Sean Doherty: White Sharks and Shiraz Men

2 Jun 2019 3 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

John John is through to the semis and is putting some daylight between himself at the top and the pack chasing him for the Title in 2019. Photo: WSL/Cestari

John John is through to the semis and is putting some daylight between himself at the top and the pack chasing him for the Title in 2019. Photo: WSL/Cestari


The Second Last Day of the Margaret River Pro

After sleeping on it last night and dreaming dreams of talking dolphins and transcendental tubes, it crystallised just how good yesterday was, and how important it was for the tour. Boxes were ticked at The Box. Palpable consequence? Tick. Pure surfing challenge? Tick. An element of bloodsport? Tick. Cute and non-life threatening marine life? You bet. It was the kind of day that adds a vital pulse to a season, and when you add it to, say, the big day at Bells, then spirits in the WSL’s Santa Monica corporate headquarters would be buoyed.

I personally love the Margaret River event. It feels wild, and wedged between events at a Balinese resort and a metro Brazilian event, this thing feels closer to the real surfing experience, you know, like the one shown on the Jeep ad. The Surf Gods are talking. The WSL’s Margaret River event provides the best day of the season while the WSL at the same time cancels plans to build a second wavepool in Palm Beach, Florida. I came across a good Vonnegut quote this morning on the subject: “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do the maintenance.” They’ve stuck with the Margaret River contest, reinvented it over dry reef, and the WSL will leave Western Australia as winners.

Smaller this morning. Joe called it gorgeous and translucent. Italo Ferreira gets the first wave of the day again, but this time the hard offshore hangs him up in the lip of a placid three-footer, and not over at The Box staring down at a limestone shelf. Italo was getting blown around though. He looked like an inflatable car yard air dancer until he cleared his vision and whacked the next section. The judges dropped a 7.17 which seemed a little hot for the first wave of the day.

Surfing against Seabass must be tough. Way too likeable and hard to engage against, especially for a fellow Hawaiian like John Florence. Add on to that that Seabass has just become a dad and doesn’t seem to be too bothered by anything and it makes it hard to know how hard to push against him. It wasn’t until the middle of the heat and John finally got his forehand wrap going that he looked the goods… and even then Seabass almost got him. Seabass was hard to push against, as was the ocean which already felt like it was on the wane.

The tone was set for the Kelly and Caio Ibelli heat when they circled each other for the opening wave. Caio got it, but Kelly almost saw enough daylight to swoop on his inside. Caio is a combative and hungry mammal and needed little incentive to ruin Kelly’s day. Kelly of course got the injury wildcard spot on tour this year that Caio felt was his. Kelly is now in the top 10 while Caio is sleeping in a van. Third heat on a cold morning is not ideal for Kelly, and he couldn’t recapture his hustle from two days ago. It was going to get scrappy. Kelly took off under the lip as Caio hovered on the shoulder, almost pinging him on an interference. Kelly foxed later when asked about the incident. Eventually Caio sunk the dagger on a clean, open walled right and that was it. In the booth Barton talked about how he, as a pro surfer of a decade, felt the surrender. Kelly is almost at three decades and will never surrender. He said in his interview a ninth place here at Margarets is not good enough, “for what I want to do.” What exactly Kelly wants to do this year is yet to be seen.

It feels like Jordy is slipstreaming through this event with nobody noticing. He got the walk through yesterday with Leo popping his shoulder and has plenty in the tank. This feels like an event he could win. He cruised past Conner Coffin, who was still in raptures from yesterday’s “dolphin ride seen around the world” as Joe put it. During the week I’d been speaking with Nat Young who’d recounted his own dolphin tale, of cruising along a Broken Head wall in 1970, feeling he was being watched and there swimming alongside him was a dolphin eyeballing him. Mind you, Nat had also been sampling some local produce from down the back paddock before the surf. He also recalled being inside a tube at Broken so long that it was daylight when he pulled in and pitch black when he popped out. I‘m pitching here to the WSL for an all-mushie specialty event where we release thousands of dolphins into the lineup.

Jack Robbo is almost ready to crack this league wide open… he just needs to get there first. Today against Seth Moniz showed he’s made progress in surfing white bread heats when the waves aren’t falling from the sky. With the Volcom switch he’s got Matt Bemrose in his corner now, and inside Bemmy’s shiny bald dome is a scheming contest brain. He’s also a funny bastard and an old ‘QS grafter who’ll keep it real for Jack. In the end Jack was a bit loose early in the heat while Seth, three events into his major league career, is pretty flinty right now. Jack lost out but you feel he’s made great strides this week. God knows Australian surfing needs him right now.

The commentary has been great this week.

I know I’m a card-carrying BL fan, but Barton’s presence and general grommet fizz lifts everybody else on the panel. He also adds the human dimension of tour life that often gets ignored for ad infinitum coma-inducing analysis. He’s also managed to crack the code with the telestrator, which to date has been possibly the most useless piece of broadcast technology ever deployed in surfing. I don’t need to know where a surfer is looking and then have the wave turned into a Mr Squiggle artwork, but as Barton did earlier in the week, taking a wide shot of the Margaret River lineup and marking off swell angles and orientations is actually super informative.

