Parko walked into our house before dawn and started pulling stuff out of the fridge. The expensive stuff. Eggs, bacon, milk.
“You right there mate?”
“Have you guys got coffee? We’re out.” He sits everything on the kitchen counter and starts rubbing his hands together. He sees a set wave out front.
“It’s my favourite day of the year!”
“What, the Pipe finals?” I reply.
“Nah, last day of the season!”
Fair to say that even though there was a Pipe Masters title to be won, Joel wasn’t under quite the same pressure as a couple of other surfers left in the field. You know who. John. Gabby. Kelly likewise didn’t seem to be too worried. As the morning pack hustled for a piece of the peak at Pipe, Kelly was swinging a golf club in the backyard.
The waves this morning were good, west, better than anybody could have hoped a week ago when the forecast looked dire and everyone you spoke to had a different version of what shitty stuff they’d run in. Have you ever thought of surf forecasting as simply gossiping about the ocean? None of us know for sure, it’s not our business, but we love talking about it as if we do. The ocean gossip has been running hot all week. Any lingering doubt we would run today was washed away when Kieren Perrow – the man charged with making the call – spun around under the peak, barely set a rail, barely kept his head on his shoulders, before being spat out of what many were calling the wave of the winter.
Start the heat, Al.
As this column has mentioned previously, this might well be the very last Pipeline world title decider, and that’s sad. I just don’t get it. It hasn’t been announced officially, but Pipe is being replaced by a “playoff series” hosted on boats in the Mentawai Islands [in 2019]. The WSL’s reasoning lies in two parts. First is a juicy pay-per-view event. Secondly, I received an inside line that the league’s owner, Dirk Ziff was sick of the world title being won by a surfer who’s not surfing at the time they win. He wants the world title moment in the water, and he wants it captured in all its glory. The irony is that today he got neither.
On the surface, the boat trip seems like a tremendous idea. But when the tradeoff is losing Pipe as the Tour finale, the shine disappears immediately. Watching the crew ambling toward Pipe this morning with flags and jerseys – kids, families, locals, three-quarters of Rio – the energy was whomping at 7 AM. And Hawaii. This is Hawaii. Taking away Hawaii’s right to crown the champ creates a huge disconnect with surfing zealots. There is nowhere in the world where surfing means more than right here. My friend who lives at Keiki had a meta moment the other day as we drove down the Kam Highway past the pineapple fields and the North Shore came into view. He does the drive to town every day, but that reveal never gets old. In one of the great surfing truisms, he stared ahead and said, “If you live in Hawaii and you don’t surf, you’re out of your fucking mind.”
The event’s energy diffused somewhat this morning because we had to wade through a whole round of non-elimination heats before we got to anything that meant anything. If there’s structural change to be made to the Tour, start by eliminating non-elimination rounds, not Hawaii.
There were a few moments throughout the day. John Florence whistling up a winning wave from the ocean in the dying minute of his semifinal heat. Gabe Medina losing with a nine to Jeremy Flores; the Reunion Islander hadn’t been in the heat until the judges stripped him of priority, and nothing lights a fire under Jeremy’s ass like a judging call against him. The last notable mention was Kelly losing with a three and a one during Round 4. You may remember yesterday that your columnist boldly declared Kelly would have the last say in the world title race today, and at this point, my prediction looked like a shit sandwich. Until, that is, I saw that by finishing last in his heat Kelly was now drawn against Gabe Medina in the next round.
Waxing his board before his heat with Medina, Kelly still looked a little frail. Four months out of the water, the longest he’s spent out of the water since he was two, had atrophied his winning aura somewhat. His dark skin looked to have dropped a few shades under the blue-light glare of his phone, his window to the world over those long months. But surfing this event, he reckons, has broken up the scar tissue in his busted foot and the ocean has cleaned the chest flu outta him. But the challenge of surfing against Medina, standing between Medina and the title, was going to test Kelly’s 45-year-old bones.
I thought I was tripping, but I couldn’t see Gabe.
A minute before the heat started, Gabe still wasn’t in the lineup. Then he materialized from the pack at Off The Wall and ghosted straight past Kelly to the inside as the heat started. “He paddled right past me,” said Kelly afterward, “but I expect that from Gabriel. He never lets you get deeper than him to start a heat, like he would paddle you to Ehukai. I wasn’t playing that game.” In the past decade, as Kelly’s otherworldly abilities have begun to run a little hot and cold, his first wave in a heat has become instructive. If he gets a smoker he wins, turning his opponent into a red smudge on the road. But if he doesn’t – if he punts a throwaway air, or, like today a Backdoor, gets a wave that doesn’t barrel – he’s vulnerable. Jordy got out-psyched by Kelly yesterday and wilted. That will never happen with Gabe. His rabid will to win knows no boundaries, as we saw halfway through the heat.
