The Sean Doherty Chronicles: Fiji 2017
COASTALWATCH | 2017 OUTERKNOWN FIJI PRO
Catch up on Sean Doherty's entries live from Namotu during the Outerknown Fiji Pro right here.
- 1: Historically Historic
- 2: The Sentient Stare
- 3: 5 Years Ago Today, This Happened
- 4: The Loss Of The Spirit Animal (And The Alternate Power Rankings)
- 5: Sweaty Men With The Tropical Melts
- 6: The Tuna God
WOMEN'S FINALS & MEN'S ROUND 1
“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.
SEE ALSO: Ain't That Swell Fiji Preview Podcast
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.
MEN'S ROUND 2 & 3
THE SENTIENT STARE
In a scenario online commenters have dreamed about for years, the judges’ boat almost sank last night.
It wasn’t exactly like the dream – they weren’t miles out to sea in a rowboat in a category five cyclone – but they had some moments. Their longboat was tied to the tower while the judges clambered aboard, only for the engine to stall, the boat to turn side-on to the swell, and the whole thing fill to the gunwales. In three feet of water it was more comic than tragic as they argued amongst themselves who was going overboard first while their gear floated away into the lagoon. It was the most drama they’d had all day, the panel celebrating their 43rd day without some major online-fuelled judging controversy, a modern day record. Fiji wouldn’t be a bad place to have another controversy I suppose, as storming the tower here would take some real commitment, a boat and a plan.
Adriano De Souza has been staying here on Namotu with the Australian crew for a couple of years now.
The situation would have been unthinkable five years ago when he played the role of arch nemesis to most everyone on tour, but hanging out with him on an island the size of a football field you begin to understand how he became, as they say, the best surfer on the planet. Today he surfed early. He surfed at lunch. He surfed late. He watched heats in the bar all day, and when he wasn’t he was watching heats in his room while he waxed surfboards. He picked every heat apart – who was doing what, why they should have done that. He was on the money with every single judging score. He’s here with his wife, Patricia, the romance for now has been limited to watching heats together, but while he can get a little, err, obsessive with his surfing, he’s good value to spend time with. Watching heats yesterday they threw to an ad break and the ad for his WSL jersey came on, the one that finishes with the line, “No I’m Adriano De Souza.” He turned around and everyone at the bar was looking at him, shooting him the look, nodding eagerly, waiting for the line to be delivered in real time… and he didn’t let us down.
Today was forecast to be bigger with rain all day, instead it was smaller and sunny. “Just go to wakeupandcheckit.com,” grizzled Mick Fanning, who was waiting all day in the bar on the Namotu to surf the last heat of the day, moving between every lounge, only for them to call his heat off. Despite his scepticism on the forecast he’s been flicking between animated swell charts and watched one big old purple blob squeeze its fat ass between Australia and New Zealand and make landfall in Fiji on June 13. “Looks like I’m getting barrelled for my birthday hey lads!”
The fish have been off the bite this week. Rare for here.
Most years the heats interrupt the fishing but resident fisho Benny Wilson cut a lonely figure out in The Duck this morning, deep dropping, down-rigging, bottom bashing, trolling and live-baiting… all without a sniff. The closest anyone has come to boating a fish was Bede Durbidge, who was spearing along the drop-off behind Cloudbreak three days ago when he looked up and was staring eyeball to eyeball with a huge sailfish. So mesmerised was he by the creature, its metallic flanks and sentient stare, that his trigger finger froze and just as well. If he’d shot the fish he’d currently be somewhere off Samoa being towed behind it.
Bino Lopes meanwhile, well we know where he is, we’re just waiting for the tide to go out so we can go and retrieve him. His floater onto dry reef this morning signalling there would be some desperate men in the water today, desperate if for no other reason than they’d already paid a full week’s accommodation upfront and – when you add in a losing night bar tab – need to make a few rounds here to just break even.
Two rookie heats, back-to-back this morning, delivered starkly contrasting fates.
Five events into the season and neither Leo Fioravanti nor Ethan Ewing – the two tour rookies with the most hype – had won a heat yet, and both are in the seeding death spiral that sees them drawn against higher and higher seeds. Leo this morning had Ace Buchan. He broke the duck and celebrated like he’d just won Olympic gold for Italy. Ethan meanwhile drew Kelly, at Cloudbreak, in his own event, in pumping surf. The quiet Straddie kid kinda looked beaten from the start and even Kelly – who over a 30-year career of walking on the bones of his opponents hasn’t exactly earned a reputation for taking on their pain – clearly felt for the kid.