Couple of misses though on the commentary this week include the absence of Taj Burrow from the broadcast. He lives up the road; cut him a cheque for the week for Christ's sake and watch the broadcast shine. Secondly, not sure about the “ghosting” technique where they laid Jack Robbo’s wave over the top of Seth Moniz’s. Unless you’re ghosting Steph Gilmore over Michael Peterson with a psychedelic soundtrack, a la Spirit of Akasha, I’m not buying it.

If I had a dollar for every heat Julian Wilson has started this year with an air reverse, looking assured, only to be sitting there 20 minutes later with just a pair of fives, I could afford a WSL VIP fan experience. It happened again today and again it looked like biting him on the arse when Peterson Crisanto pulled a backhand rotor in the dying minutes to take the heat lead. Julian was in the old familiar death spiral again… only to immediately blitz a winning wave, and another, looking like the Julian of old. In the final heat of the round the judges gave it to Ryan Callinan’s backhand tags over Igarashi’s transitional hustle.

The backhand love continued when the women’s quarters kicked off. Tatiana Weston-Webb jammed a short board at the lip while Courtney Conlogue rode a longer craft, usually a winning move at Margies. The lineup was fading out however, and the shorter board found better places on the wave. I thought Caroline Marks would do the same in the second quarter, but Sally Fitzgibbon – as Taj Burrow would say if he was here commentating – selected her to death.

Ronnie Blakey pointed out his surprise that Carissa hasn’t won an event this year. “It’s very, very strange Ronnie,” nodded Barton. I’ll go further. What’s stranger is how she hasn’t won a world title in four years. Hasn’t been near one, and the procedural eights of her early career are more like sixes and sevens these days… which was enough for today but won’t be enough for finals day. That was clear when Lakey and Steph paddled out in the last quarter.

Steph’s 10 from Bali – unless something dramatic happens in Tahiti – will be the most viewed wave all year, and it’s clearly shifted the thinking on the women’s tour. Lakey paddled out, scrapped for the inside, then launched an assault on the first wave of the heat. Her first turn was vertical and visceral. The second turn was a short arc rail jam. Both turns came off deep bottom turns. Steph’s Bali 10 was a flawless loop. Lakey’s turns were a sharp one-two. Lakey’s back up nine-pointer included a symbolic spritzing of Steph as she paddled past. “I’m done losing to her,” Lakey said afterward in a short, clipped sentence. She meant it. Carissa, thinking like that, would be unbeatable.

Italo paddled out in the first quarter and started bouncing off every jinky section he saw. John waited for the clean ones and went up a gear. It was half the size but there were echoes of Margarets 2017 in his surfing. The next heat contrasted. Jordy and Caio. Jordy hardly broken stride this event. Caio, the Angry Inch, taking down Kelly and Gabby. Jordy had almost lost a Bells final to Caio and stepped up the urgency. Jordy fought to land a huge air reverse before attempting to paddle back out over dry rock. Jordy doesn’t look desperate often. Ibelli is a better surfer, however, than he’s given credit for. We’re seeing that here. The judges still may have looked at each other and taken a deep breath when the average for Caio’s last wave put him 0.02 ahead of Jordy.

The customary shark scare wasn’t announced. Nobody mentioned the S word for five minutes. A white over at southside apparently. Maybe chasing Conner’s dolphins. Who knows? The March sharks still there in May, just another day in WA. The protocols were run. The commentators padded a half hour with Strider talking about how the waves looked so good he wanted to paddle out and take bites out of them… chomp chomp chomp. BL and Ronnie looked at each other. Strider’s timing was maybe a little poor. But in a Brave New Great White World the show goes on without having to move to Bali. In fact, it appeared the real danger to the surfers was being run over by the WA Fisheries boat that was doing hot laps through the lineup.

Kolohe has already been chased out of semi-final two years ago by sharks and seemed to settle best when his quarter with Seth Moniz was restarted. I’m glad they did, as the waves were arvo glass and on the cook. I loved what Seth Moniz was trying to do – what they’re all trying to do, what JJF did two years ago – only that maybe both Seth and his board were a little light. Man, he’s gonna be good though. Brother Andino, however, refused to lose.

That just left Wilson and Callinan. The remaining two Aussies in the field drew each other, although we should be thankful at least to have one of them there on finals day. These are dark days. Both overcooked their first waves, but for the first time this year we actually saw Julian. He drove hard and through all his turns, but again sat vulnerable at the end of the heat, more nervous about his pair of sixes than whatever was swimming around below him.

As I’ve mentioned, winter starts Wednesday, tomorrow (Monday) is on the wane, so that leaves Tuesday local time for a finish. One last day tomorrow for a bit of local vine culture. WSL resident sommelier, Pottz might even get the shoes off and climb in the vat to crush some local cabernet grapes… or, as he corrected Joe today in a moment of high pro surf culture, “I’m more of a shiraz man myself, Joe.”

This year at Margarets has been a good vintage.

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