Sean Doherty On... The Billabong Pro Tahiti 2014 – The Bathtub of Death
The Bathtub of Death
By Sean Doherty
In retrospect, your correspondent’s choice to sit out the event in Tahiti for the first time in six years was unwise on several levels. Besides missing out on the daily 1100 Franc sashimi/poisson cru plate from the shop next to the phone booth in the main street (and the concept of eating it for breakfast), there was the other trifling matter of missing potentially the three greatest days in the history of pro surfing! It was an awesome call on my behalf.
But still, being stuck in front of the TV at home in the pre-dawn darkness as some wild, wild shit went down in Tahiti wasn’t so bad. Watching on it all barely seemed real, while at other points it seemed hyper-real. The screen was filled with blue tornadoes and it was an effort to suspend disbelief. My cheap Korean TV may have been broadcasting in 2D but everything felt 4D… my lounge literally trembled with the thunderclap of each set hitting the reef, the dog was edgy, and the room seemed to be filled with the aroma of salt haze, two-stroke, burning herb, hibiscus, blood, shit and glory. When Gabe Medina broke down while being interviewed after winning the event, thanking his mum and The Big Bloke Upstairs, the kid’s tears trickled down the screen and you felt he was going to climb out of the telly at any moment looking for a hug.
And it wasn’t just me overcome by the power of what was being beamed out of this corner of the South Pacific on the coconut wireless. The Australian contingent who’d lost the previous day and taken the night flight out of Papeete were watching on from the transit lounge in Auckland airport and were inconsolable at having missed out. Guys like Parko, Mick and Taj all knew they’d blown a chance to be a part of history, and historic it was. I’m happy to take Kelly’s word that it was the greatest pro surfing event he’s seen. He’s seen a few. Before we even get to the events of the fateful final day, you gotta remember it was preceded by two other days that were right on the edge as well.
But the final day was on the knife’s edge from the start, and you felt at any moment it could slide off it. Dion Atkinson’s board tombstoning on the inside almost became the grave of the Unknown Soldier. His two-wave hold down against Kai Otton was a truer indication of how deceptively dangerous it really was. Like Kelly said; “the scariest bathtub in the world. The whole day was just hanging in there. It was the day pro surfing would have had back in 2012 in Fiji had the event run on the big day. The difference, however, is that in Tahiti there was a critical mass of guys who were not only prepared to surf it, but prepared to push each other and see how far they could take it.
The sight of Owen Wright being fished from the lagoon after freefalling from a 12-footer during his quarterfinal had all the melodrama of Sergeant Elias emerging from the jungle in Platoon, full of Vietcong lead. Owen was clearly busted up and it was a scene we’ve witnessed too often during his career, him staggering up the beach with a busted eardrum/vertebrae/knee. Remember, this was the guy who missed a year’s surfing after a massage, and here he was just having been massaged by the Teahupoo reef. Was this the end of our hero? When the ski dropped him in the channel it appeared so, until he drew in a breath of South Pacific air, realigned his chakras, broke into a huge smile, yeeeewwwwed for the camera as he paddled straight back out. All over Australia people spat breakfast cereal as they leapt up and cheered.
The opening exchange between John John and Kelly in their semi-final was some high-noon shit… and the new high water mark for pro surfing. Stop the clocks and extinguish the sun, because nothing will trump it anytime soon. While their Pipe final last year had the Vader/Skywalker dynamic about it, the waves let them down and despite the scores being close the whole thing failed to ignite. Well, their Tahiti semi final was less than a minute old when they both should have had 10-pointers for rides that were ballsy, yet technically brilliant. John John’s snake-turn pump inside the pit was followed by an audacious high-line swoop from Kelly that took him over the foamball without taking him over the falls. Two minutes in and people were scratching for the rulebook to see what would happen in the event of both surfers scoring perfect heats.
