Sean Doherty: Style Becomes Him

14 Jul 2019 3 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

Kolohe Andino. Photo: WSL/Sloane

Kolohe Andino. Photo: WSL/Sloane

2019 Corona Open J-Bay, Day 3/Round 3

The absence of layday safari trips has been comforting. Nobody goes on safari if there’s swell coming and the crew in Jeffrey’s  Bay have had to actually surf as opposed to clogging the Internet with giraffe and sedated lions.

Day five of the waiting period and we finally got to advance this contest in some meaningful way. It wasn’t classic J-Bay, not early. There was wobble in the swell and wind was huffing out of the Gamtoos valley, threatening to notch around full El Diablo. It was a Toledo alley oop kind of morning. But they were keen to run… so keen they ran overlapping heats to – as Barton describes it – “maximise the asset.” They could of course maximise the asset by sending people home when they lose. Make the first round the savannah… not a petting zoo. We’re on day five and six surfers have been taken out of the draw. They’re going to get lucky with swell this time around, but J-Bay on a bad forecast is a long, lonely flight home.

I liked the frankness early. “It’s not a devil wind is it, Strider?”

“Oh, it’s a devil wind.”

Pete Mel then explains there is no jet ski assist and the skis are only in the lineup for safety. “We’ve had an attack out here in the past.” Not an “encounter” or an “incident” or a “reset”. No, Mick Fanning was attacked here in 2015 by a great white shark. In the years since it happened the WSL has wrestled with how to frame what happened. The tension has been delicious. Milk it? Airbrush it from history? The following year when Mick got plucked out of the water when a second shark strolled through the lineup, it was framed more as a Sea World/magnificent creature/Attenborough encounter, the animal fetishized. Pete’s assessment this morning seemed a little more straight up in its acknowledgement. The thing went him. When they cut straight to a Harley Davidson Historic Moment, I held my breath… was the WSL about to screen Mick Fanning being bumped by 15 feet of teeth? Thankfully no.

Did I miss it, or did no one explain however why these heats were 46 minutes long? Not 40, not 45… 46. Had they simply divided the rest of the daylight hours by the number of heats and come up with 46? Like the meaning of life being 42, had they just plucked it out of the cosmos? If you want to watch people delaminate don’t make the heats longer. Make them six minutes, not 46. But if you want surfing to win, extend.

The wind seemed to be picking up and Jordy showed how to deal with it in the first heat. Surf low and tight to the pocket, and if you’re going to surf above the lip, surf waaaaaaay above it. The alley oop looked like the turn du jour. Jordy tried three or four. Jordy has dropped some pounds and couldn’t surf into the teeth of the wind the way a 200lb man might. Still, Jordy joined the dots, linked the broken swell with some big cat flow, and cruised on. Did you notice his opponent, Soli Bailey paddled out without the Aboriginal flag on his jersey? The flag’s designer sold copyright to an Australian company, who slapped received a cease and desist on the WSL. Welcome to the world we live in.

It looked hard work on your backhand… unless of course you were Gabe Medina. Owen Wright and Joan Duru struggled into the wind for fives, while Gabby doesn’t care about wind or sectioning swells… when his bloods up he’ll just do the turns he wants to do regardless of what’s in front of him. The WSL have been working hard to bring him to life on the coverage – who’d have known he loves chocolate after a heat? – but his surfing remains emotionless and ruthless in equal parts. On the rebound from a bad knee, Griff – “Colin Peligroso” – hasn’t got his groove back and never stood a chance.

But then suddenly the Gamtoos bellows stopped puffing and the lineup took the consistency of blue oil. Suddenly surfing backhand posed no problems. Callinan and Dora started to get clean faces to scribble on. Yago had the wave to win it but it was almost so good he seemed surprised by it and he left a couple of points out there on the field. Callinan doesn’t miss often.

Okay, Julian went out again we’re at a loss to explain what’s happening this year. I give up. For what seems like the 50th time he paddled out, linked together an early one and seemed to setting up a heat, only for nothing to happen in the ensuing half hour. This is Julian Wilson at walled up four foot J-Bay, the kind of day he’s owned in the past, and he’s sitting there at the end of the heat with a five and a four. Slow heat? Yep. But it was slow for Zeke Lau too. Interviewed later Julian looked as lost for answers as we are. 

By this point though the only naturalfooter who’d really done anything was Jordy, and with J-Bay now starting to look like J-Bay, Ace Buchan wasn’t given much of a chance against Conner Coffin who’d been anointed in the commentary as “The Great Conner Coffin.” Not sure I’m quite there on that one yet, and he certainly wasn’t looking great after Ace Buchan boogieboarded a prone take off before throwing backhand grenades all the way down the point. Ace then did it again for a pair of sevens. Connor meanwhile sat there on donuts for 28 minutes. Didn’t catch a wave. When he finally got into one the commentary was effusive. The Curren conversation happened. The judging was closer to the money. Conner’s done well here in the past but he’s done it with a vital edge in vital sections. Style alone won’t do it. That was the judge’s call today. They scored that way all day and it sends a statement.

The most diametrically opposed heat paddled out next, Phil Toledo and Mikey February – the short rail ninja versus the Kommetjie seagull. This is a heat Phil wins 99 times from a hundred and Phil won today again in third gear – no one tried less and looked better – but it was an interesting study. Watching Mikey Feb do a year on tour, you could see the effect a year on tour has on your surfing. It added hard edges to a groovy act. He started slow but by the end of the year he looked great. That edge disappears pretty quickly off tour. Watching Conner’s and Mikey’s heats back-to-back I began to ponder the chicken-and-egg effect with all the talk around style. It’s a tired trope. When it’s repeated ad nauseum how much of it gets absorbed by osmosis? The narrative over time becomes them and they get lost in the process.

Sal Masakela materialised in the booth for Mikey’s heat and livened the place up. I liked the discussion of African social context. A surfing broadcast needs to have conversations other sports won’t. Ron and BL with a Sal/Matt George works… equal parts anchor/analyst/cultural. We all know that Sal knows Kelly, but Sal’s got some surf game. I’m name dropping him. I’ve surfed with him on a bunch of big-enough Cloudbreak days and he  knows what’s up.

Best surfing of the day to that point belonged to Seabass, supreme testament to not overthinking anything. It’s lined up J-Bay; just go surf. Nobody writes anything about Bass and if they did I don’t think he’d a) read it, or b) care. He was up against Avoca Jesus who likewise falls into this category. Bass got the win and with the swell on the up-and-ups could make life interesting for a few guys in the draw.

And just when I think that underthinking was the way to go, out paddled Kanoa Igarashi who clearly paddled out with a huge plan in his head. Snake Paterson is his coach, for Chrissake. Snake has a plan for walking to the fridge. I don’t reckon it was pure happenstance that Kanoa took an early mid-tracker that allowed him to go top-to-bottom on every turn and throw an air reverse. The fade/shimmy/look back halfway through ticked more style markers than Conner’s rail release. That was more Curren. Getting a sense after today that Igarashi might do something here in J-Bay.

And then from someone’s who’s paddled out with a plan to someone who is The Plan. Kelly had surfed tight in the pocket in round one, but the jump in swell allowed him to swing wider, drive harder, cover more ground. He was drawn against Caio Ibelli, the prickliest guy on tour, the guy playing the role Adriano played a decade ago, and it was never going to be an easy heat. Kelly stuck a last turn, Caio didn’t. Rosy quizzed Kelly later after his win about the Olympics. It was the most pointed question Rosy has thrown this year. Kelly paused. Olympics, moi

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