The Sean Doherty Chronicles

30 Apr 2017 0

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY FEATURE

Missed out on Sean Doherty's documentation of the Australian leg of the World Tour? Catch up here:

- The Human Wilderness
- The Morning Burn
- The Devil In Coolangatta
- The Return Of Owen Wright
- The Rare Bird
- The Big Pool & That Florence Kid
- Fifth Gear
- The Living Angus
- Long Shadows
- Last Word On The First Wave
- Bells: The Musical 

http://www.coastalwatch.com/surfing/21283/sean-doherty-on-the-return-of-owen-wright

QUIKSILVER & ROXY PRO 2017

THE HUMAN WILDERNESS

You could imagine the stark contrast of flying straight in from Tasmania’s remote Tarkine wilderness and suddenly finding yourself out in the water at Snapper Rocks in the hour before the Quiksilver Pro starts. There were more people surfing the first set wave I saw this morning at Snapper than I’d seen in a whole week in the Tarkine.

The Tarkine is hundreds of miles of deserted coast and forest with more chance of finding a Tasmanian Tiger than seeing another person.

Snapper?

Snapper is human soup. It’s the hyper-crowded surfopolis of the future and it’s an experience not for the misanthropic. It’s an aquatic conveyor belt that carries lost souls down into the bay as an endless supply of fresh ones are fed into its maw. It’s the psychological equivalent of one of those industrial crushers that eats cars and refrigerators.

The crowds have been teeming here for weeks, the worst it’s ever been. There’s little room for humanity amongst all those humans, and even nature has been stripped of its natural cycles. The big swell last week threatened to wash the bank away, so the Great Sand Pump was deployed to vacuum the ocean floor and suck every grain of sand from over the border and deposit it behind the rock in time for today.

Even with the sand, the high tide this morning was creating a mongo dunny flush at Snapper that made finding a surfable wave kind of tough. Still, it was better than what the women had been sent out in yesterday afternoon, when it was barely two foot, howling onshore, and teeming with bluebottles. Everyone got stung, some excruciatingly so. Laura Enever was almost digested by one of the creatures.

And so the first day of the men’s season started today and driving up the Pacific Highway this morning I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I should have been kinda psyched. There are enough psychologically complex storylines to feed a whole season… and that’s just Kelly. But it just feels like something’s gotta change or something’s gonna give. We’re on the brink of something, I’m just not sure what.

There’s the ongoing disquiet about the future of tour that’s been simmering away for, well, pretty much since the tour started 40 years ago. Today, however, it’s existence is at the whim of one man, Dirk Ziff, and we have no idea of why he does it, or what he’s got planned for it. He’s been the tour’s silent backer since the WSL took ownership in 2013, and the guy who has been thrust into the CEO role – you’d imagine reluctantly – since the departure of Paul Speaker earlier this year. I say reluctantly, because spotting Dirk Ziff has been like spotting a Tasmanian Tiger. He’s never been interviewed publicly about the tour and has only rarely visited a tour event.

SEE ALSO: Quiksilver & Roxy Pro Free Surf Sessions

And yet he’s here in Coolangatta. There have been sightings but then again MP was spotted down in Griffith Street last week as well.

By all reports he’s a solid guy who’s actually grown close to the crew around the tour, but for all we know he could just as easily as he could wake up one morning and decide his money is better off invested in pork bellies or Florida oranges than in pro surfing… if you’d ever deem pro surfing an investment. We just don’t know. Dirk could, of course, sit down with a reporter – this wheezy hack, even, over a beer upstairs at the surf club and maybe even the chicken parmigiana special from the bistro (10 bucks, pretty good, Coastal Watch’s shout) – and confirm he’s in for the long haul and that you should-just-wait-to-see-what-I-got- planned-bro.

Just throwing it.

You might remember a couple of years ago the final here at Snapper featured Gabriel Medina – then a spindly Brazilian kid – up against the Prince of Snapper Rocks himself, Joel Parkinson. Up until that point winning this event had been a fairly simple formula: Get barrelled behind the rock. Raise hands. Get pissed somewhere in Cooly. Parko paddled out that day and did just that, only to indignantly lose to the kid who was surfing so far down the point he never even saw him. At that point it was clear the goalposts had been moved and Snapper was suddenly a turn contest. That loss still bites for Joel. His second place trophy sits out in the backyard. The dog drinks out of it.

The judges today laid it all out there. For the first time in a long time, head judge Richie Porta got on the broadcast and put it on the record that Snapper was no longer simply a barrel contest. It was however explained in riddles and metaphors, and if I’d been a surfer in a heat listening to it I’d have even less idea about whether they wanted barrels or turns.

Gabe Medina was happy to do both. One backhand turn he unleashed this morning was so electric it literally shocked Claw Warbrick who was sitting in the competitor’s area a hundred metres away. He jumped like someone had put voltage through him. Then Gabe slid under a heavy section, kick stalled on his backhand like Tom Carroll circa 1986, then stood tall inside a decent sized pit. When he tried to complete the Holy Trinity and launch a double grab backhand alley oop, however, his front leg flattened with a crunch. He surfed the rest of the heat, but was melodramatically carried up the road afterward, his MCL the consistency of cooked spaghetti. At one point, his old boy Charlie – who’s been banned for a year from the competitors area over an outburst at the judges over breakfast in Portugal last year – was forced to wait with the hundreds of Gabe fans lined up to get the campeão’s autograph. Oh, the indignity. It would be a shame if Gabe’s knee was serious, because for 15 minutes of his first heat of the season, Gabe looked like the world champ.

The heat featuring Mick and Kelly was the headliner for the day; Mick back after a year off surfing empty sand points and Kelly taking the old bones for one last tilt at the title. Why Kelly is still here after 22 seasons is one great mystery… how his body has held together over all that time is another. Gabe was still being carted off to the meat wagon when Kelly went for a big forehand air reverse and landed cold and hard in the flats… and promptly resurfaced and paddled away without a scratch. He’s 45. Kelly drew some interesting lines out there today, looked spritzy at time but skittery at others. Mick looked more solid – all he’s done is surf Snapper for a month – but was lucky to get the score he needed to win the heat.

The best heat today was put together by Parko, possibly in response to the news that tuberiding was dead, man. He caught a wave in the very first second of the heat and went all fruit ninja on it for the highest score of the day. When it was announced it was a 9.23, Parko’s dad, Brian chipped, “That was a six!” Triangulating between the Snapper dunny block, the third Norfolk Island pine on the hill, and Occy’s unit, Joel was never out of position in a tricky lineup that wasn’t quite out the back, but wasn’t quite inside either.

Parko was challenged for the win by French rookie, Joan Duru, who looked great. Duru then watched on as Cascais’s own Fred Morais took down Filipe Toledo in the next heat. Fil’s dad watched the screen as the scores dropped and it became clear his boy had lost. He didn’t even bother swearing in Portuguese. It wasn’t the best day for the rookies, although Ethan Ewing in the final heat of the day gave the judges something to dine out on. Naturally unhurried, coming from Straddie, he sat and waited for his wave and torched it, surfing low, coming from behind the section and pinballing smoothly down the line. It was a shame he couldn’t find a second wave, but on the strength of today he’ll do something this year.

The emotional quotient of the day was raised in the final heat when Owen Wright paddled out. His first heat back since suffering a brain bleed at Pipeline 15 months ago was a huge moment for a guy who, for most of those 15 months, has been stuck on a couch thinking about it… and for a time wondering if it was ever going to happen.

Chatting to his dad, Rob, you got a sense of how much the family went through last year, and also how unsure they were of how he’d go today. Not only would Owen have to surf a heat, but he’d have to do it in front of a big crowd. Rob, with an economy of words, put it best though: “He already won when he pulled up in the car park today.”

Owen hung out for most of the day in the contest area carrying his new grom, Vali, watching on quietly, a little gaunt but sporting that same Labrador grin. No one was really sure how this might play out, but they needn’t have worried. Owen dropped into his first wave, drove off the bottom, then straight up and through the lift. It was a process he repeated several times before the wave – and Owen – gave out. Tyler was already in tears halfway down the point. Owen’s surfing was all there, same as it ever was, maybe just missing a little power but it was clean and flowing and with plenty of range. He bagged two eights and hung on for the win. He’s being nursed and was kept at arms length from a media scrum, but walked back into the surfer’s area and straight into the arms of his sister, who was, by this stage, a joyous blubbering mess of tears.

QUIKSILVER & ROXY PRO 2017

THE MORNING BURN

As you drive north on the Pacific Highway, just before the Murwillumbah turnoff, you’ll notice, if the car window’s down and the wind is blowing right, the smell of gas. The strong smell of gas. That’s because just beyond the canefields, if you look carefully enough, is an industrial size crematorium perched in the middle of nowhere. The smell of gas wafting across the highway is a sign that they’re stoking up for the morning burn and some unlucky ex-Gold Coasters, victims of strokes, highway crashes, liver cirrhosis, bad kebabs and surfing misadventure are all about to be reduced to an urn of dust.

It was fitting, I suppose, as I was driving to Snapper Rocks to watch the first sudden death heats of this contest and the first burnt cadavers in the draw.

This is usually where I’d insert some kind of comment about the pointlessness and clunkiness of the opening “losers” round, but we know where we all stand on that, right? But once again we’re going to see an event start in better waves than it will finish in. We’re in a race to beat Monday’s diablo wind that will ruin the second week of the waiting period.