For all the steel plums being displayed and the monstrous natural forces on display, it masked what was a game of inches. The subtlety of what Kelly and John were doing was largely lost inside the bellies of these waves. Fittingly, as it had at Pipe last year, it came down to a final wave in the dying seconds after Kelly, with priority, had given John a wave in a move that may have been part of a script being written by a celestial hand. Needing near perfection, near perfection is what he got. As delightfully awkward and hokey as it was, Pete Mel sitting in the channel with the pair of them as they waited for the score to be read out was a classic, right down to the point where they all just sat there and said nothing. The fact they were waiting for the final exclamation point on one of the great moments of the sport seemed to just melt in the late afternoon sun and they were just hanging out in the channel, and when it was finally announced they had in fact symbolically tied and Kelly had won on a countback, the understated reactions, the lack of graceless claiming and yahooing, said a lot about both surfers and about the spirit of surfing itself.
While guys were ripping the arms off each other in a ridiculously stacked bottom half of the draw, Gabe Medina quietly made his way through the top half. He’d worked a line on the reef a little deeper that would allow him to take smaller sets and thread the top of the point into the west bowl. Gabe rode longer, not deeper. The fact that Gabe made the final without taking a real set, a black one, couldn’t be disputed, but the fact that amongst the brute force of this line-up he’d managed to keep his head and coolly work to a plan was admirable for a 20-year-old. Gabe did just enough in each heat and it wasn’t an accident. He could have thrown himself into the abyss, but with a saloon run in the draw why would he? He just needed to stay in one piece and hope that whoever survived the bloodbath from the bottom half of the draw had already left their best surfing out there.
Drawn against Kelly in the final, however, calculated would never be enough and Gabe’s master plan that had been running all day suddenly crystallized. He attacked the final, hustled, and threw himself into the biggest sets. He surfed it like he owned it. For Kelly’s part, he seemed physically, and maybe emotionally spent. Kelly had existed on a higher plane all day, surfing outside himself, but in the final the script flipped. Kelly paddled for a wave with priority and missed it. Kelly fell for the first time all day. Kelly seemed to have lost his bearings in the line-up. Gabe suddenly owned the final, and after a day that had gone off like a dropped cigarette in a Chinese fireworks factory things went a little flat… although there was still a moment of drama left.
The final had its moment when Kelly, left chasing something close to 10, took off deep, too deep, and drove. All day he’d toyed with the foamball; swooping parabolically around it, wearing it like a cheap suit, even playfully drifting his tail in it like a Momentum air reverse. This time however, with the west bowl already having clamped, he drove straight through it. He had no choice… and no chance. Until of course, amongst the white noise inside the pit the ghost of Kelly Slater appeared, and for a fraction of a second that took an eternity it appeared as if he was about to really do the impossible, come out of that thing, score an 11 and win the final. But just as it seemed the event would end with a fittingly talismanic tube, Teahupoo simply reached out and pulled Kelly back in. It was done.
For a moment I flashed back on the morning of the big Fiji day two years ago. I took the morning boat out with Gabe Medina, and saw the look on his face as the first big set of the morning swept through the line-up at Cloudbreak. Gabe doesn’t give you a lot to go off, but the kid was tense. He jumped over the side of the boat and was back ten minutes later with half a board and a look on his face like he’d seen his own ghost. The kid who won in Tahiti was not a kid anymore. On the wildest day pro surfing had seen he’d kept his head better than everyone else, and that day in Fiji felt a lifetime ago. And if he does indeed win the Title at the end of the year it will all come back to Tahiti.
So what does all this mean? For Gabe it means the title is his to lose. The front half of the tour was his worry and he’s now won three events from seven. For Kelly it does one of two things… provides a rallying point to carry on or a staging point for an exit. After a day like this why would he quit? But also, why would he carry on? That was as good as it gets right there. For the rest of the guys it will be embiggening. Stare down a couple of days of that shit, cross your shitscared threshold and survive, and you’ve got to look at your surfing in a new light. They will drop fearlessly into their first waves at Trestles. And for the tour in the short term there is fresh sense of hope. After jagging J-Bay and Teahupoo pretty much as good as they get in quick succession there’s real momentum there.
But in the long term the Tahiti event was instructive. The fact that in loungerooms all over the world people felt like they were in the channel, felt a quake in several vital organs, screamed at the television and spat breakfast cereal in disbelief tells you what pro surfing needs to be. Now, if only Trestles is 12 foot and slabbing…
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