The big shakes though happened late this afternoon when the third round paddled out.
Rob Wright – Owen’s dad – has been doing some plumbing work on the house next door back home in Byron, and on a daily basis he’d be filling me in on how Owen’s preparation for Fiji was going. Owen’s been surfing the left at Sharpes to tune his forehand.. and paddling from sharks to keep himself in shape. Owen won Snapper without physically being all there, but here in Fiji he’s looked strong. He’s imposed himself on the lineup with echoes of 2015, but today was taken out by Ian Gouveia. The Brazilian kid had quite a day. He jagged the wave of the morning in the freesurf, beat Kanoa Igarashi, then got piped all afternoon to beat Owen and make the last 12.
Wilko and Wilson both had heats this afternoon that marked them for finals, but the heat of the day was the last one. After a disappointing year, most punters had Gabby down for a result here in Fiji. His learning curve out here has been steep, he’s a 20-year veteran after five years, but the return of Italo Ferreira was a gnarly draw for round three. With the reef running long this afternoon, Italo’s fast twitch surfing was made for it and he led into the dying seconds. Did Gabe get the score he needed on the siren? Sitting around the bar on Namotu we had three yes’s, Bede, Wilko and Luke Egan who was paying tribute to old mate Occy sitting there with a bag of chips and a beer, Occy’s Fijian ritual.
I thought, no. They’d been scoring long, racetrack tubes all afternoon, Gabe’s kick stall tube was a little too manufactured… and he didn’t finish big.
The only guys who count agreed with me, the judges giving the heat to Italo, and they’re currently loading the boat in double time before a silhouetted figure marches purposely across the reef to the tower, crunching coral under his feet.
MEN'S ROUNDS 4 & 5
The Loss Of The Spirit Animal (And The Alternate Power Rankings)
A memo went out two days ago to all WSL staff, telling them to stop surfing Cloudbreak... or at least cool their jets a little.
With perverse irony, some of the pros have been complaining about not getting enough waves out at Cloudbreak. My guitar gently weeps for them, but on evidence collected out on The Ledge over the past week, I’d have to go against every moral fibre in my body and kind of agree with them. The staff has been gorging at the trough, and if we were writing the power rankings for the Fiji event at this point it would look something like this…
1. Kieren Perrow (WSL Commissioner)
The Comish has been dominating the dawn sessions, ensuring a healthy minimum wave count before calling the event each day, just to be sure if it’s the right call, you know.
2. Pritamo Ahrendt, (WSL Judge)
The pick of the judges this year, he’s been sitting up the Top Shop, surfing with speed, power and flow, his grinning bearded head flying past disgruntled pro surfers at warp speed, claiming one tube double-handed and scoring himself a perfect 10. Why not?
3. Pottz, (WSL Commentator)
Surfing with the same dominance of early ’89 (and looking through people like it was early ’89), Pottz has been taking his own commentary advice and waiting for the sets and focusing, because that’s what world champs do. He’s just pipped fellow world champ Barton Lynch for a spot in the top 5. BL, on his first trip here in 25 years, has been in rapture. Paddling in deep every time, BL giggles merrily to himself, “You never know your luck…” before taking off and popping out near the boats.
4. Richard Marsh (Coach)
Back in the form that won him the Reunion Island contest back in ’92, Dog’s only slip up all week has been taunting the lineup from the back of the ski, only to jump off, have his leggie snag, and fall flat on his face.
5. Glen Hall (Leprechaun, surf coach)
Micro was ecstatic at the news of making the list. “Fuck, I’ve never made the top five in anything!” He squeaked when informed of the honour.
The WSL staff – on the other hand – were a little indignant at having been called out. They started harrumphing, talking down their four-figure wave counts while pointing fingers at everyone else. The judges, who cannot be accused of not having a feel for the wave after feeling it all week, have started posting shots of themselves snorkelling and playing poker to openly mock the memo. Not us, sir. Who, us?
But you can hardly blame them all. A Ledge set at Cloudbreak, spinning the length of the reef, a fifth-colour aquarium flying by, has a narcotic effect that’s hard to just walk away from. How do you tell someone they can’t surf something as remarkable as Cloudbreak? It’s been an issue they’ve wrestled with here for a while.
It’s been days since we ran the event and those days have melted together under the Fijian sun. Every morning someone at the far end of Namotu island yells, “It’s off!” and the message is relayed down the island until it gets to the guy down the far end of the island, who’s told he’s got a heat in 20 minutes.