Filipe Toledo wished the devil wind was already blowing for his heat with Zeke Lau, the first of the morning. You had the smallest guy on tour against the biggest, and you figured Toledo had the inside run despite the lack of an air wind. Thing was the Brazilian kinda looked flat and a little unenthused… not the bionic molecule we’ve seen here at Snapper the past two years. Enthusiasm isn’t a problem for Zeke Lau.

The onshore wind, however, was up by the time Italo Ferreira paddled out against Italian, Leo Fioravanti. I watched their heat with former tour surfer – and lifelong madman – Chris Davidson. Davo is living down the coast these days but thought he’d swing by and check out what his old crew were up to. He watched on in disbelief as Italo launched into a giant backhand flat spin on the outside section. He spun so viciously he actually seemed to levitate up there. “Thanks fuck I’m not on tour anymore!” barked Davo. “He could’ve just kept spinning and helicopter back to Brazil!” The judges dropped a 10 almost immediately, although not everyone agreed. Barton Lynch had questioned the 10 on the broadcast, more on principle than anything. “I think I’m in trouble,” he said, walking past. “It’s a long pointbreak. What if he’d done another five turns after that? What does that score?”

Losing straight up in the first event of the season is a shit sandwich. A whole off-season of sit up and sand dune runs and where did that get you? A whole season’s worth of bad rhythm can start here and one loss here at Snapper has a way of quickly becoming five.

It seems like Jeremy Flores has been on the wrong end of close calls for as long as anyone can remember. His surfing has been razor sharp for a couple of years but he can’t cut a break. He wore another one in the neck here yesterday when a last minute Mick Fanning score consigned him to this shitty second round by a bee’s dick. Jeremy’s trademark volcanic Gallic reaction, however, didn’t eventuate. He just kinda sagged and sighed. Here we go again. But this morning it tipped his way. Needing a big seven in the death throes of the heat he found a wave and surfed it well enough for the judges to make it close, but, well, you know how these things end.

Only this time they gave it to Jeremy by three hundredths of a point and the weight of the sky lifted from him.

Halfway through the day I lost interest in the back end of the round and stumbled on an exchange on Brad Gerlach’s Instagram account. It had been sparked by Gerr’s offhanded comment, “Kelly’s board overall looked too small and light to me.” A dozen commenters boldly followed, all in furious agreement, teeing off on Kelly’s board from yesterday. His inside rail was bogging, the board was too discy, no flare, made in Thailand. They forgot one thing. He’s always watching. The comments bar in Gerr’s account fell stony silent as Kelly strolled in, pulled both his guns, and started popping off commenters one by one. Clean shots. It was a bloodbath. And the opinion of this commenter? Well, Kelly’s boards – and his surfing, and Kelly himself for that matter – have never looked better.

My interest was re-engaged when the women paddled out. This afternoon there was an amazing correlation between the women not being sent out in knee-high onshore mush infested with Portuguese man ’o’ wars, and a dramatic increase in their performance levels. Who’d have thought it? It had actually started late yesterday afternoon with Lakey Peterson… at least it said Lakey Peterson on paper, although her surfing yesterday looked closer to Kolohe’s. She lit it up, and this afternoon the other girls carried it on, right across the board, the final 12 all relishing the spinning rights on the inside bank. Steph Gilmore might have lost her heat but put on one of those art/performance pieces she’s famous for, featuring cheater fives, deep tube rides, some Alby Falzon style vibes and playing matador with sections as she flew down the line.

So with this contest now with a Sunday afternoon deadline, before days of northerlies set in, the men were thrown back out until dark.

With his luck changed, the now unstoppable Jeremy Flores paddled out against Matt Wilkinson, the defending champ here at Snapper. The rule here at Snapper is that when the bank is behind the rock, regulars win. When it’s down the point hello goofies. Wilko won down the point last year and with the lower end of the bank grain-perfect he must have like his chances and led for most of the heat. Jeremy was left chasing a score and with seconds to go – wouldn’t you believe it – he got piped all the way through the inside. Considering his changed fortunes, he just waited for it to rain numbers and it did… only he fell half a point short. He wasn’t angry, more baffled. “But I got barrelled?” He said as he walked back to the surfer’s area. He clearly didn’t get yesterday’s memo about tuberides being the new floaters.

At that point Armageddon broke over the Gold Coast, and as it cleared the figure of Joel Parkinson flying down the point came into resolution, drawing languid lines down the point, spaced with vertical drives at the lip. Then he got barrelled. Then he got barrelled again. He ended up at Kirra, and if the waves stay true to the forecast I’d like to see the surfing that’s gonna beat him this weekend.

By this stage the tide had dropped and the end section was beginning to impersonate Kelly’s Lemoore wave ranch. But perfect counted for little on the scoreboard… just ask Caio Ibelli, he parked himself inside the most perfect sandbar tube you’re likely to see for just a seven.

John Florence hasn’t broken second gear this week, but paddling out against Maddog Mike Wright you guessed he might need to. It’s been a big few days for the Wrights, obviously, and Mikey might be channelling the emotion around his brother’s return to the tour. His sister certainly has been. With the tide still dropping someone, at some stage this afternoon was going to paddle out and sit behind the rock and the guy with the mullet looked just crazy enough to do it. When Mikey came flying out of the days only behind the rock barrel, Two Johns was facing a pretty serious test and suddenly started fumbling for fourth gear. He found it with three minutes to go, surfed it calmly enough, and probably got the shake up he needed.

SEE ALSO: Queenscliff Bombora's Glory Day

 QUIKSILVER & ROXY PRO 2017

THE Devil In Coolangatta

Geez, you knock off half an hour early for a Friday afternoon beer and all hell breaks loose.

In my defence, posting yesterday’s column before Jordy and Zeke Lau paddled out in the last heat of the day seemed fair enough. I’d been here since dawn and after a day of surfing like that wasn’t short of material. There’d been the Armageddon storm during Parko’s heat, John John’s last minute escape against Mikey Wright and Steph’s ‘70s steeze.

But who knew Zeke Lau would drop a 10 behind the rock, just a day after the tube was officially declared dead? Then who knew Jordy would have the gumption to claw it back and win in the dying light? Not me and my third beer, obviously.

I was late getting to Snapper this morning and by the time I’d found a car park I was technically in another state and began walking. I was double-timing it as Mick Fanning and Owen Wright were in the water already. It was a poetic draw, as Mick has been heavily (and quietly) involved with Owen’s recovery over the past year and wanted nothing more than for Owen’s recovery to continue here at Snapper… just not at his expense.

For all the talk of Kelly and his call to go all-in, you forget that Mick is all-in, all the time.

Anyway, walking in I passed Mitch Parkinson, Joel’s cousin, watching the heat on his phone while having breakfast at Rainbow Bay Café. He yelled, spitting chunks of ham and cheese toasted sandwich. “You shoulda seen Mick’s barrel! So sick!” Mitch gets barrelled at Snapper as often as his cousin, so isn’t prone to hyperbole out there. He informed me Mick only needed a mid-seven to take the lead and it was as good as done.

I hustled through the back lanes of Coolanghetto, through the dawn crowd, and crossed the road at Rainbow Bay just in time to hear the beach announcer tell Mick his barrel had come in half a point short of what he needed. Mick splashed the water. It’s been almost a decade since he won his home contest, and if he wanted to make a mark on this season (he does) a result here would’ve been nice.


SEE ALSO: The Crazy Beachy Barrel

Owen’s surfing is all there, everything is in its right place, and – more impressively – he seems to be dealing with the mental chess game of surfing heats and the mental drain of being in the middle of 10,000 people. If he’s lacking anything right now it’s the physicality we’re used to seeing with his surfing. Owen’s a beast on a wave, but he’s spent the best part of a year in a dark room and out of the water and his tall frame has lost some beef. He looked a little gassed by the end of a few waves today, but after the mental recovery, the physical one will seem easy.

Having no problems physically was Julian Wilson… his problems were more on the scoreboard. Jules looks like he’s been lifting in the gym over the off-season, and came into this contest beefcaked and primed. He looked a million dollars at the Manly contest, just got hitched, and just dropped what is likely to be the edit of the year with Wayward, but today got dusted by the Japanese-Australian rookie with the Irish name, Connor O’Leary. Jules looked great on what he got, but got shut down inside the day’s best tube and then got marooned without a wave for the last five minutes. We’ve been waiting for him to cut loose on this tour and we leave Snapper… still waiting.

“You know the thing with this contest,” offered stately photographer Lord Ted Grambeau in a voice of deep mahogany. “The worst the forecast is the better it gets.”

True. As he spoke a set rolled down the length of the point, uniform, green, sectionless, followed by another three identical to the first. Two weeks ago it was forecast to be flat, a week ago it was supposed to be huge and onshore, and yet here we were looking at the best Snapper this contest has had since the first edition 15 years ago when Cyclone Des pulsed for a week across the freshly pumped Superbank.

Probably more than anything it’s the bank that’s made this happen. Just three days ago it was patchy with no sand behind the rock, but it’s like the sand elfs have been at work every night and every morning we get back here and the bank has grown an extra 30 feet. The sand pump has had the needle in the red for a fortnight now and I’d be surprised if there’s a grain of sand between left between here and Byron. With Surfers Paradise in the background – a city built on reclaimed sand – it seems if you need sand moved, this is your place. I’m sure I even heard over the commentary someone spruiking a sand dredge like he’s selling used cars… “If you need a sand bypass, go and see these guys!”

