Soup of the tired horse

24 Oct 2011 0 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

Words by Sean Doherty

There are few lonelier places than a surf contest a week after the fact. It’s three days after the Portugal contest finished and Peniche is preparing for a long lie down. The surfers have long since split this fishing town, the contest superstructure stands gutted and dumb in the dunes, and the frisson of the previous days tubes has long since faded. And in a sign of the natural order being re-established the seagulls have taken over the hotel pool. Fractious and dangerously hungry, these big bastards would strip the flesh from your bones like feathery piranhas if you dared dip a toe in their new plunge pool.

The little bar across the road from our hotel meanwhile is preparing to board up and hibernate as winter descends from the northern latitudes. It’s a curious yet homely little set up where it’s always 1995. The staff sport white sunglasses, bad jeans and dreadlocks. Offspring and Limp Bizkit and Bob Marley loop continuously through the speakers, and burning herb drifts on the cool onshore. It has the ambience of the bedroom from my uni days back in Newcastle. But Joao the bartender has been looking after us and pours a round of local fire water, explaining across the language barrier the grain liquor is called the “Soup of the Tired Horse.” Joao’s grandfather was a fisherman, and before they left port in Peniche every morning they’d chase down one of these shots with a glass of vinho tinto and a piece of bread. A breakfast of champions, surely, but I imagine dozens of wrecked fishing boats that never made it out of the harbour, their skippers motherlessly drunk before dawn and driving headlong into the breakwall.

But for another Portuguese ship making a wrong turn back in the 16th Century I could be conversing perfectly with Joao with Portuguese as my native tongue. It seems we’ll never know how close Australia came to being a Portuguese colony. The “Mahogany Ship”, reportedly a Portuguese caravel, is fabled to be buried in sand dunes near Warnambool after running aground 200 years before Cook’s toes touched the sands of Botany Bay. I ponder whether the skipper had a skinful of tired horse soup in him when he realised his boat had just smacked into Australia. But enough digression…

Three days earlier and Eminem was drifting across the sands of Supertubes on finals day. “Dear Stan, what’s this shit about us meant to be together? That type of shit makes me not want to meet each other.” Stan, Shady’s fan anthem seemed somewhat appropriate as thousands of Portuguese massed for a piece of their hero – a rashie, a leggie, a leg – they weren’t fussy, and when Matt Wilko’s board is offered to the crowd it’s like a single chip dropped amongst an army of seagulls. One middle-aged female fan applies a ju-jitsu hold on the boards nose, dragging it to the ground and claiming it, while a muscled and maniacal teenager grabs the tail. In an effort to shake her loose he starts stabbing her violently with the boards nose. It’s radical and ugly and the crowd soon turns on him. The girl breaks loose with the board and bolts, only for the kid to take off after her. This place is hungry for pro surfing like nowhere I’ve seen, and it starts right at the top. On day one of the contest the Mayor of Peniche was on site, lying in wait at the bottom of the stairs to the surfers area. One by one he picked them off, a handshake, a hug, a gift of a ceramic sardine and then the obligatory press photo. This contest seems key to his re-election chances and no photo opportunity seems too shameless, not even jumping in a giant mechanical sardine with the goofy smiling head of Matt Wilkinson.

This event was a study in hunger. It started in the seagulls, worked its way into the fans, passed through the promo girls, before finally infecting the cells of the worlds best surfers. The Reynolds ambivalence for the tour seemed passé here in Portugal. Bobby’s criticism of beachbreaks and rating systems suddenly seemed like fish and chip wrappers. There was no Dane and no Bobby but few really noticed. Three reasons; the waves pumped, Kelly’s going to win the title again, and the kids have transfused an anemic tour with young blood.

Julian Wilson has been a revelation in the back half of the season. The flicky kid with the puka shells and the sushi roll has been replaced by a rail-burying manchild who is muscling his way through heats. Joycey’s heat against the luckless Kai Otton in perfect tubing six-foot peaks restored faith in this whole pro surfing game. While Otto opened with a 9.97, Julian would simply not be denied. His years freesurfing and shooting movies disguised a kid who has always loved winning, and his four-event tear of quarter-semi-final-quarter finishes has him looking more and more like the future of this tour, although he’s suddenly not alone. With John John tuberiding into the last 12 in Portugal with his low-slung front arm, with Medina winning in France and Owen the only one with any chance of overhauling Kelly, it’s clear there’s been a huge generational shift on tour in the back half of the year. The future, however, isn’t here yet; a fact Chris Davidson reminded Julian of while getting him in a headlock and rubbing his ears as if he was a cheeky Narrabeen grommet.

As expected, Kelly all but aced the world title by making the final here in Portugal, although he couldn’t take his momentum all the way to win the final. At no stage of this event did Adriano de Souza look like the best surfer in the water, and yet he hungered and hustled and scrapped and when the music stopped he’d taken down Kelly in the final. Adriano was the last guy Kelly would like to lose a final against. The Brazilian has a special skill for getting under the champ’s skin, which occasionally works as it did in the final here, while on other occasions it sees Kelly smite him with some kind of Old Testament retribution. Adriano paid tribute to Kelly on stage – the greatest, not worthy, that kind of thing – but all the time you could hear the cogs grinding in Kelly’s head as he plotted some kind of ironic and humiliating vengeance, to be served ice cold at a later date.

Kelly has to make just two heats in San Francisco to win the world title. With jet skis banned he may just have to make it out the back twice to win, although there’s a rumour floating around here that he might shine San Fran and take the title win to Pipe. It’s the kind of scuttlebutt that generally shows its head at this time of year, but he’ll be there and he’ll win and we’ll all ask whether he’ll do it again next year.

It seemed his tenth title, won on an emotional tsunami in Puerto Rico last year, seemed the natural juncture for him to walk away. So why is he still here and kicking heads? Hasn’t dreamkilling two entire generations been enough? Does he now need to do it to a third? His semi with Taj here in Portugal was a 30-minute microcosm of the past decade. Taj opened with an incendiary 9.8, only for Kelly to summon an unlikely pulse from the briny depths of the North Atlantic that more resembled a wave at Speedies, Grajagan, and for the second time in four events he beat Taj on the back of a perfect 10. Kelly, it seems, will continue to do what Kelly does. When your correspondent spoke with him after last year’s world title, he hinted his tour career remains open ended and has as much to do with the guys he’s surfing against, as it has to do with him personally. “But you have to know yourself whether you can still improve and grow, and if I know that my mind’s not open to that and my heart’s not open to that then I have to stop. But if I feel like I can still learn from other peoples’ surfing and increase my repertoire and improve what I’m doing and to be excited about it, well, who knows?” It’s a question of relevance, and Kelly, rightly, continues to see himself as very, very relevant.

Kelly will win the world title again. There are few things surer. It always comes with a sense of theatre, but exactly how he does it we’ll have to wait until next week in San Francisco to discover. With his bent for numerology, Kelly could win his 11th world title on the 11th of the 11th, 2011, at 11.11am with pro surfing’s first 11-point ride, at which point the clouds will part, a shaft of golden light will bathe him, and he’ll ascends into the surfing Valhalla… only to show back up at Snapper on the first day of the season next year.

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