While most of those days have indeed been horseshit, a couple were ruinously good. Two at least were better than what we ran in today. Last Friday in particular was roping – perfect angle, four foot, steel grey and all the way – but with the luxury of a whole week of swell forecast to be coming up the pipes Cloudbreak was handed over to the staff battling for valuable power ranking points. It’s been a rugged event to forecast. Mixed swells, local winds, and the promise of something better over the horizon have all conspired to leave us where we are. Kelly has even floated the idea of Saturday… the day after the waiting period ends.
The wifi crashed this morning on Namotu.
In the panicked minutes that ensued people held phones to the sky while others subconsciously started double tapping and swiping the table in front of them with their fingers. For a week they’ve experienced Heaven on earth, a South Pacific Shangri-La, yet have spent most of it trained on a four-inch screen in front of them, wondering what everywhere else on earth, at every given minute, is doing. In the sudden absence of an online forecast this morning, they looked out to the reef and actually watched the waves, which at least looked better than yesterday. Painted into a corner with this thing having to finish Friday, they waited for the tide and ran.
The lineup was seasick at high noon when they called it on.
There were the ghosts of a groundswell in there, but there was a grade-five river tearing back up the point and a local wind that shifted wildly on the hour. Mick Fanning and Michel Bourez paddled out and were quickly dunny-flushed up the point and disappeared. You had to squint to see them. No one – including the skipper of the contest ferry – could drop anchor. The boat lurched as the current pulled one way and the wind blew the other. It was a disaster movie waiting to happen… both in the boat and in a heat.
The carnage started with Mick.
Celebrating his 36th birthday, his waves had the consistency of cake. The thinking was Cloudbreak would get better as the afternoon went on and the tide dropped, and we joked Mick would want the heat run before it got good. Bourez works exclusively in the medium of perfect surf. It didn’t pan out that way however, and the birthday boy is currently in residence as bartender on Namotu.
Leo Fioravanti washed ashore on Namotu a few days ago, and as tradition dictates the grommet quickly found himself having a Skulldrag poured down his neck. In the hour before the sorcerous mix of Old World spirits rendered him horizontal and wrestling innocent furniture, he managed to make it back to Tavarua and make a bet with both Kelly Slater and Stephen Bell that if he beat John Florence in round three they’d both have to do Skulldrags as well.
What were the chances? The Italian rookie against who hadn’t won a heat all year against the Hawaiian world champion, sporting a Diamond Darrell heavy metal beard, just missing the burning blunts.
Every heat today looked like a different wave, on a different day, breaking on a different planet, and while Mick’s heat had been sparse there were actually scoring waves out there… the worst possible scenario for Leo. No one wins a shootout with John John. But it wasn’t barrelling, and fresh push in the swell let Leo train his 6’2” grommet frame straight at the lip. Watching on, impressed, Richard Marsh jabbed Parko in the ribs and barked, “That’s it, mate! Don’t f*&k around. Hit the f*&^%ng lip!”
The big one though was Kelly.
As we speak he’s sitting across the bar from me on Namotu having just drained a Skulldrag, things just getting interesting, jokingly asking Mick Fanning whether he should have tried to get Connor O’Leary on an interference? The Skulldrag – all eight shots of it – is just kicking in. Kelly’s running around giggling, mischievously wrestling people in the bar. He’s talking golf, but it’s actually interesting. He’s talking of a deep admiration for Adriano (I don’t know whether this is the Skulldrag or Kelly talking).
Kelly and Connor’s heat was a rabble.
The current chewed it to pieces, and even Kelly – even Kelly – later admitted to being lost out there. He could see his marks; he just couldn’t get to them. He felt like he was paddling backwards and technically he might have been. Kelly lost with trifling scores, but hats off to Connor for having a plan, masterminded by Luke Egan; hanging in close, then taking mid-trackers that played to his forehand. Connor has done great already this year, and today’s win had Louie’s big paw prints all over it. There was a strange exchange in the dying seconds as Kelly chased a four with no luck and that was it.
They dropped like flies today and the season took on a new complexion.
All the past winners are gone, most of the top 10 are currently packing bags, and suddenly this event is wide open. The potential finals day – Thursday – well, the forecast might be the least reliable indicator of what we might get. It could be anything and the winner could be anyone.
We flew over here with Kelly on the same flight, and he was in great form. He’d been on the Gold Coast for a few weeks, had been helping the Munro family through some tough days, been rehabbing his back in the barrel at Greenmount, and even hanging at the Rainbow Bay Surf Club and drinking beers with the Harrington twins. I wanted him to be here on finals day. This event ain’t the same without its spirit animal.
