Sean Doherty On Fiji Pro Round 3, The Way To Go Out

15 Jun 2016 1

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

No one is ever gonna knock him off his cloud. PHOTO by Ed Sloan

No one is ever gonna knock him off his cloud. PHOTO by Ed Sloan

FIJI PRO | Presented by Electric

Round 3 at Cloudbreak, Fiji

In the total absence of surf, competitive vibes have been few and far between in this corner of the South Pacific over the past week.

They reared their ugly head for a minute the other day when a rugby ball materialised on the beach. The ball was picked up by one of the Fijian boatman, a new guy, who was covered in tatts and appeared to have been chiselled from of a large block of basalt. He picked the ball up, rolled it in his hands, and looked up to see Ronnie Blakey excitedly start waving for it like a Labrador waiting for a stick to be thrown. The Fijian guy has wound up and thrown a pass like a tracer bullet. The thing broke the sound barrier. Ronnie stood there with his hands out in front of him, still waiting to catch the ball, completely unaware there was a football-shaped hole in his chest and the ball was actually on the other side of the island.

No, competition hasn’t been a thing here for days, especially so for Taj Burrow.

When I saw him the week before Fiji and asked whether he was ready for his last event on tour, he replied, “Ha… don’t put me in your Fantasy Surfer team!” And apart from some bush league competitive drinking earlier in the week, that’s been about as intense as he’s been. He’s been on holiday. He’s turned the whole week for everyone here into a boat trip, on an island, and has become Namotu’s spirit animal as the laydays dragged on and on and time began to melt like a Dali clock.

SEE ALSO: Sean Doherty Day 2 Fiji Pro, On Cape Fiji

But just yesterday he picked up a ping-pong paddled and something stirred. Painted into a corner by the forecast, the contest was always going to run today, and TB began to throw top-spin forehands and backhand slices like a man who suddenly remembered winning was quite enjoyable. Coming into his last event he’d admitted to nerves, to now wanting to blow it, to go out with a crumb of dignity. Drawn against John Florence – the hotshot kid TB was 20 years ago – simply staving off an embarrassing loss seemed like a good result.

Even this morning watching the first heats form the Namotu Bar, Taj had modest expectations. With the first heats struggling to find scoring waves, Mick Fanning offered, “I reckon just paddle up the Top Shop and chase two fives.” Taj nodded. “Even one five would do.” If only he knew how it was going to play out.

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Sitting next to Taj in the boat on the way out to Cloudbreak there was no sign of an impending emotional dam collapse. No way. No rivers to be cried, just waves to be surfed.

“Check that out!”

Motoring past Swimming Pools – the hotdog right opposite Restaurants – a set rolled invitingly down the reef, and we literally had to pull Taj back into the boat. “How long we got?” He asked, seriously. He’d only however, have to wait another hour to be able to surf on his own terms for the rest of his days.

The waves, on the front edge of the swell were showing signs of what we’ll see in the next two days without quite being there. They were tough to pick all day. As Mick Fanning put it later, “I saw 60 tens in my heat and I couldn’t get near one of them.” The conditions on the other hand, were impeccable; impossible blue, Mentawai-doldrum-still with just an angel fart of tradewind. “Thumper of a day,” as Taj summed it up.

It was a great day to go out… if indeed the plan was to go out.

Taj admitted being a bit “Tin Manny” on his first wave, the nerves of the occasion getting to him. “Turn? Tube? Turn? Tube? Lobster,” was how Taj summed up his first wave, the nerves locking his joints – and his brain – in place. The whole channel – and pretty much anyone who’s ever set foot on a board – was hoping that if John John was going to run the bus over him, at least Taj was going to get barrelled. After 20 years of pure entertainment, it was the least the guy deserved.

But then the switch flicked.

Every good wave for the rest of the day was sucked into that heat and it turned into a giant, mirrored, saltwater version of Kelly’s wave pool. And it became a full-on shootout, Taj taking the longer ones from up the point, Jonny taking the tanks on the inside ledge. Within a minute, it was suddenly fitting.

And it was on.

The problem is, John John don’t lose shootouts. You beat Jonny with fives, never nines. No one beats him with nines. John John later admitted to wrestling with the build up to the heat, surfing against a guy who’d he’d first idolised watching Montaj, “on those – what do ya call them? – VHS tapes. I wore that tape out. But it’s been like one day off, one day on. One day I’m like, I’m going to respect him, he’s such a legend, and then the next day I’m thinking… it’s the last heat of his career, he’s gonna do some crazy shit out there! But when the waves are that good you get your first barrel and all that goes out the window and it’s like, fuck it, I’m just here to get barrelled.”

And barrelled is what they both got today, one barrel almost enough to prolong Taj’s career for another day at least.

Taj dropped into a pit from The Ledge, all the way down the reef, sitting on his ass enjoying the view. Thing was sick, and Josh Kerr who was standing next to me, along with all the caddies and the screaming boatloads of Fijians in the channel were all convinced it was a perfect 10. The judges – front on – gave it a 7.33. In the end Taj fell on a turn that might have given him the half-a-point he fell short by – two of the five judges gave it to him – but Taj was hardly storming the tower in his final heat. “It was just so beautiful in there. I didn’t even care about the score.” Within a minute of the siren sounding he had a beer forced into his neck, his phone had several thousand messages, and his new life had begun.

It was the way to go out, all right. “Every time I got off the ski there was another perfect wave there. I'm like, shit, can I just have a rest for two minutes. They were the most perfect waves and they just wouldn't stop coming.” And as for the guy who’d beaten him, he offered the greatest praise any Australian could ever offer – “**** that ****’s good!”

Watching on Mick Fanning – in semi-retirement himself and eating a meat pie – was flabbergasted. “How do you even beat that? F**k, everyone’s raising the bar with their retirements. Freddy gets a 10 and drops the mic. Taj does a surf trip to Fiji. Where do you even go from there? I might just have to stay on tour until I just drop off.” When Tupou, one of the Fijian girls from Namotu offers Mick a knife and fork for his pie he looks across, shaking his head incredulously. “Not for a pie, Tupou! Geez!”

The party on Namotu, which had run out of willing bodies days ago, was set to fire up again. “Tonight’s the night!” has become Mick’s catch cry in Fiji, although whether he goes to war tonight to celebrate the career of one of the greats is yet to be seen, considering Mick’s into the last 12 here and set to surf in the morning. But the party will roll on. Surfline editor Marcus Sanders, who’d attended the last Namotu party and was still sporting a haircut like an escapee from an institution for the criminally insane, quipped, “There’s a party on Namotu island? Really? How novel.”

Driving back in from Cloudbreak we drove past Pools again, and TB was mesmerised. It was still pumping. “Can’t take me eyes off it,” he said, not taking his eyes off it. Everyone’s favourite VHS-section frother with the brush-forward hair has not lost the quality we’ve all grown to love him for. Twenty years on tour hasn’t dulled it one bit.

No one is ever gonna knock him off his cloud.

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