But alas the waves weren’t destined to last.I sat alongside photographer Todd Glaser, and as we chatted about the future of surf magazines (a short conversation sadly) a ruler edged set rolled down the bank better than anything Todd had shot during his first visit to Kelly’s wave ranch. I asked if he was going to shoot a lineup shot and he replied, “I’ll just shoot the next one.” Just then an ornate cowry shell decoration hanging behind us in the surfer’s area started clinking and by the time we looked back at the ocean an onshore front was blowing and would blow its tits off for the rest of the day.

The devil wind was in.

It actually getting worse if anything as the wind notched more northerly, but with days of more northerlies coming and the swell only here this weekend, they’re in a race to finish, so onward we marched into the teeth of the breeze.

After watching Gabe Medina surf his heat this morning I felt compelled to go and twist my own knee viciously and rupture some ligaments… because doing so had worked wonderfully well for his surfing. It was a miracle from above as the guy who was carried off the beach in Shakesperean agony returned today and tore blue murder into the Snapper lineup. His spontaneous drive off the bottom seems to defy physics and has a lot to do, you’d reckon, with that corky, almost flexless epoxy. Gabe either does terribly at Snapper or he wins, and with a day to run the odds are looking like the latter.

SEE ALSO: Surfing & Shaping in Korea

The afternoon session was junk, with guys surfing down the line like they were riding a rollercoaster through a Dali painting. Parko somehow managed to swoop a couple of turns before the wind went really devilish, and iced the heat with a long straight-legged floater on the end section. The irony is that Joel’s floater knocked out Adriano, Lord of the Float.

Owen then spread his wings, found some bigger waves, and took down Conner Coffin. The win took him into the quarters. Think about that for a second. A year ago there were no guarantees he’d ever surf again, let alone regain life as he knew it, and yet here he is, in the quarters. His victory this afternoon marked the point where, in terms of this contest at least, he stopped being Owen Wright brain injury survivor and simply became Owen Wright again.

Jordy and Kelly was the final heat of the round, and both would consider a loss before the quarterfinals a fail. Kelly had bounced between boards… surfing his 5’6” squash yesterday, his 5’10” roundtail this morning, and his 5’8” swallow at lunchtime in round four. Kelly only arrived here the day before the contest, and you get the feeling he’s unplanned, freestyling, just going with it. There is no master plan for this season. He’s going to improv all the way.

Well he had to improve this afternoon.

I’m not even sure what board he took out this afternoon… but it worked. He’s looked a little skittery at times this week, but somehow made the waves this afternoon look eminently rippable. It was like someone challenged him to ride a mechanical surfboard wearing rollerskates, drunk… and he pulled it off masterfully! He did it with flow where no flow was even possible and now finds himself in tomorrow’s quarters. Against Gabe Medina.

QUIKSILVER & ROXY PRO 2017

THE RETURN OF OWEN WRIGHT

Oh, the gall of it.

Joel Parkinson, perfectly positioned off the rock at Snapper, his spiritual home, parked inside a cavernous grey tomb, only to see some long-haired bloke on the shoulder madly paddling to shut him down. Any other day of the year this ends differently, some kind of mob justice, but today, well, Joel’s just another guy in a jersey… a guy without priority. Joel was so far back we couldn’t tell if he was flipping the bird at Matt Wilkinson, as he did to Kelly Slater in the final here four years ago. The exchange, played sublimely by Wilko, sealed the heat for him.

I’d arrived this morning with low expectations for surf. The wind forecast was easterly all night, all day, and yet the Gold Coast microclimate had somehow stalled the system and there was a small oasis of calm positioned over Snapper Rocks. It was pissing down mind you, but the waves were clean and if anything a little too big for the outside bank. The inside racetrack again was firing… and the inside racetrack would again decide the day.

I was talking with Bob Hurley as his star team rider paddled out.

“You know, I told John John something once. I said, ‘Look, I’m not going to tell you how to surf.’ Obviously, right? You’ve seen me surf? ‘But what I’m going to tell you is that if you surf better than everyone else, then surf. Catch waves. Don’t just sit there.”

It’s certainly been a process managing John Florence’s God-given talent and turning it into heat wins. They cracked the code last year, and the code is that John surfing at 70% wins 90% of the time, and that feels pretty true for what we’ve seen here this week, although he jumped from 70% to 90% today. Italo Ferreira has been surfing like he’s a character from an 8-bit video game this week. You can almost hear the Super Mario Bros theme playing as he surfs along the wave and boings into unlikely 540s, but unfortunately for Italo the only sound we heard was the Super Mario death sound today as he fell, wave after wave, and John to move into the semis.

With Owen Wright’s recovery already beyond recovery and becoming something remarkable, he paddled out against Cronulla rookie Connor O’Leary to keep alive the slimmest, most luminescent of chances that he could even win this contest.

Surf coach, Andy King watched on beside me, cheering on Owen which I thought a little unusual as he’s from Cronulla and they haven’t had a surfer on tour since Kirk Flintoff almost a decade ago. He started laughing. “Mate, he’s from Elouera, he’s a dunnyhanger, I might as well be cheering on an American.” Elouera of course is about a hundred yards up the beach from Cronulla, but Australian parochialism works in funny ways. By this stage the waves had slowed up on the tide and moved almost exclusively down the point. It came down to a last exchange which Owen got by a point. Owen was in the semis and the surfers area buzzed.

“What if…” pondered my mate Binnsy, “Owen and Wilko made the final?” The two old friends would certainly make a promoter’s dream, although we posed the question of how hard Wilko – the new iceman of the tour (ha, how does that sound!) – would push for the win. If Owen took off on his inside without priority, would Wilko take off and shut his mate down like he did Parko? We were joking at that point but somehow right on the mark… only that it would be Owen playing Wilko, not the other way around.

We put those thoughts on hold as Gabe Medina paddled out against Kelly in the big quarter. Too many storylines fed into it, and for most of the heat it was the 45-year-old (just keep saying it) who held the ace. He was certainly the more inventive of the two, running different lines and fades while the variety in Gabe’s jumped between backhand hooks and backhand turns. That’s not a criticism mind you, that’s surfing Snapper on your backhand.

The heat again was for the most kinda flat, but the billing was too big for the heat to go out like a damp squib, and a last-minute set coming stacked up behind Froggies would decide it. Gabe drew first, hitting big out back before lighting up vertically through the inside. It looked like the 2014 final all over. Kelly meanwhile set up the inside perfectly and jammed hard at the pocket. He surfed like it mattered, which, in the scope of this year where he’s “all-in”, it really did. It was the freest, certainly the most engaged we’ve seen him in a long while… but it still wasn’t enough.

The women – season-on-season – have improved relatively by several daylights on the men. Their quarters made that clear. In fact, at the conclusion of the women’s quarters I was left contemplating some kind of draw anomaly that allowed a John John and Lakey Peterson final to happen. It would have been competitive today.

Lakey Peterson has already lit the place up earlier in the week, dropping 10s, so she wasn’t exactly pacing herself through this event and it shouldn’t have been a huge shock that she tore through her quarter and semi the way she did. Something has changed under the eye of Snips Parsons, her coach, but at the same time there’s something raw and something spontaneous to her surfing that I’m stoked hasn’t been coached away.

Steph provided the perfect counterpoint. Style-perfect on her home point, she started toying with it. Her three-turn, top to bottom combo against Carissa would have won dude’s heats. It was a steep, bowled section that she could have easily and procedurally stalled for a white bread Snapper barrel, but instead just drove off the bottom and went it. The surfer’s area collectively gasped. She had us at the first turn, and after three she had the judges as well… straight 10s.

Walking in this morning (it was packed, I was parked in NSW again) I was listening to Head Judge Richie Porta being interviewed about the feel of the day and what the judging panel would be looking for, but by the end I still wasn’t sure. What naturafooters needed to do. What goofies needed to do. Up the point or down the point? Tubes or turns? Variety… and how it applies to goofies, who are naturally hamstrung out here. I know they have to keep it open for interpretation and don’t want to make a noose to hang themselves with, but with three screwfoots in the last four today (and three goofy winners in the last four years) it feels like the winning paradigm here has certainly changed.

Between heats Wilko sat there playing with his dog, sitting next to his old boy Neil who was wearing a “Wright #1” singlet. He’s gloriously detached from his upcoming semi, but must silently be wondering what it might take to take down John Florence, by this stage the last regular footer left. When John opened with a huge nosepick huck, followed by a mix of tubes, slashes, reos and a reverse to finish, Wilko looked in trouble. His response was inspired. He threw a huge backhand huck. He played John at his own game, and gave the judges their first bit of backhand variety all day. Wilko was back in the heat, but as the heat ran down still trailed. Then just as we saw last year he just found a way to win, a walling wave he wacked four times for an eight and for the second year in a row Wilko was into the Snapper final.

Locals here in Rainbow Bay reckon Gabriel’s win here in 2014 changed the place, as suddenly every second visitor here was Brazilian. They’ve dubbed the place Rainbow De Janiero and listening to the crowd erupt as Gabe ran down for his semi you wouldn’t doubt it. The Brazilian rent-a-crowd has inflated the crowd numbers, but even without them this contest has been a beehive all week.

Most thought Gabe would drop the clutch and cruise past Owen Wright in the second semi, but by that stage the wind had finally started to blow. They’d been lucky all day in that I rained so hard the wind couldn’t blow, but as soon as the rain cleared the wind moved in and broke the lineup in two. The sections were hard to find, but Owen found them, Gabe didn’t. I don’t know whether the storyline of Owen and this remarkable comeback began pulling the strings, but it all went Owen’s way and he found himself in the final with good mate, Wilko.