As this sends, the spirit animal of this event is back in the bar on Namotu. He’s got Mick in a headlock. His ski is parked on the beach with a hole in the hull. The sun is setting and somehow has to make it back across the channel to Tavarua. The odds on him getting home are getting slimmer by the minute.
MEN'S QUARTER FINALS
Sweaty Men With The Tropical Melts
Things escalated last night.
As we left our heroes – Kelly and Mick – they were in the bar on Namotu, neck deep in tropical liquor, drowning their sorrows after being bounced from the contest. The sun had disappeared, as it appeared had Kelly’s ability to safely navigate his ski back across the channel to Tavarua.
Kelly was working the room. Mick shuffled around and could only utter the word, “McMuffin”. He walked up behind Kelly and kicked him in the ass. Kelly had been itching all night to get into a little playful scrap and the two champions began to spar, much to the amusement of the room. Mick head-locked Kelly. Kelly pulled a spinning reverse kick. The scrap moved out onto the deck and Kelly tackled Mick to the deck and threw some fresh air ground and pound. Parko pulled them apart before the needle moved from green to red and the pair got up laughing and hugged it out. While the sight of the two greatest contest surfers of the modern era in mock hand-to-hand combat didn’t have the surreal feel of Laird versus Dingo, which went down here in 2005, it had far greater symbolism. They’ve probably been wanting to do it for 15 years.
The scrap was the cue to radio a boat from Tavvy to come and pick Kelly’s crew up and taken them home.
Kelly’s arrival on Namotu yesterday afternoon had been a surprise to everyone, especially Glen Hall and Ryan Fletcher. The pair had just watched Kelly’s heat from the bar and was discussing where Kelly was in the rankings and what he’d do if, somehow, he didn’t requalify for next year’s tour. They turned around and collectively shat the bed when who was standing there, just over their shoulders, but Kelly himself.
Mick left Namotu at lunchtime today. Next week he’ll be in Germany. All he would say about his trip was that, “I’m buying leather pants and going to hell!” The collective departures of Mick and Kelly from the contest draw – along with pretty much everyone else in the top 10 and every Cloudbreak specialist – has created a vacuum in the draw that we began to fill today.
The morning freesurf was a bit light on for numbers. The contest field had halved, and there were only a handful of event crew sampling the long, clean lines. The Fiji power rankings we published yesterday – referred to around the contest today as the “Pest Rankings” – seemed to have kept the lineup free of contest staff. I’m in trouble apparently with one member of the top five for including him in the list, while I’m also in trouble with Kai Garcia who is going to turn me into a pretzel for not including him in the list. You can’t win.
One guy who can win, who won this morning and might win the whole damn contest is Matt Wilkinson. His first wave this morning was crackling with voltage, five forehand slices, all on a barely held rail, the last of them channelling Occy circa ’84. So much was made of Wilko’s backhand in his breakout season last year, but his forehand today was, as he described it to me later, “Fucking excellent.” The judges didn’t agree, gave him a seven-something, but this morning we saw the style of surfing that’s going to win this contest.
In the following heat Michel Bourez did something similar just on his backhand, Connor O’Leary juiced points from the inside racetrack in the next, while Bede Durbidge caught the waves that counted in his heat, all three moving straight into the quarters and avoiding the weird limbo of round five.
Before he paddled out for the final heat this morning, Sebastian Zeitz paused for a second, sniffed his pits, and concluded, “Brah, I stink. It’s got to the point where soap actually makes it worse.” Around the dinner table over on Namotu the air has also been ripe. Mick Fanning sniffed his pits a few days ago and concluded they smelled like diesel fuel. Sweaty men with the tropical melts who’ve been out in the islands for what feels like weeks now. There are two days left in the waiting period. This one has gone the distance.
The contest was due to restart an hour ago but we received the news on the coconut wireless that it’s officially off for the day. As we sit here contemplating what to do on a Wednesday afternoon in paradise, Glen Hall walks past, fresh off a top five finish in the Pest Rankings and fresh off the boat from Cloudbreak, proclaiming, “That’s dead set the best Cloudbreak has been all event.”
I give up. Let’s just boat out there tomorrow and not come back until it’s done.
