Nick Carroll On: The End Game
COASTALWATCH | 2017 CORONA OPEN J-BAY
THE END GAME
Pro surfing doesn’t need saving, it just needs surf like J-Bay.
OK so the Apocalypse didn’t quite happen. So what. Five heats did, and a hell of a lot more besides.
Seldom does one get to witness much less participate in a surf session like the one that unveiled itself at Jeffreys Bay this afternoon. Fortune both wonderful and disturbing has me staying in a place directly overlooking Supertubes, but I tried to ignore it for hours, I really did. I turned the computer around to face inland, determined not to be hypnotised by the visions pouring past the window. Then took a look back and was instantly caught again by the sight of Parko letting his board run clean into the main section.
Something about the energy in this wave, the way it regathered itself and stretched out across the reef, caused Elizabeth Riddell’s great line from her poem “the Surfer” to flash through my mind, the “long muscle of water”. That’s Jeffreys Bay, a long muscle that lifts you into some other place. Parko pulled in to what appeared to be a 15-second in and out barrel, then kicked out and just sorta lay there for a bit.
SEE ALSO: Nick Carroll On, The 10 Barrier
Pro surfing, man! It so often feels as if it needs saving from itself. Maybe it is about to be saved by the WSL’s new CEO, Sophie Goldschmidt, by all accounts a highly intelligent and driven person with five star contacts in the big world of money and sport. Though there’s something about her first statement about this scene that brings another poem to mind, W.B Yeats’s “The Second Coming”. Look it up you bastards.
Anyway, Ms Goldschmidt’s rescue mission can wait for another day. July 20, pro surfing was saved by the same thing as always: Epic surf, epic surfing.
July 19 was pretty weird. The shark boat surfing episode, the actual shark, the Jordy-Conner re-surf and the odd precedent it’s set (get your filmer to shoot your heat just in case the judges miss something!), the long midday break while the surf pumped, and the wacky contrast between“perfect” rides all added up, sure.
But it was more than that. July 19 saw a shift in the weather from dramatic to dull. From full blast Southern Ocean south-west gale to morning-sick glass-offs and an uncertain wind that circled the bay looking for somewhere to lie down and go to sleep. The light was flat, warm; people sunbaked on the sand, buckets of Corona to hand.
This wasn’t the vital, cold clear windblown energy of earlier. It felt as if a switch had been flicked to “off”.
That apocalyptic storm had bent itself over a bit too laterally to smash us with its full force, but it still had the nuts to flick that switch back to Real. Overnight the cold air surged back across southern Africa.
At around 6.45am I ran around the back of Boneyards, watching those early lines and trying not to froth, and jumped into the back rip about 50 metres ahead of a tall dark figure with a Billabong logo on his board. Within 20 seconds Frederico Morais had caught up to me. What the hell? Fred’s wingspan, his general physical presence, is outsize, yet he emits no star vibe. The fabulous J-Bay legend Mike Ginsberg told me today that Fred reminds him of Andy Irons; well, they’re the same height, but AI was never that calm.
So, yeah, the heats began, all five of ‘em. Wilko fell quickly to JW. At this point, the surf was completely fantastic.
Each night I’ve been glued to the TV, watched the other sport with a yellow jersey, Le Tour De France. This brutal attenuated race, day after day, tearing the athletes to pieces, one pedal stroke at a time. As JBay panned out, the Tour clawed its way up Col Izouard, a long and terrible climb seared into the memory of the sport through the feats of great racers of the past, a memory tailing back into the 1920s, before EPO and HGH and all their subtle variants. Chris Froome, their yellow jersey, held himself coolly and grimly in the second group, four and a bit minutes back from the leaders, giving nothing away.
In glorious contrast, Wilko spent 20 minutes doing a situation surf check with Micro Hall, pulled on a wetsuit, and ran down from his house on the point, yellow jersey in one hand. Take that, pedallers!
I asked him later: do you ever do warm-ups? “I WAS warm,” he retorted. “I dunno, this first (wave) was a couple of top turns, as good as they needed to be. Then the big one I got, I saw the section and thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m gonna fuck you up!’ But the wind got me.” He didn’t look overly stressed; he’s still got that jersey.
Chris Gallagher watched his man Jordy get pasted by Filipe. In six or seven minutes, the little gray-haired Flea look-a-like blew apart two excellent scores. “We’re already butchered,” Gally grunted. Big Jordy did not look super stressed about it either. Like everyone’s, his mind seemed more on the waves. The local mag, ZigZag, was hoping to set up an interview with him; Jordy’s eyes glazed a bit. “Well, ahh, err, can we wait?” he said. “I’m gonna be surfing.”