A few weeks back in Newcastle, after the national boardriders club final, we had a night out with the crew from Snapper Rocks. Amongst Parko and Rabbit and a couple of the wild juniors, Steph was there, drinking with the boys. The crew kicked on into Newcastle on a quiet Sunday night, back to an old dive bar in the abandoned west end of town, and Steph not only stayed the distance, she led the charge. You’re so used to seeing her in fashion shoot or rubbing shoulders with celebrities in Malibu or throwing jazz licks on a guitar or styling impossibly on some exotic pointbreak, that you forget that deep down she’s still Steph From Cooly. She hasn’t, and after cleaning up the final today the fist pumps and the war cry that erupted, well, what it lacked in refinement it made up for in something real.

And that just left the guys.

Glenn Hall coaches both Matt Wilkinson and Owen Wright, and earlier in the day we’d joked that if they both made the final he’d drinking beer during the final as his job was already done.

The notion of Owen in the final seemed fanciful even this morning. A week ago Owen’s older brother, Tim saw him paying $51 for the win but let it slide. He was happy enough for his brother to just be back in the water. I’d surfed with Owen a bit down in Byron over summer but never at any stage felt he’d get to Snapper, let alone win it. I still thought he was a long way off.

You’ve never witnessed a scene in the surfer’s area quite like it as the final ticked down with Owen in the lead. The feeling was palpable. His whole family was there, most of his close mates, but even those who’d never met him were along for the ride. There were tears – before he won, after he won, and there’ll be residual showers for a few days I’d imagine.

Owen’s had some luck in the contest, sure, in drawing three good friends – Mick, Gabe, and finally Wilko. While all three surfed hard to win, the dynamic of surfing against friends subliminally changed everything for Owen. They seemed less like heats and more like surfs down the coast. It allowed him to relax and for the muscle memory and the mechanics of surfing to all kick back in. It’s what he’s done most of his life, his equivalent of riding a bike, and he just went with it. Physically he still looks underdone, but mentally everything was all there. He was all there to the point of foxing Wilko into using his priority late in the final… leaving Owen all alone in the lineup with the winning wave.

A year ago Owen wasn’t even Owen. His brain injury – as brain injuries do – rob you of the things that make you, you, and there are no guarantees. That’s what makes them so cruel.

But today Owen returned.

The Rare Bird

DRUG AWARE MARGARET RIVER PRO
Wednesday 29 March 2017 - Men's Round One - North Point - 6ft

The second someone dropped the claim that today would be “a landmark and historic day for pro surfing” it was doomed.

It feels like the hype around North Point and the chance of getting it on has been juiced for so long – ever since Margaret River was added to the schedule three years ago – that when the event finally got its day we’d only leave North Point disappointed.

North Point is a rare bird – rare enough to get on when you live there, let alone when you’re there only two weeks a year – but to say there’s been some hype around the move is putting it mildly. On the charts the system looked deadly – a snake-eyed twin low with 956 and 942 eyes spinning down in the polar fetch – but while the south coast of Australia will get hit more squarely, it would only glance the west. Strider described the scene today as “velvety” but we haven’t waited three years to surf red velvet cupcakes.

We’ve waited three years for North Point, we got to North Point this morning and waited another three hours, and then finally started the first heat and we kept on waiting. With Mick and Kelly drawn in that first heat they were never going to rush out there. That pair with their collective clout have stopped more days of marginal pro surfing than they’ve actually surfed, so it was little surprise the event went on hold and waited while everyone watched the swell sail by on its way to Bali.

You had to admire the will of the WSL to make this happen – it was a royal pain in the ass to move the event there – and a marquee day at the southwest’s best wave would be good news here in the west, handy when the WA state government is footing the bill. Good news would be timely. The irony today was that the Drug Aware Pro began on the same day Western Australia’s most high profile drug addict – footballer Ben Cousins – was gracing the covers of every major metropolitan newspaper in Perth after being jailed.

When Mick and Kelly and their collective 500 years of pro tour experience eventually paddled out it soon became clear that pretty much everyone – Mick and Kelly included – were flying blind out there. The wave at North Point is so rare to get on that even a guy like Parko has only ever surfed it once, and while it looks perfect it’s tough to read.

The wave is hard to surf when it’s big and hard to surf when it’s small and even harder to surf when it’s in between, when it gets split between ledges. That was today. Kelly and Mick got lost, missed the one good wave of the heat, and sat there for much of the heat doing two-fifths of not much. Ten minutes into the day I contemplated a sacrificial rock start to each heat just to add some excitement as guys won heats with sixes… and that’s not a pair of sixes, that’s a pair of threes.

Either that or send them out to Cow Bommie, which was 20-foot and heaving in the background.

Mind you, life enthusiast Barton Lynch’s commentary from the scrub on the headland managed to bring the heats to life. Listening to him as Jordy walked down to paddle out BL’s voice reminded me of David Attenborough lying amidst a troop of mountain gorillas, his voice hushed, studying his subject, his frisson clear but trying to keep a lid on it in case he spooked the beast and had both his buttocks ripped from his body. I’m just glad he didn’t start talking about Jordy’s mating ritual.

With the exception of local wildcard Jacob Willcox and maybe Josh Kerr (who recalcitrantly ended his heat with a pair of donuts), Jordy might have spent more time out at North Point than anyone in the field… although he’s usually surfing into the teeth of North Point’s cross-shore air breeze. I don’t need to remind you of his nosebleed alley oop here two years ago. When Jordy paddled out today it looked like a different wave. Jordy actually broke double figures, getting barrelled at will, and the crowd watching on silently hoped for an onshore change.

Sadly, it stayed beautiful and offshore all day.

John John was never going to land his flip in an airbrushed offshore, but gave it a go anyway. The one he landed two days ago – along with Mikey Wright’s almost-made zero gravity air – helped raise the general froth level for North Point, but John won today by surfing sensible. Like Jordy, he’s done a ton of filming time here, surfing into the air wind, but around him other heats were won by renowned North Point specialists like Caio Ibelli, Ian Gouveia, and Jesse Mendes.

I saw Jesse’s name in the draw and tried to work out how he’d got in.

Turns out he’d been given the outright WSL wildcard, which puzzled and troubled me equally. So, you’ve got free reign to put whoever you want into your contest. On this swell you could put Jack Robinson in there, a guy who lives five minutes up the road and the guy every other guy in the contest today was taking their lineup markers from today. You could have put a certain recently-retired, high profile, high-living tour veteran who lives even closer up the road at Yallingup (admittedly I remember Taj saying he wouldn’t take wildcards up). You could have put quasi-local Clay Marzo in Margarets (I’m looking for the hashtag key on my keyboard as we speak). Jesse is here only because he leads the WQS. He’s a great surfer and won his heat, but it was a mildcard option that did nothing to create a wildcard buzz, and highlighted again the sport’s proclivity to look after its own at the expense of the fan.

With the ocean slowing and the sun melting into the Indian Ocean there was little expectation heading into the final heat of the round. Julian had just won with a pair of twos. Kerrsy hadn’t even caught a wave. Pete Mel, in the commentary booth, was starting to comically delaminate calling heat after heat of nothing. Sitting alongside Ron Blakey, it was loose, funny, and the best commentary of the WSL era. And then, like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky, Seabass went from one end of the point to the other, impossibly deep, and the 10s dropped even before he emerged with three thumbs up.

And so that was North Point. A five-out-10 day at North Point is better than pretty much anywhere else on tour so we’ll take it. But before the day had ended we’d already begun building the hype for tomorrow… because tomorrow we go to The Box.

2017 DRUG AWARE MARGARET RIVER PRO

The Big Pool & That Florence Kid

A note before we start: This column doesn’t come to you from the fatal western edge of the Australian continent.

No, it comes to you from the side of the Pacific Highway – the eastern seaboard arterial – where your correspondent is parked on the side of the road, going nowhere with flooded canefields on every side. The highway might open later this afternoon, but in the meantime as cows float by belly-up there’s enough phone coverage for your correspondent to sit and watch nature doing its thing on the other side of Australia. It’s been wild in the east for the past few days… and it got wild in the west today.

I didn’t see Kelly this morning, obviously.

The hour before the broadcast would have been instructional in regards to the fate of his “all-in” season. On a building swell the first call was to move across to The Box. Drawn in the first heat this was good news for Kelly… and good news for anyone from the ‘90s. Kelly has spent a hundred GoPro hours and the past two days tuning up at The Box in readiness for today’s call.

But the thing with a building swell hitting the front edge of the continent is that there’s no offshore swell indicator to go by, no phone call from down the coast to tell you something beyond the forecast. Like Hawaii, the forecast numbers are always nuanced, and the only way to gauge it is stand in the freshly asphalted car park at Margaret River, stare out to sea, and check out what the Roaring Forties have delivered.

No one expected it to be this big today.

By the time the contest was due to start The Box was Third Reef Box. The new swell got huge, and suddenly Margies main break began to look like it did back in 1990, with Nick Wood snowboarding 20-foot lefthanders and Pauline Menczer falling from the lip in a crash helmet. Kong Elkerton posted this morning he wanted to see 7’0”s with 12oz glass. This was an old school day custom made for old school surfers.

Just not Kelly.