MEN'S SEMI & FINALS
The Tuna God
Out fishing the other day here in Fiji, I’d heard a story about a mutual friend pulling in a yellowfin, slicing it open as it fluttered on the deck, cutting out its beating heart, eating it, then discovering – if only in his own mind – that he now possessed some kind of primal animistic power, which manifested most potently out in the surf. He was suddenly the tuna god. I thought at the time as a winning strategy here in Fiji it would be without peer. The story alone would ensure you’d have the peak to yourself. Whatever supernatural powers you assumed would simply be a bonus.
The fish to their credit have been on the chew. We filled The Duck – Namotu’s fishing tender –with wahoo and mahi yesterday, a couple of rainbow runners and one sad, scaly, foul-hooked longtom. The fish having escaped the Chinese factory boats working the horizon but fallen instead on the drop-off to the humble Duck. Sea Shepherd has the Chinese factory boats on their radar but might just find sinking The Duck a better net result for the ocean.
I jumped in the boat this morning, looked down and found my shorts covered in congealed fish blood. Something big and bleeding had been hauled over the gunwale yesterday and its life-claret was now soaking my shorts. The putrid, metallic smell would eventually permeate the entire contest boat to the point where I simply borrowed shorts and throw the bloodstained ones into the ocean.
Before the trifling matter of finals day we need to an update on the alternative Fiji Power Rankings.
As reported earlier, the original list caused quite the stir on both islands. In the wake of a WSL memo telling event staff to stop stealing waves off wave-starved millionaire pro surfers, the list was quickly dubbed The Pest Rankings and proved a bit of a running joke with crew on both islands… with just one exception. My lack of facts, lack of credentials, and lack of world titles were all called into question by one member of the original list. Regardless, with the contest wrapping I felt compelled to update the list and here they are, counted down:
5. YAGO DORA
The unwritten rule of the tour contest is that after you’re knocked out, you’re outta here. The Brazilian kid lost a week ago but his freesurf numbers since have been through the roof.
Has dropped a spot since last week, due to the fact he’s spent so long marinating on his inclusion in the original list that he’s actually missed surfs as a result. Plus I’ve been geed up to re-include him by all his mates, so, ladies and gentleman, here he is.
3. GLYNDYN RINGROSE
Don’t be fooled by Ringa’s saintly demeanour, his access to a ski means he doesn’t miss the early, the late or the lunchy. Paid the price yesterday when washed onto the reef and limed within an inch of his life. When called out by surfers he barks, “Check the ratings!” He’s actually there after winning the trials at Bells.
2. RENATO HICKEL
The WSL Tour Manager and author of the original memo has, himself, hypocritically, been regulating the lineup. The lineup in question, however, has been Namotu Left, the longboard and kiddies wave out front of the island.
1. KAI GARCIA
Borg is a deserved inclusion in the list on the strength of his surfing… and on the fact he told me I probably should.
As we drank coffee at 6am and surveyed the waves, the lads picked it as a diamond. There’s an art to telling what Cloudbreak is doing from Namotu, three miles away. The Love Shacks section up the reef gives you the size, the reef straight out front gives you the wind, and you just put them together. They thought it would be good and it was. Kelly is still smarting they ran the other day, the day he lost, and his mood wouldn’t have improved when he saw Cloudbreak this morning. Kelly woulda been all over it, and with another new swell due late tomorrow – bigger, better – be prepared for several Internets full of Kelly surfing Cloudbreak tomorrow to prove the point.
It wasn’t quite standing up square on The Ledge, so the inside racetrack was key… but brother, it was quick. Like a tear through space-time, it drew you down the reef, crushing you smaller and smaller, until you became one with a single dry point. It was a day that looked like a goofies’ picnic.
The first quarter seemed to hold the winner.
Wilko and Julian Wilson have made the last two finals here respectively and it was immediately clear both intended not to lose. They quickly disappeared up the Top Shop, paddled themselves so far up the reef you needed binoculars to spot them. But just as the heat started Wilko, suddenly the tactical mastermind of the tour, bellyboarded a wave a hundred yards down the reef. The siren blew and from the sweet spot on the reef he went to work before Julian knew what was happening. The first eight was part of the plan, the second – jagged paddling back out – was some blind luck, but within mere minutes he had 17 points on the board. Jules never recovered, and when the pair later broke down the heat together that first gambit of Willy’s was the key.
