Sean Doherty On: Historically Historic & The Oldest Heat Ever Surfed
COASTALWATCH | 2017 OUTERKNOWN FIJI PRO
“Historic!” Said one voice.
“Historic!” Barked the next.
“Yeah,” guffawed a third, “Real historic!”
Gathered around the breakfast table on Namotu Island, watching the women’s final, the guys behind me were taking the piss, royal.
They’d just watched Courtney Conlogue freefall heavily onto the reef at Cloudbreak, a three-point ride that was the best wave of the final at that point. The girls looked lost out there on a building swell.
The women’s final had been held over until today, the first day of the men’s waiting period, a move that in the lead up had been billed as “historic” in seizure-inducing promo clips. The angle got traction. Oprah picked it up. The campaign stating in bold font that the waves would be “10 foot and epic” and the girls would be “charging.” The final was framed as the girls surfing on the guys’ terms, on the guys’ swell.
It was kind of unfair on Courtney and Tatiana.
Cloudbreak don’t care for any marketing campaign… and neither it seems did the surfers around the breakfast table. Billing a battle of the sexes at Snapper or Bells, well, go for it, but doing it at Cloudbreak is something else. The body of work for the girls just isn’t there yet. Yesterday had been four foot and smoking, but the women’s final had been locked in for this morning, so this morning it was.
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Courtney and Tatiana had to paddle out in the dark at Cloudbreak this morning with a rabid pack already on it, every guy on tour out there, and then they had to surf their heat in big, shifty, low tide Cloudbreak and be expected to do something historic. The girls had a swing, hats off, but the new swell was raw and unruly. Cloudbreak hitting six foot is the threshold where the ocean starts conspiring against you and today was a tough day out there, man or woman. Courtney eventually won the final with a pair of fours and some lost skin, but by the end of the day Kelly, for perspective, finished his heat with a three and a two.
Before winning, Courtney got folded badly again, compelled to do something historic on the inside, and the Brazilian boys in the bar cheered. I thought, you sadistic bastards, only to walk in and discover they were actually watching the Champions League soccer final and Cristiano Ronaldo had just scored. Then Josh Kerr walked out, a proud dad, bragging how his daughter Sienna – a great little surfer herself – had been playing a game of rugby at home and just sidestepped through a whole team of boys to score a try and I started thinking maybe pro surfing might only be a couple of years ahead of itself.
It took Owen Wright paddling out in the third heat of the day for Cloudbreak to make a bit of sense. The last heat he’d surfed here had been perfect in every sense of the word, winning the final two years ago… a long two years. Owen is here on Namotu with girlfriend, Kita and his little lad, Vali, walking around in boardies and bikinis and shell necklaces like they got shipwrecked here together and just made a life for themselves on the island. The Fijian girls, eternally maternal, refused to hand Vali back after a couple of hours this morning, while Vali’s old man was busy standing tall in the first standing tall pit of the day. This week – and with the forecast we’re looking at – will tell us more about whether his season is simply a feelgood comeback story or something bigger.
It was a strange day to watch, let alone surf.
As guys sat there heat-to-heat trying to work out where the hell to sit, Stephen Bell – Kelly’s long term associate – said it best: “Fucked if I know. It looks different from every angle.” He’d surfed it, watched from three boats, watched it on the broadcast and caddied from the channel and was still at a loss. Richard Marsh threw an apple at him from the contest boat and missed.
I was in the water for John John’s heat and Cloudbreak certainly made sense to him. He simply paddled as far up the reef as he could, took the biggest wave that came to him and backed himself to make it, an approach that works fine if you’re John John. I was sitting next to his coach, Ross Williams for the duration of the heat and it gave a pretty clear insight into what coaching surfing’s most incandescent talent must be like. For 28 of the 30 minutes, Ross just sat there shivering in a T-shirt as his boy did hot laps of the reef, doing what he does, then for two minutes I watched Ross silently implode as John John, with priority, caught a rubbish wave with priority, leaving the door open to somehow lose the heat.
There’s some weather around right now and the swell is kind of confused, but for one heat this afternoon it was as if the clouds parted and the harps started strumming.
Miguel Pupo looks too young to be a father, still looks like a kid himself, but for the first 10 minutes of his heat played Big Daddy out there. He had the day’s biggest numbers… until the waves got perfect enough to wake up Michel Bourez, a guy who trades in perfect surf. By this stage we were watching from the bar on Namotu (it was Sunday afternoon) and when he scored his second nine-pointer we had to double take to make sure we’d actually seen what we just saw.
“Did he just foot-drag inside the barrel?” Asked Josh Kerr, genuinely perplexed. The replay showed not only had he dragged his back foot inside the barrel to slow himself down, but that he’d calculatedly and casually done it as any other surfer might drag a hand. The Tahitian’s interview afterward confirmed it, and the argument then became whether it was Neal Purchase Junior or China O’Connor who’d done it first, back at Kirra in the ‘90s.
That just left the last heat of the first round, officially the oldest heat ever surfed on tour. The broadcast pointed out that Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning, and Bede Durbidge on aggregate have been on tour for 53 years. The news of this made Joel Parkinson cackle, until it was pointed out to him that the only way it could actually be any older was if he was in it. The cackling stopped. The broadcast then showed a montage of Kelly images from years past in Fiji, the first few in black and white, Wilko asking, “Did they have colour back then?”
Kelly flew out of Brisbane yesterday on our flight and was in good form all the way. A couple of chiropractic treatments at the Superbank had fixed his back, he’d had great waves, and if anything was going to get his season back on the rails it would be two weeks at Cloudbreak, his event on every level. Speaking with Stephen Bell today, a guy who knows the tour incarnation of Kelly – the real Kelly – better than anyone, he knows that despite all the talk about bad boards and bad results and bad backs that he’s only one decision, one wave, from turning the corner.
Kelly raced across a long wall this afternoon that looked like a BMX track, three or four big ramps on it, a tough wave to surf, but then suddenly found himself cocooned inside the inside section. You know how sometimes you race a wave, a sudsy, ugly, recalcitrant wave but suddenly it just opens up and you’re just in suddenly there, standing in a moment?
Well Kelly stood in a moment this afternoon but didn’t come out. The wave clamped and he finished the heat with a two and a three, but he ain’t done yet. Not by a long shot.
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