Kelly is not a deep water guy.

Kelly likes it shallow, likes to know where the reef is, and anything big and deep and shifty has always caused him problems. Think Sunset. Margarets. Even Bells. So, after originally being called on at The Box, suddenly being jolted into the stark reality of 12-to-15 foot Margies main break in the first heat of the morning would have been confronting. It was a worst case scenario that manifested on his first wave, when Kelly knifed in late, just holding on, before finishing on the inside shelf with a figure-eight roundhouse that was too high and too late. From that point Kelly – a rare outing on a 6’6” – seemed a little lost and late on everything.

Kelly’s year however doesn’t live or die by Margaret River and he didn’t seemed too ruined by the loss when interviewed later. Writing a post mortem on Kelly’s season before the South Pacific leg is the oldest trap in the game, but the performances of some guys later in the day (John John alone) hinted at a big gulf opening up.

The broadcast brought Barton Lynch in from the wild today and gave him the post-heat interviews, and pro surfing’s David Attenborough asked genuinely illuminating questions. He asked Kelly about the future of the Margaret River event on tour (knowing full well Kelly isn’t the number one ticket holder) and it seemed the best Kelly could offer in Margaret’s defence was the wineries. A layday clickbait story had posed the question of whether the tour is better served by Margaret River or a wavepool event? It was one of those brainless lion-versus-shark traffic generators, and the pile of useless it created was flushed away by today’s swell. Today was oceanic. Surfers looked like fleas. My personal thoughts on wavepools is that surfing stops being surfing when the unknown is taken out of it, and I’m sticking by that until the day they can recreate random 15-foot clean up sets in their chlorinated koi ponds.

It was Jack Freestone who beat Kelly in the first heat, by the way, looking physically assured in a lineup that was brawling like a drunken Irishman. Jack’s win set the tone for the day. The guys winning through fell into one of two categories: they were a) physically big guys, or b) guys who would willingly be freesurfing Margies on a day like this.

Julian Wilson fell into both.

After watching Kelly in the first heat you wondered how tough it was to surf, but despite wearing a 15-footer as a top hat Julian made it look kinda simple – start and finish big. Drive hard off the bottom on the peak then cut down and ride out clean on the inside. The inside section was like the Revenant bear, and for every guy who survived it eight guys didn’t. But suddenly it looked a lot easier out there. Jules should have won here last year, and on this morning’s form will give it another nudge this year.

The day after he won at Snapper, I spent a couple of hours talking with Owen Wright.

He was still trying to make sense of the win, and in many ways still trying to make sense of the past year. Great chunks of it weren’t there, but there was almost a hyper-awareness of the two months since the doctors officially told him he was out of the “trauma” stage of his brain injury. He spoke of milestones in his recovery and milestones back in the water. He said his first wave – a crumbling one-footer lying down on a soft-top – felt like Teahupoo. But once he was in the clear and surfing again, he measured his recovery not by the waves he surfed, but by the waves he could safely negotiate paddling out. Two foot, four foot… eight foot while surfing with Mick Fanning at Straddie. Step by step.

Owen’s injury, you remember, happened duckdiving what he called a 15-foot Second Reef Pipe set. So when a 15-footer lined him up today and broke, top-to-bottom right on him, his crew all freaked. He could not have been in a worse spot.

Owen popped up okay, looking a little rinsed like a dog after a bath, and you figured the result of the heat from there was inconsequential. That was a milestone – probably outside of big Tahiti or Pipe the biggest test he’ll get this year – and he survived just fine. The fact he got the score he needed in the dying seconds was just a bonus.

I don’t know where to start with the Florence kid. He toyed with it.

He rode a 6’2”, the smallest board anybody surfed during the pulse of the swell. He was even incredulous when interviewed later guys were riding longer boards, although I’m sure the Hawaiian’s board was weighted in compensation for length. It was a heavy blade with no chatter. But while everyone till that point had surfed within the range of what they were given by the Margarets right, John simply surfed how he wanted. Young Jacob Wilcox surfed great in their heat, but John was simply out there testing himself against the ocean.

John would have freesurfed this day, nothing more certain. He loves this place. For John it’s like home in full suits. It’s why he shoots here all the time. Give John the choice of today at Margarets or a mechanical wave in a pool and you’ll get one answer.

Owen Wright in the yellow leaders jersey, Photo by Dunbar/WSL

Owen Wright in the yellow leaders jersey, Photo by Dunbar/WSL

2017 DRUG AWARE MARGARET RIVER PRO

Fifth Gear

I had to remind myself yesterday morning that Margarets was still in fact running.

As we’d got on with our daily lives digging holes and filling them in, it seemed like weeks had passed since John Florence scorched our psyches on the big day. Looking back we could have just given him the trophy at that point and all gone home early.

Instead it’s been a boon week for the Western Australian government who’s footing the bill for this event, as surfers have scattered in all directions doing touristy things; quaffing vintage reds, surfing hidden bays, getting booked by overzealous Highway Patrol, skydiving from helicopters and, if you’re Jordy Smith, spinning up some salmon off the rocks. The foodies have been having a field day with the tour’s resident gastronome, Pottz cooking up a storm. Like a jailed mobster, he’s been slicing his garlic so fine for his tomato sauce that it melts when it hits the pan.

The WA Minister for Tourism might however want to walk up the hall and have a chat to the Minister for Mining and ask him about the fracking leases perched on on top of the local Yarragadee Aquifer the catchment area flowing into Margaret River. Having the world champion immolated when the water catches fire at Margarets wouldn’t do a lot for local tourism.

The women finished up yesterday in junky, rising surf, and while the surfing level suffered in the conditions the result proved tres interesting.

The sequence of events started a few days ago when Sally Fitzgibbon drew Carissa Moore in the quarters, a heat Carissa was strongly favoured to win. For the past two seasons Sally, who for years has kept Steph and Carissa honest through their run of world titles, has lost touch with them and has had to re-engineer her surfing – style flourishes and most noticeably her heat strategy – to stay in the mix.

Their heat started with Carissa inexplicably dropping straight in on Sally. Like, straight in, cold. The liberal interpretation of the interference rule that applies these days, however, saw Carissa escape without penalty. That was the catalyst, that fired Sally up and she took the heat, Carissa leaving the water in tears although we never really found out what the tears were about. It probably wasn’t that big a deal, but set against a backdrop where nothing like it ever seems to happen, you noticed it.

If there’s something the women’s tour needs right now, it’s a little friction.

I get it; the girls all get along, sure, but the shiny vibes have, over time, become too shiny. Watching on the women’s tour often feels more like an empowering safe space than a bona fide, badass sporting league. Just count how many times you hear the word “fun” mentioned in the post heat interviews. Surfing is fun, sure, but surfing heats shouldn’t be. All other women’s sports have abrasive attitude in spades, but the women’s surfing tour comes across pretty sugary in comparison. And don’t worry, it’s a crime also levelled consistently at the men’s tour as well.

Thing is, there’s an untapped well of friction on the women’s surfing tour bubbling away, but no one goes there. I’ve been on surf trips with a few of the women on tour and get them started on each other and it quickly turns into an episode of Mean Girls, so the fact everyone is so damn nice to each other during events gives the whole thing the plausibility of a Pepsi commercial. What I’d give for Lynette McKenzie back on tour.

At Margaret River, however, the pretty picture got crushed a little and it was Sally Fitz – the sweetest girl on tour – doing the crushing.

They’d cut the wedlock collars off Pottz and Joe this event, and when Ronnie Blakey asked Pottz who he thought was the male equivalent of Sally on tour he had no hesitation in saying Adriano, the guy who gets under your skin like nobody else, and watching Sally surf all the way to the Margarets title I had to agree. Sally channelled some steely Adriano vibes in taking down Carissa, Steph and finally Tyler in the final. The waves stole the flow from the aforementioned trio, and Sal shortened her surfing and hustled them to the point where there whole game crumbled. It was a little Machiavellian but in a way, it was also masterful.

Somehow I can’t see Sal flipping the bird at the judges or giving her opponents free character assessments a la Lynette, but channelling a bit of Andy maybe would definitely knock her opponents off axis. No one is used to dealing with it. We just saw that.

Today’s finals for the men were largely irrelevant. It was purely ceremonial, like the Tour de France riding into Paris with the leader drinking champagne, as the reality of this event is that John Florence won it a week ago.

I know we’re guilty of fawning over the guy’s surfing at times when it doesn’t deserve it, but it’s clear that what we’ve seen here over the past week in Margaret River is something paradigm shifting.

He is, as Pottz would put it, “the best surfer on the planet” and has the trophy to prove it, but John won the world title last year in third gear. You’ve always wondered what fifth gear looked like, when his surfing, his body and his boards all came together, and this week we got to see it. With four 19-point-plus heats in a row, everyone else was only surfing for second. They were just lucky to be able to watch it from the water. It was imperious, and the only way he was going to get beat today was by turning himself into crab food on the inside reef, which he almost did at one stage.

The reality was that the performance gulf between John John and the rest of the field at Margarets was as wide and deep as the Indian Ocean. He mastered the Margarets right to the point of toying with it. He mastered the fundamental truth of the wave that you need to surf it down the line first before going anywhere near the top third of the wave, but the reality is that he was doing as he pleased regardless of what the wave threw at him. The drive and sublime release on his forehand hook was breathtaking. He essentially won this contest with one turn, but that one turn was so incredibly nuanced that it looked like 50 different turns, and it was so visceral, and so true to pure surfing that it would have almost been a travesty if he’d finished any of those waves with an air reverse.