Medina, despite his back-to-form effort here, couldn’t find a score on Fred. Back in the surfer’s area I watched Filipe, trading jokes with his buddies, but in between, watching from under his hoodie, silent, sharp eyes darting across the lineup. I’m sorry, by the way. I haven’t been watching the webcast. Did anyone mention why Filipe Toledo wasn’t in Fiji? How an apparent misdemeanour at a QS event involving a burst of emotion and a water bottle caused him to be barred for a whole CT event?
Filipe didn’t surf this contest like some guilty boy feeling the need for redemption. He surfed it like a wizard, a freak, like the kid who won that Snapper event three years ago but with the act transposed on to a far grander surface.
He didn’t bring his Dad Ricardo to this fight. Instead he brought his wife, new baby, and a semi-gun, a gorgeous board with a tail he described as “a little pinnier …it is a bit different for sure. But…” and he shook his head and made a gesture. Not bafflement so much as, I dunno, appreciation for this little blade of a thing that did all he’d asked of it and possibly more.
He had a happy place out there, a dial-a-wave spot just tucked inside Supers’ takeoff, and on his third wave against Julian, you could suddenly see the difference between him and 90% of the field (aside from the air razzmatazz and general flair, that is): he wasn’t messing around with the wave. He was accelerating all the time, hunting, looking for high lines into barrels, gaining speed everywhere. The opposite of the relaxed stance surfing that dominated the early rounds. Racing-car shit performed on a high wire, if we may mix our stupid metaphors.
Something happened during that semi, by the way. The tide drifted just a tiny touch too high, and filled the Supers sandbar. The sand was now focused down at the end section, Impossibles, and a slight reverb from the rock was pulsing across the wave face, making it just a little awkward.
A 30-minute pre-final holiday commenced. A light shower filtered across from the west, scaring people off the beach and back under shelter. Johnny Florence came out on his luminescent shorter board and got a long doomed barrel across that Impossibles sand. Just the way KS might have done 15 years ago — “I’m still here, you bastards.”
The final looked for a while like every other heat Filipe had surfed so far, ie, everything coming up Filipe. He just stomped it on his second ride. STOMPED it. Walked the high wire right up on to the edge of a falling lip and climbed it and air-dropped out onto the face. A move that goes so easily wrong. But the twitchy sensitive tail of that board touched the flat smooth surface of the wave like a fingertip on skin. Shaun Tomson, the rational senior commentator, was freaking out: “He’s a madman with a chainsaw!” he yelled.
Then an exchange that did actually decide the issue. Fred had one good thing and needed a better and got it. His wings-out carving connected near flawlessly with this wave as it opened up and extended down the line. Filipe chased him on the second wave of the set, got out 20 yards earlier and called for the ski. That quick decision got him priority — a subtle shift. Normally, the first ride would put its rider in that spot.
SEE ALSO: Nick Carroll On, Jordy's Perfect Heat
The heat was on a knife edge for seven minutes. In the surfer’s area, Fred’s family and crew were darting in and out of cover, looking again at the scores. Fred did his best, selling Filipe on a small one with 90 seconds left, then found himself stranded in a lineup empty of foes and waves.
It wasn’t even 11.30am.
I stayed on message for hours, gazing at the computer, sneaking little glances at the surf. There would have been 50 surfers in the lineup, off and on. Johnny Florence surfed for maybe six hours, sitting a bit wide and amazingly inconspicuous as is his wont, inconspicuous until he stood up that is. Jordy and Parko were in and out a bit quicker. Eventually, I cracked and with about three hours of light left, joined the throng. Plenty of CT guys were out but I couldn’t see much if any differentiation between them and the J-Bay crew. A couple of graceful, forceful, flamboyant local goofies were taking it apart, and a much older, very casual natural-foot nudged away at the sets. A couple of grommets, a girl and a boy, paddled around a bit closer in, and when they chased a wave, everyone cheered them. Every time I got a wave, I saw Conner Coffin absolutely flying down a better one, screeching Ferrari-like around through his underwater cutback; at one point he lapped me, getting out down the end and running back up to the top and catching yet another wave before I’d even made it back to the takeoff.
As the light and the wind began to die, I sat outside with Twiggy Baker and one other, waiting for the secret last wave that never comes. Twig had been out there when I’d paddled around that morning. “Days like this, man,” he said, “normally I’ll just surf all day, sun up, sun down. Let’s go have a beer in our wetsuits!”
Pro surfing may often need saving from itself, but actual surfing? On afternoons like these I always wonder, what do they all think needs to be improved?
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