In the background of their exchange, if you looked carefully enough, you might have noticed Stu Kennedy listening in. Stuey had just gone down to Parko, and the arm he was holding behind his back as the pair talked for the camera was holding a 10am beer. And why not? He’d been horribly unlucky to lose, and in his gloriously unfiltered way had not only in his own post-heat interview that with a beer in him he could’ve surfed like Trent Munro out there, but he also said that maybe Parko had got a few “world champ points” from the judges on his winning wave. The tour may have its new cult hero. Stuey, now in his second year in elite company, is finding his range. Possibly the whitest guy you’ll ever meet, he spent the bender night here on Namotu emu-dancing to the Warumpi Band. The following day during a discussion on the placid nature of dolphins, he placed both hands on the table and said, “Whaddaya mean? Dolphins? Dolphins are assholes." Except he didn't say assholes. And how do we know they aren't anyway?
I’d watched the Wilko/Julian heat from the contest ferry with Leo Fioravanti, the Italian rookie who has won more heats this contest than he has all year, which wasn’t hard… he hadn’t won a chook raffle until earlier this week but was about to paddle out for the quarters. The young Italian speaks five languages, a fact I’m sure you’ve been made aware of, and was speaking Fijian the other night after necking a skulldrag. His stepdad/tour dad Stephen Bell has also got him speaking Australian, and Leo warmed up for his heat to AC/DC’s TNT as loud as he could play it. As Leo waxed his board and sang the chorus, “T-N-T”, Seabass, listening on, started singing, “It-a-ly! Oi! Oi! Oi!”
At this point it looked like Michel Bourez might be the one to crush Wilko’s perfect little picture. He has been playing Bonestorm out there all week… in a gentle, Tahitian way. During his heats you’re waiting for him to swim down, break off a chunk of reef with his hands, and just chew some nutrients out of it before paddling off and throwing tectonic turns at the lip. Then he gets back on the boat and when congratulated on winning, in a lulling, Pacific paean, simply says, “Thank you, brother.” He’s a big-hearted, lovable beast of a man.
Michel’s semi with Wilko most thought would decide the final, and it came down to a last minute wave for Wilko. When the score was read, half-a-point to the good for Wilko, Michel simply bowed his head graciously and paddled off to the ferry. At that point the last Tavarua surfer exited the contest and the whole of Namotu Island evacuated in longboats for the channel at Cloudbreak. The only person left on the whole island was Adriano De Souza, who would also be the only guy on the island you’d trust with an unguarded bar.
The second semi featured Parko and tour rookie Connor O’Leary, who to that point had both progressed with the odd flourish but nothing that was going to tear the contest a new asshole. That was all happening in the top half of the draw. I watched their semi from the channel with Luke Egan who was betwixt the two. Louie’s coaching the Cronulla rookie and doing a pretty good job of it, but the history is with Joel, Louie having added some hard edges to that most viscous of talents and helping Joel to the unreachable world title. By this stage Connor, in a masterful tactic hatched by Louie, had switched focus to the inside reef. The big kid drained a tube, a sublime cylinder that looked like an ad for a Mentawais resort, and found himself in a tour final.
Wilko reaches peak comedy early in the day, between 7am and 8am, between his first and second coffees (the hours between midnight and 3am are generally pretty good too). At breakfast the other morning he was telling the story of trying to kiteboard the previous afternoon. “Fuck that!” He barked before extrapolating the experience beyond kiteboarding. “I’m not doing anything new in my life ever again! I’m only doing old shit I know I can do!”
He knows this ain’t true though, and we’ve seen that this week.
His forehand has evolved remarkably, possessed by the ghost of Occy in his prime – wild, spontaneous, just enough time for a hair flick, a fraction of a second from disaster but always in control. His feet are either going through his board or hanging on weightless by his toes, nothing in between. He spent a week in the Maldives with Owen prior to coming here, the pair scoring a perfect southern atoll left to themselves, all day, the wave looking something just like what he surfed today. He came here ready.
Wilko has christened himself The Tugboat and was reliable as one today, right up to the point where he fell on his first two waves in the final. Surely not. He’d been the best surfer all contest, but the Shire kid was pushing him, taking cues from Wilko himself and surfing with his toes over his tail, pushing as hard as he could go… and it was almost enough.
I debated Wilko’s final wave with Parko and Kieren Perrow and we had it a 2-1 split in Wilko’s favour. The judges agreed. Kinda had to argue otherwise after the surfing they’d seen from him this week. It wasn’t quite John at Margaret River, but it was a statement nonetheless… and if that wasn’t enough he’s now wearing the yellow jersey again, a year after he first wore it to everyone’s disbelief. It’s currently soaked in Skulldrag and caked in sand and, just as he did last year, he won’t take it off for three days.
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