Shit, have I gone overboard again here? Nah… not after that. Not even.

John saved his tricks for the laydays, and even his layday surfing stretched time space. His forehand flip at Margarets and his paddling into Rabbits at the bottom of a stationary six-foot wave looked like someone who’d been beamed down from another planet to surf amongst us. After the final this afternoon you were waiting for the spaceship to descend and beam their boy back up.

John has shifted the ground under the tour this week, and the big question is what happens next? He’s had problems stringing two good heats together in the past, but he’s just strung five together and probably could have done another five. The challenge now is consistency event to event, and he goes to Bells with a blueprint of how to surf that wave, a wave fundamentally similar to the Margies right in how it needs to be surfed.

We’ve seen fifth gear and we know that nobody can go with him once he’s popped the clutch. If he stays in fifth we could be in for a short but dazzling world title race.

2017 RIP CURL PRO BELLS BEACH 

The Living Angus

On opening morning, Hells Bells didn’t play. An executive decision, apparently.

This most traditional of surfing events dictates – as written on a centuries-old parchment made of human skin – that the first heat of each day starts with AC/DC’s paint stripping rock classic played at full volume. It loosens rocks from the Bells cliff and it’s been that way since Angus Young was a boy. Instead they played Bryan Adams’ Summer of ’69. People freaked. It was sacrilegious. They might as well have played Celine Dion’s cover of AC/DC’s Shook Me All Night Long. If Angus Young were dead – something he flatly refuses to do – he would have been rolling in his grave. It was a sign.

Would this taboo curse the event?

Surely, with the swell forecast stacked up the way it is, day after day after day of it, they couldn’t screw it up.

The guys in the event thought they screwed up two days ago, when they sent the women out instead and it pumped. What started out as a morning of fun three-footers for the girls turned into an afternoon of pulsing eight-foot sets that no one saw coming. There were sets within sets. Dog Marsh counted 43 set waves in a 30-minute heat. The guys watched on grinding their teeth as wave after wave stormed through unridden.

Instead, the men started this morning, two days later, on a swell that was thumping the Cape Sorrell buoy overnight but showed up this morning flogging the Bells Bowl like wet lettuce. The swell was westerly and weak but it’s the Easter weekend and the crowds are in town so the show went on, with Mick Fanning just sitting out there contemplating life for most of his heat. He was waiting for waves that never came. Mick later reckoned the one six-pointer he caught was good for a four at best.

Mick’s full-time return to the tour after surviving the shark has been every bit as unlucky as he was lucky back in J-Bay. Mick’s looked fresh but has lost by 0.1 and 0.01 early on in the first two events. The guy can’t buy a break, and after craving anonymity after a tumultuous couple of years in the public eye he’s suddenly getting his wish as Owen’s comeback and John John’s surfing at Margarets have blotted out the sun.

Wilko won Mick’s heat, and of the five heats run at Bells this morning goofyfooters won four as the great re-engineering of the tour continues. Wilko won Bells last year but before that it had been almost 20 years since Occy won as a goofy… and now you can’t stop the bastards.

The big question heading into Bells was whether John Florence will drop 19-point heat scores in every heat between now and his second world title, sometime in July this year. The feeling among every hyperbolic, wheezy hack has been – you bet! But so fickle is the modern surfing public, so short is the news cycle, that the furious praise of Johnny’s surfing in Margarets will disappear on the breeze if he doesn’t deliver something equally game-changing at Bells. What happens when he doesn’t blow our tiny minds?

The key to John’s tectonic Margaret River performance was a wave that pushed back. John becomes half the surfer when he needs to generate his own speed – he’s never had to grovel and flatly refuses to do it – and as he watched on from the Bells stairs mid-morning dressed in head-to-toe black, hidden in a hoodie, and with a foppish blonde fringe the only distinguishing feature, he saw a lineup that wasn’t pushing back. God knows what he might have done if the guys had surfed on the eight foot afternoon, but this morning The Bowl was running on fumes.

But just as he was preparing for his heat however he got the news his heat was moving over to Winkipop.

Advantage John.

The first wave of the Florence era didn’t exactly fill his disciples with hope.

He nosedived like a weekend warrior from Melbourne, but they didn’t have to wait long for a bit of Johnny’s dial-a-magic. He found a juicy little section on his next wave and launched into a giant forehand spinner, the likes of which he kept on ice in Western Australia. Didn’t need ‘em. John actually fell behind late in the heat to Jeremy Flores. He was only behind for 20 seconds though, as on the following wave he repeated his first wave, this time with both barrels. John could have won with a safe six but instead chased a nine. Jeremy came in and it’s not often you see the Frenchman effervescent after a close loss, but out of curiosity he asked the guys on the Winki stairs, “What did he do?” They began excitedly re-enacting John’s turns and Jeremy shook his head and laughed. It was all he could do. “F**k, he’s an animal.” The guys he surfs against are fans, maybe even bigger fans than the rest of us right now. He doesn’t give us a choice.

I ran into Kelly Slater ordering coffee at the local café yesterday morning. He didn’t exactly look comfortable walking into the packed room, although he rarely does look in his element down here. Despite having won Bells more than any man alive he feels the place remains loaded against him. He walked out drinking his coffee… and pulled a foot-long hair out of it. Before his heat today he rationalised that the long pointbreak of Winki surfed more like a beachbreak, the idea of surfing down the point an illusion as it fell in three distinct sections and he surfed it that way. He surfs Winki better than Bells and looked sharp enough today, maybe the best he’s looked all year, without creating any kind of hysteria.

In fact the best 40-plus surfer today might have been Glyndyn Ringrose, the 44-year-old from Phillip Island who became the first surfer to ride a surfboard they’d shaped themselves in a tour heat since, well, himself, back when he was last back on tour in the year 2000. I put the question to flatmate, Nick Carroll and he went as far back as Terry Richardson… who coincidentally turned up at Bells today after driving 10 hours from his home in Wollongong, keen to check it all out again. But surfing your own board in a heat? The very thought of a modern pro surfer being given a blank and told to go for it is laughable on every level. Imagine an event where they all had to do it. It’d be a clown factory. Ringa would be world champ. So to have him not only in the field, not only riding his own board – but ripping! – reconnects the event to a time when guys would take weeks to shape their Bells boards, then take weeks to drive down the coast with them on the roof.

I thought the move to Winki would work in the favour of rookie, Ethan Ewing. In January I watched him surf Adder – a long, thin sand point back home on North Stradbroke Island – and the way he surfed both light and heavy, linking and spritzing down the line, made me believe he’d do something here at Bells despite, somehow, never having surfed here before. He’s such an outlier from the system here in Australia, having jumped from the juniors to the tour in one year, that when he pulled up in the car park overlooking both Bells and Winki he watched one, then watched the other, then asked, “Which one’s Bells?” He surfed great, but ironically got beaten by the surfer with the heaviest feet in the event – Tahitian Michel Bourez.

Ewing now draws Fanning in the next round, ensuring one of them will be having a really, really deflating start to the year despite having deserved better.

Phil Toledo was the guy today though. He had no right to make the semis at bombing Margarets but these long, thin, weak walls were made for him and he didn’t let us down. Winkipop by this stage was looking a lot like Snapper did the year he won and he surfed in half the gravity of everyone else. He surfed like Angus Young plays an SG. I hope Phil surfs his next heat dressed as a schoolboy.

Does he stand in the way of an irresistible Florence victory? In a year when The Summer of ’69 is the new anthem for Bells anything is possible.

Glynden Ringrose in the opening rounds, Photo by WSL/Barripp

Glynden Ringrose in the opening rounds, Photo by WSL/Barripp

2017 RIP CURL PRO BELLS BEACH

The Long Shadows

If I were going to have one of those local coaches that are so du jour on tour these days… if I was going to have one of them for Bells? It wouldn’t be Adam Robertson. It wouldn’t be Maurice Cole. It wouldn’t even be Occy.

No, the local coach I’d employ would be that lovely older lady over there in boat shoes with the sweet disposition who’s been sitting there on her own on the Bells stairs watching the surfing, day after day. She’s standing next to a banner that reads, “Gail Couper – 64, 65, 67, 68, 70, 71, 72, 74, 75, 76,” her pale blue eyes darting across the lineup as airbrushed lines break from one end of the bay to the other.

She is, of course, Gail Couper herself, the greatest Bells surfer of all-time, and she didn’t win those ten Bells trophies by accident. Talking with her this morning as men’s round two ran in pretty much flawless Bells (waves that might get more flawless in coming days), the softly spoken matriarch of this event offered a short and unsolicited take on what was going on out there. “They’re sitting in the wrong spot.” As she delivered this a line of swell broke for a quarter-mile before a surfer dropped into it and rode the rest of it to the beach.

“They’re missing the best part of the wave.”

And she was right.

When Bells is as geometrically sublime as it was today, you can surf way up the reef and just follow it down, waiting for the thing to slow down enough to get busy with it. Instead, the guys surfing their heats the morning all sat zealously on The Bowl, counting their three turns, without realising they were using a fraction of the swell’s scoring potential.

Gail knew though.

