Sean Doherty On... The Billabong Pro Tahiti 2014 Preview
There Will Be Blood
By Sean Doherty
It’s a thin white ribbon of reef. It’s lime in your beer or lime in your back. It’s being three feet too deep in a giant line-up. It’s taking the second wave and not the third although they look identical. The Tahiti contest starts on Sunday, and those who know where the line is will stand tall, multicoloured and logo-splashed, their arms spread wide inside the tunnels of their lives. Those who don’t, however, will be brutalised in a heartbeat, the really unlucky amongst them enduring the slowest ambulance trip in the world as the old banger chugs its way to the hospital in Papeete, slowing for stray dogs along the way.
Already this week we’ve seen Teahupoo bite. Kevin Bourez, younger brother of world tour surfer Michel Bourez, hit the reef during the trials and was in a bad, bad way. The Bourez brothers grew up down the road, have surfed here most of their lives, and Kevin’s injury – in concert with a juiced up and potentially angry swell forecast – has put everyone on notice. Nathan Fletcher might have been swallowed whole in a cartoon vortex out there and been washed in and calmly lit up a durrie, but it doesn’t change the fact the place remains hyperbolically dangerous.
The ASP has been torn on how to bill this event. They need to sell the fact someone might get seriously hamburgered out on the reef, but at the same time they can’t be ghoulish about it.
Should another surfer get badly hurt out there, on live TV no less, it would create a monumental PR disaster. To their credit the ASP handled Kevin Bourez’s injury with sensitivity. There was no cataloguing of his injuries, the incident was acknowledged without being sensationalised, and respect was shown for one of the island’s favourite sons. But a few days later the main ASP press release for the event ran with the header, “World’s Best Surfers Tackle Dangerous Teahupo’o For Upcoming Billabong Pro Tahiti.” In a time when the bump is dead and the biff ain’t coming back, when linebackers in America are suing the league because their brains have been pummelled into ricotta cheese and all the big contact sports are selling us on how safe they are, pro surfing is pulling the other way.
Rewinding quickly, on the Code Red morning three years ago there were feverish behind the scenes negotiations going down in the yard of the small house on the lagoon where the event was being broadcast from. There would be no contest; that was clear. Nobody was real keen to surf their heat in 20-foot liquid Godzillas, but there was strong lobbying from the production team to keep the cameras rolling and broadcast the tow session. There were no ASP or Billabong brass on hand, only Billabong’s lawyer who fun-sheriffed the idea. What if someone got seriously torched – or worse – on live TV? There was a lot of legalese being thrown around until a phone call was made back to head office and the case was presented for what it was – this was potentially the most incredible day surfing had ever seen and they just needed to press a green button and the world would see it. They rolled the dice, rolled the cameras and rode their luck. The surf was historic, the surfing was historic… and so was the decision to broadcast it. There was a collective sigh at day’s end when everyone made it back to the point more or less in one piece.
But at the same time, for the ASP this event has the potential to be the one, the event to break surfing into the mainstream audience it craves. If the forecast for this year holds we’ve got days of swell north of six feet… and where it goes from there depends on who you speak to. It won’t be Code Red, it might be more Code Magenta, but for many of the guys in the field it will certainly be Code Brown as they motor through the lagoon in their tinnies and catch their first view of a set out on the reef. There will be some gladiatorial shit going down. There will be glory, there will be blood, and it will be the kind of glory and blood that even a gormless, landlubbing TV audience can tap into. The mainstream press too will gorge. They can smell a single drop of surfer blood in a whole ocean of repetitive football and basketball stories. Sadly, the only time most of them ever pay any notice to surfing is when some poor bastard is being carved up or falling from the lip of a 12-footer. If it bleeds; it leads.
But the fact that on a tropical rock in the far corner of the Pacific with a big mountain and a big ocean, a bunch of guys are going to paddle out and throw themselves over the ledge and put their necks on the line is damn primal… and a type of primal that’s becoming increasingly rare in the world today. And – touch wood – maybe we’re being a bit morbid about all of this. Maybe we should for the time being just contemplate what will undoubtedly be a smoking week of surf.
The waves will be the main event this year, but there are some intriguing undercards, the least of which will be the story of Michel Bourez. As the only Tahitian surfer on tour he is huge on his small-island home, his profile only growing after his two wins this season. His track record in his home event however hasn’t been great. He was unlucky in 2012, scoring big but losing to Jeremy Flores’ perfect heat, but watching him lose in round two last year to Hedgey was excruciating. He surfed like he had the weight of Tahiti Iti on one shoulder and Tahiti Nui on the other, and not even his strong Polynesian frame could carry them.
But Michel Bourez is a different surfer this year – steely, confident, measured. And there’s the matter of how he’ll react to his brother’s injury. Will it put tiny voices in his head or fire in his belly? Will it summon something deeper? I asked Michel a while back whether he channels the ancients when he surfs the contest at Teahupoo. “Of course I do. How can I say it? It’s like… the eternal story goes on. We need to have a warrior who comes from home and tries to beat all the other guys who come from other places and try and take the trophy from us. It’s the same story that’s been told for a long time.” It will be a defining week for him, and if Bourez goes all Polynesian warrior next week and wins he’ll be sitting on three wins for the season… and in the past three wins has been the historical benchmark for a World Title.
Scanning the current top ten for some high-level intrigue and there is plenty, starting at the top. It’s no longer possible to be dismissive of Gabe Medina anywhere. He’s won in Fiji, made the quarters at Pipe in his first run, and the 20-year-old currently sits at number one in the ratings, which, when you run the ruler across the season so far seems just about right. His results haven’t been great in Tahiti in the past, but his heat numbers have. He’s scored 10s out here, he’s lost with big heat totals, but where his surfing hasn’t been tested at Teahupoo is in real size… the kind of size we’re likely to see next week. Again, it will be a defining week, one way or another.
John John? He’s languishing this season, seemingly the victim of perfect surf. He gets perfect surf everywhere he goes except at contests and his contest surfing has been largely, well, mherr as a result. But he’s about to get a whole week of perfect surf and if he forgets for a moment he’s in a jersey he might just turn our minds into sashimi.
And then there’s Kelly. He’s been strangely avuncular this year, occasionally sloppy in heats, and despite occasional glimpses there’ve been no surgical dissections of line-ups nor opponents. His emotional forecast, however, generally matches the swell forecast and so I’d forget anything I’ve seen of him this year and reserve my judgement of Kelly and his season until later next week.
I could bang on forever, because there will be furious little battles being fought everywhere next week. They will be waged in hearts, in heads and in heats. Every guy in the field will be challenged in their own way. There’ll be a lot of sleepless nights, because there’ll be nothing pacific about Teahupoo next week.
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