already in tears halfway down the point. Owen’s surfing was all there, same as it ever was, maybe just missing a little power but it was clean and flowing and with plenty of range. He bagged two eights and hung on for the win. He’s being nursed and was kept at arms length from a media scrum, but walked back into the surfer’s area and straight into the arms of his sister, who was, by this stage, a joyous blubbering mess of tears.

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