“And don’t get me started on the girls. I could have throttled them yesterday.” She delivers this stinging barb of course in a genuinely loving manner because she wants the girls to master this place, but the previous afternoon the girls – including six-time world champs – had got hopelessly lost out at Winkipop, lost to the point where they didn’t even jerry that a wave breaking in the adjacent Bells Bowl would break, on the stopwatch, a minute-ten later at Winki. It’s Bells 101 but so few surfers – guys and girls included – have a working grasp of it. “They were too busy worrying about each other to be worrying about the wave.”

The great truism of Bells is that you don’t outsurf the wave; you out think it. It’s cerebral as much as physical, and that’s what makes it so vital to the tour. Yes. Bells. Vital.

COASTALWATCH EXCLUSIVE: Simon Anderson's Board That Changed Everything

Hawaiian, Zeke Lau this morning looked more 3228 than 808 when he paddled out and took down Connor Coffin.

The Hawaiian seemed to instinctively sense the contour of the reef below as he surfed over it – as Hawaiians are predisposed to do, I suppose – and he matched his rhythm to it perfectly. Out wide he raced down the line, then at the precise moment the reef cornered on the Bowl and steepen he’d drop to the bottom of the wave and throw his huge Polynesian frame straight upward. It was like having Sunny back, just with some smoother edges. Zeke dropped two nines, the best heat of the morning, and I figured his coach Jake Paterson had more than a little to do with it, wearing two big oven mitts to ward off the cold and waving them around to direct traffic. Imagine though, if you will though, what Zeke might do with Gail Couper in his corner! Gail or no Gail, by the end of the day Zeke had made the final 12 at Bells and with the swell rising after the Easter weekend he could do something big here.

Bells pumped all day – all day with hardly a breath of wind – but we moved to Winki regardless.

SEE ALSO: Micro's Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach Video Diary

It might have had something to do with Mick Fanning being in the first Winki heat and sensing Ethan Ewing presented more of a challenge at Bells than he did at Winki. After all, Ethan’s mum – like Gail – had also won Bells. While the move to Winki was shot down by the traditionalists on site (Bells is as Bells does) and also by the large crowd who were forced to watch it in a car park on a giant screen, the move worked great for Mick who tore through his heat with Ethan, surfing with the command of world title years past. Mick’s win – along with some wack seeding – would however, see him surfing against Kelly in the next round later this afternoon.

I can only imagine what Gail Couper would have said if she’d walked up the hill and watched the start of Gabe Medina’s round three heat against Portuguese rookie, Frederico Morais.

The pair jumped in the water and almost paddled back to Bells in an attempt to hold the inside. They got as far as the Winki Button, a good hundred yards from the takeoff spot before stopping, the gamesmanship boiling furiously. Fred’s coach, Dog Marsh had geed him up to do it, knowing full well Gabe couldn’t resist. By the time they returned to the actual takeoff area and someone caught the first wave, a third of the heat had gone down the drain. All things equal Gabe wins the heat, but he was so discombobulated by the tactic that while he was busy watching Fred in the lineup, Gabe turned his back as the set of the day swept across the bay from Bells and landed squarely on his head. His wretched run at Bells continues, but this one was all on him.

I don’t even know where to start with Mick and Kelly.

As both venture into legacy years they harbour a bastard desire for it to be something more than that. They’re cellularly engineered to win, have been since forever, and when you start stoking that fire with years of psychological warfare between the pair you get something bigger than simply a shitty round three Bells heat. Both have had ordinary starts to their respective seasons, seasons that began with huge promise like a new day rising. Instead one of them would be leaving Australia with their season in a smoking ruin. This year was supposed to be all about Kelly and Mick, they were going to suck the oxygen from the room, instead all we’ve talked about is Owen and John.

Losing this heat, for whoever lost it, would be a royal kick in the nuts, and both surfed like they were afraid of losing.

Sitting on the cliff above Winki an American friend walked past and said, “Let’s run an overs-and-unders market on when Kelly does the first throwaway air that says, ‘I’m fucking losing here and I’m over it.’” Literally within 10 seconds of this statement he finished his first wave with a futile finishing air over the inside shelf. “Shoulda had some money on that, huh?” my friend quipped. The strange thing however was that Mick seemed equally offbeat. The board he’d surfed so imperiously a few hours before against Ethan suddenly seemed a foot shorter and with a mind of its own. It skipped out at every opportunity, and the most assured surfer the tour has ever seen looked like a cat with plastic bags on its feet.

Even the waves came off the boil.

In a day where the swell built steadily and long cobalt swells swept in from the Southern Ocean, strung like power lines between Bells and Winki, they almost switched off totally for Mick and Kelly’s heat. There was a time when billing these two together would conjure an otherworldly magic – and waves – like when they surfed the 2012 Bells final and Kelly helicoptered a perfect 10 and Mick won regardless and MP had just died and a storm hit after the final that blew down every past winner’s banner except MP’s.

In the end it was Mick who didn’t lose. Kelly stayed out there afterward, paddling around, soaking up the loss, even paddling through the middle of the next heat as he made his way in. The sun had sunk behind the cliffs by this stage, and they both climbed the 113 steps up the Winki cliff in the shadows.

2017 RIP CURL PRO BELLS BEACH

THE LAST WORD ON THE FIRST WAVE

Yesterday morning, as the first heat of the day was about to start, a lone grommet was still floating around in the Bells Bowl, ignoring the beach announcers’ calls to get his ass outta there, the waves too good to simply paddle in. The grommet just wanted one more but was cutting it fine. A stacked set was steaming around the corner and Jordy Smith was sitting there ready for it. The hooter sounded, Hells Bells tolled, and Jordy took off with the kid duckdiving straight in front of him, perfectly in the way, eyes wide and suddenly thinking he should’ve gone in five minutes earlier. The grom washed in down toward the Winkipop Button and hotfooted it to the car park as fast as he could. Everyone was asking who the kid with the red board was who’d almost screwed up Jordy’s wave.

Today the kid did his penance.

Turns out he’s a Californian grom by the name of Max Beach, who with his red hair and freckles admittedly does look pretty mischievous. Max is here at Bells doing some coaching work with Brad Gerlach, Bells’ newest local. Anyone who’s worked with Gerr knows his surf dojo teaches both the art of surfing and the art of life, so when Gerr heard Max had interloped he called up tour judge, Dave Shipley and organised for Max to come in and apologise to the panel in person. It wasn’t done to punish a kid whose only crime was wanting to surf perfect Bells, but for him to take something from the experience.

Max and Gerr met the judges today while they were working heats, Max apologised, then got to hang out in the judges’ room watching the heat and seeing it judged live. It was an invaluable experience for a grom trying to make a go of it and Max was kinda pumped afterward. As they walked out Gerr reminded him of the reality of the surfer/judge relationship. “Remember, these are the guys who can turn your nines into fives. You gotta respect them.”

Speaking of judging, I don’t think in the history of pro surfing we have ever seen a perfect 10 dropped on the first wave of the day. Today we probably should have. We saw a perfect 10 dropped on the last wave of the day at North Point recently with Seabass, but you’ll never see one on the first wave because the judges have nowhere to go for the rest of the day. Go back and Google Taj Burrow’s wave at the 2006 Mexican Search event. Watch it, then watch it again, and try and understand how it wasn’t a 10. The reason why, of course, is that it was the first wave of the day.

Filipe Toledo shouldn’t surf Bells well. He’s the master short arc surfer plonked out there on a long arc wave, but Toledo is threatening to turn this contest on its head in much the same way John Florence did at Margaret River. His full rote air spilt coffee all over the contest site, but in concert with three or four violent slashes and a drawn out turn or two it may have re-engineered the thinking of how this wave can be surfed.

The first wave of the day came in at a 9.77. If it was the last wave of the day it would have been a 12.

Parko and Jordy both won their heats this morning and shape up as contenders. Both are probably overdue for wins here, while at this point in time no one knows what either Toledo or John Florence are capable of. They seem ready to cross into a Fifth Dimension at any given moment. Adriano is the one nobody is talking about and that’s nothing new and that suits him just fine.

The key moment in today’s women’s finals came in the very first quarter… and didn’t actually involve any surfing.

From the moment both Courtney Conlogue and Carissa Moore kicked off waves together in the Bells shorebreak, eyeballed each other, and looked at the 250 yards to the take off spot, it was on. The waves had slowed today and priority became more important, so the two girls dropped the clutch and raced each other out the back.

Advantage: Courtney.

There’s nobody fitter on either tour – women’s or men’s – and she’s even been sprint paddle training with coach Luke Egan in the pre season. Carissa kept Courtney honest but Courtney won the race and promptly turned straight around a minute later and rode a wave back to the beach again. She wouldn’t have blown out a candle. Courtney was a physical presence at Bells and by the end of the day she’d outlasted – and outsurfed – in sequence Carissa, Tyler then Steph.

That’s some chops.

There’s more to Courtney than a one-dimensional power game. Nobody’s surfing exists in one dimension and there are overlooked elements in Courtney’s surfing that get lost in the feverish rush to stereotype. “I feel I’m very artistic so I’m always changing my lines, but the consistency I suppose is power. I love displacing water and pushing through my turns and feeling the wave push back. I think it’s assertive but not aggressive. It’s me seeing how much I can feel the wave through my feet. It’s like a dance, like Baryshnikov is seamless but then also explosive off his feet.”

Courtney’s power stereotype met Steph’s grace and poise stereotype in the final, but in the end surfing had little to do with the result. With the waves slowing and the tide filling in, the final became more tactical by the minute.

I watched the final from the Bells stairs with Steph’s crew, and when Steph paddled for a wave with priority and missed it badly, Zeke Lau turned to coach, Jake Paterson and yelled, “If I did that you’d be swimming out to scream at me!” Jake replied, “No I wouldn’t… I’d wait till you came in and throw you off the cliff!”

Courtney caught the winning wave with that priority.

Steph lost the final today tactically, after heats both here at Bells and at Margarets where she’s seemed lost. It made me wonder just how coachable someone like Steph could even be. For starters she’s done everything, and beyond that her surfing runs purely on feel, which makes it so beautiful to watch but also makes it hard to put in a box.

Still, she leaves Australia leading the ratings and we have the real chance of seven-time world champ from a parallel universe to our current seven-times world champ.

Kelly was also watching the women’s final from the stairs, drinking a kombucha and contemplating an afternoon round of golf. He was in good spirits and seemed like he’d washed off yesterday’s loss to Mick as he watched a set roll through and break all the way from back Rincon to the beach with nobody even close to it. “There it is!” He exclaimed. “There’s Maurice Cole’s wave!” While he was thinking of golf today, he also had his mind on Wednesday’s new swell. The contest should finish on a fresh, solid 19-second pulse, although Kelly won’t be part of it. He’ll be somewhere else.

“I’ll be off getting scared or barrelled… or both.”

https://readymag.com/752613

2017 RIP CURL PRO BELLS BEACH

Bells: The Musical

With the pudgy, clammy fingers of our favourite North Korean dictator presently hovering over a large red button we contemplated, heading to the Democratic Republic of Bells Beach, that short of a global calamity of this order nothing was going to stop John Florence from cleaning them up here at Bells.

Nothing seemed surer, and nothing that’s happened so far this week at Bells has done anything to disprove that. When this morning dawned big, grey, and with a feathering sideshore perfect for launching John skyward it only reinforced the notion. Johnny couldn’t have custom ordered a better day to win Bells.

Like, who the Hells Bells was going to stop him?

So accustomed to John stopping himself in the past, we’re quickly starting to run out of contenders to shorten him up this year. He’s had answers for everyone and has won with a glorious insouciance that hints at any moment, when pressured, he can lazily slap his pockets, pull out some brilliance, and send his opponents back in time.

So who then could beat him?

Maybe it’d be an old Bells hardass, a guy as old and granity as the Bells cliffs themselves? Maybe a serial under achiever? A serial over achiever? The feelgood story of the summer? A Brazilian ninja? That rarest of flowers; a rookie who actually knows what they’re doing at Bells? We had them all out there today, but in the end it was none of them. The guy who took John down was the one guy John didn’t want at this stage of his year. Today, John found himself a nemesis.

It’s a special kind of loathing I save for the whole idea of round four.

Just as the contest gets some momentum, just as some kind of consequence enters the game, just as some compelling storylines start writing themselves the last 12 guys paddle out, suddenly nothing happens and nobody loses, and not even that – it then creates another round of guys who’ve all just lost. I can count on one hand the number of round four heats that have kept me awake at night since they bought it in a few years ago… but todays were something else.

Mick Fanning had two goes at Johnny Florence today, and should’ve got him at least once.

Mick had a lot on the line at Bells, personal pride as much as anything. John’s season so far has checked everyone’s ambition for this year. As noted on the weekend Mick’s return season has seemed calibrated against him, two close losses so far, and he’s been feeling the heat at Bells. We saw that in the Kelly heat. When drawn against John John and Seabass this morning though in a big, jumbled lineup, he looked better than he’s ever looked at any time, possibly, in his career. He had John John on toast, the only problem being that sideshore wind. A groomed offshore and Mick probably wins the whole event. Instead John hangs up in the breeze like one of local paragliders that circle the cliffs and lands something else for his career highlight reel.

Round four then finally got some drama in the following heat.

To understand what went down, let’s first take a journey into the psyche of coach, Jake Paterson. It’s a complex world inside that bald skull. The Pipe Master, J-Bay and Sunset winner can tactically slice and dice pretty much any scenario on tour. He’s lived and surfed through most of them, so when his boy Zeke Lau looked to shut down Filipe Toledo with priority in the dying, dying seconds – hell, it turned out to be the very dying second – he couldn’t have been prouder. It was Snake’s own signature move.

But when they stalled reading out the score he sensed trouble. Standing on the stairs he knew something was up. Before they even announced what was going on he knew what was happening – they were calling his boy up after the hooter, which would have earned Zeke an interference (priority dies with the hooter) and it would cost him the heat. The cords in Snake’s neck bulged and his blood pressure shot up before they even announced it.

“This is BULLSHIT!” He barked once they did, and immediately stormed the judging tower and burst through the door uninvited. Zeke has surfed like Sunny this week, and channelled Sunny today when following Snake for a free and frank exchange of thoughts. It reminded me of the year Kelly was called up-after, threw his board theatrically in the air, only to watch the footage and realise he actually was up-after, the speed of sound accounting for the delay in him hearing it.

The judges have their own camera to review scores… only thing is it doesn’t have audio. They reviewed the contentious call with footage from the broadcast – watched it eight times – which had Zeke up after the hooter. In the meantime the broadcast is showing footage of him up before the hooter, and joining Jake and Zeke in the inquisition of the call. Long and short, the judges got hung out to dry, but as everyone raced to the Outragemobile this, of course, was lost.

The call wasn’t rectified for a full 15 minutes, at which point Snake’s outrage was shifted onto Ricardo Toledo, Filipe’s dad.

As much as someone like Parko is born for Bells, a guy like Phil Toledo should simply not work out here. This is the Land of the Long Arc and Phil is a short-rail ninja… but Phil surfed great today. In fact the short arc stuff worked for him as he provided a counterpoint to everyone else who thought they were John John at Margarets, all parabolic curve. The sideshore chop helped Toledo, turning a 200-yard wall into twenty 10-yard sections, but his was the only sharp rail in the water today. It was a great leap forward for him here, and if he can make similar great leaps forward in Fiji and Tahiti – and they’d have to be great – maybe he could be the challenger for John.

Zeke Lau eventually took Toledo down, and it was a marriage of Snake cunning and a sheer physical presence in the Bells shorebreak, that was both brutal and crucial today. Zeke – along with Frederico Morais – both rookies, surf like they’ve been on tour for five years already. As Zeke dropped his winning wave against Filipe, the celebrations were tempered by the news that down the coast, where the waves would have been four times what we had at Bells, young Russell Bierke had just been rescued and revived after a two-wave hold down. Kelly had rescued him.

John John’s nemesis turned out to be the least physically intimidating presence in the field today but a guy who’s found a way to needle the champ like nobody else. Caio Ibelli was, of course, responsible for dispatching The Champ here at Bells last year, but with the waves today still six foot and pulsing, few gave the diminutive, hamstery Brazilian much of a chance against John in the semis.

Caio has a way with water under his feet. On a howling onshore layday in Fiji last year he came over to Namotu Island, strapped on windsurfing gear, and began to weightlessly carve up the tropical saltwater muck. It was more surfing than windsurfing, but there was an instinctive way he moved between the junky swell that was still there this morning at Bells while the wind was blowing. Mind you, Caio surfed it just as well once it cleaned up, his winning wave against John John anchored around three big swooping turns. His positioning – drifting across to Inside Maurie’s for the winning wave – had a little something to do with Maurice Cole himself being in his corner.

Working on the beach commentary we joked toward the end of the day how Bells, the longest running pro contest ever and the tour’s legacy event, loves nothing more to celebrate, well, anything. It’s always the 50th anniversary of something, 30 years since someone rode some ground breaking surfboard, a decade since ran naked down the beach on live TV. It’s an institution, layered thick with an historical paste, and we joked the logical cultural extension of this was Bells: The Musical. Listening to Hell Bells for the third time in the day (the first heat of the day was restarted after a Marine Layer bank of fog moved in) there is a strong musical theme running through this event. Australian Crawl – an iconic Australian band – once sponsored the whole contest for Chrissakes. We began running through the casting for the musical. We figured Claw Warbrick would be played by Christopher Walken. Kelly played by arch-villain Billy Zane. Mick Fanning? Maybe The Boy From Oz, Hugh Jackman. Caio Ibelli could surely be played by Tim Minchin complete with eyeliner.

Jordy Smith paddled out for the final with the number 23 on his back.

The significance of course, ties back to Michael Jordan, a little known American basketballer, but in Victoria the number 23 was made famous by the chain-smoking, beer-guzzling, Liz Hurley-dating cricketer, Shane Warne. In this sports-mad corner of the world, Warney is God and is possibly the only major celebrity to never visit the Rip Curl Pro and paddle out and surf Bells. And like any major sports star in Australia, Warney, naturally, has his own musical.

Jordy did little earlier today to earn a final, but over a decade has done plenty.

He’s been the best guy to not win here for a long time, and against Caio Ibelli you figured the weight of history – and the weight of Jordy himself in six foot surf – would win out. With things going his way at the halfway mark however, Jordy started to think he actually was starring in Bells: The Musical. When he beached a high-nine-pointer, 16 minutes from the final siren, he began theatrically ringing an invisible bell as a claim. Sixteen minutes! In terms of audacity it was up there with his Jordy The Redeemer claim from Brazil a few years ago, and my phone lit up immediately with three past Bells winners, all of them outraged he’d done it. “Disrespectful!” They barked via text message. At that point they started silently willing sets to Caio, just to somehow, some way, see Jordy lose.

But he didn’t and few could argue he smashed the final today, and more importantly, put on a show.


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