Gabby fell out of the Backdoor lip, shutting down Kelly… and Kelly’s last faint hope. The priority move was bold, even bolder by the fact he almost faded left to get Kelly on a priority interference as well. Sorry to bang on about this, but when I said Gabby needed to think “what would Andy do here?” in his world title campaign, this is exactly the kind of thing he needed to do. If it was Andy, however, Andy would have timed his drop a little better to land squarely on top of Kelly’s head. But Kelly’s wave choice and mojo were out of rhythm, and he never even had a chance as Medina went into beast mode.
Kelly then did something interesting. He came in and did one of those impromptu curbside press conferences where, in front of a media scrum, starts contemplating the cosmos and where his life’s going. The fact that the media scrum was mostly Brazilian, and only there to gloat on the fact that their boy Medina had just beaten him, mattered little. Kelly revealed he’s applied for the injury wildcard next year, although his heart didn’t exactly seem like it was along for the ride. “Part of me is thinking this time off [with the injury] has been nice, and I had a taste of that years ago and I really enjoyed it and I’ve got three months to think about it now. It gives you a taste of freedom, takes the shackles off. There’s so much pressure all the time and you just want to be free of it. Really just want to enjoy your life. But at some point, that pressure is also what makes it great and creates the challenges in your life. I’m 45. If I surf for three more years that’s 40 years of professional surfing and if that was the case I’d never surf another heat in my life. I’m tapping out.” At this point I thought he may have been debating the issue with himself, forgetting entirely we were actually all still there listening.
Then, in the same breath, we got a Freudian glimpse into why he’s the GOAT, and why the GOAT will retire only in a pine box. When asked if he wanted to be here for the moment today when John might win both Pipe and the world title, he paused. “Hmm, yes and no. When you’re the guy who’s already been there, who’s spent a lot of time with those same goals and achieved some of them, there’s a part of your legacy you start thinking about and I go, God, how many Pipe Masters could John win? How many world titles could Gabriel win? All these things you start thinking about.” I took this to mean that he’s worried about his 11 titles getting left behind in the dust. His seven Pipe Masters too.
No, I think his legacy might be safe.
The other interesting insight he dropped was into the respective camps of the two guys jousting for the world title. Gabe and John, as this column has pointed out previously, are so sheltered from the public that both guys are almost unknown as human beings. “With Gabriel,” said Kelly, “nobody really knows what’s going on behind the scenes with him; in Australia or in the States we never hear much about Gabriel. And now John has created a little bubble around himself where you don’t know what’s going on. He’s got his tight crew. I grew up with John and I don’t necessarily feel part of that. But he’s creating support for himself that allows him to function clear-headed and these guys are at a point now they can live up to their potential.” At this point, I bit my tongue and didn’t interrupt Kelly with the fact I’ve tried contacting him 20 times this year without a response. But hey.
Kelly left with the parting words that, “Today is John’s to lose.”
John paddled out into his quarterfinal against Julian Wilson and never looked like he was going to lose. He’d been phlegmatic so far, suffering in previous heats a form of tropical world title paralysis, but got on the move against Julian and owned it. And in the delicious way these world title days roll out, the pressure then swung over to Gabby. By this stage, the wind had started blowing straight into Pipe, which was shutting down Backdoor and tantalizingly calling to Medina to try and boost into the teeth of it. Problem was, Jeremy Flores actually found a barrel and it rendered the air wind irrelevant in the eyes of the judges. Gabe looked for a wave that never came. The Brazilian crew on the beach fell deathly silent, while as the heat counted down, a cheer arose from far up the beach.
Up in Pete Johnson’s backyard, John John stood in a circle and was hit on all sides by reasonably expensive champagne. He was world champion for a second time. But if you weren’t in the backyard and the tightly managed guest list, all you got was a drone shot of the celebrations. I don’t know if it was out of range of the WSL camera, or that the WSL simply wasn’t on the guest list, but the world title moment, the biggest moment of the season, went down in private. I would’ve loved to have been a fly on the wall in Dirk Ziff’s office.
That simply left the not inconsequential matter of the Pipe Masters.
Johnny continued his golden run, winning his semi in the final minute against Ian Gouveia, a win that handed young Californian Griff Colapinto the Triple Crown, despite not even surfing at Pipe. This kid is real.
And that pitted Jeremy Flores against John John in the final. The Florence scriptwriters were feverishly working around a kitchen table trying to keep up with their boy, and with a minute to go, he looked to finally have the Pipe Masters in the bag as well. But when Jeremy got his mysto Backdoor wave in the dying minute, a la Jake Paterson ’98, Shane Dorian and I looked at each other.
“He’s got it, right?” said Shane. “What are you giving him?”
This was Illuminati territory, and I looked at the score Jeremy needed to win, an 8.27, and simply added 0.07 – John’s controversial winning margin against Ethan Ewing yesterday afternoon. It would be the same margin, just against John this time. The Rothschilds would hand the win to Jeremy, but only beta level conspiracy theorists from yesterday afternoon would pick up on the significance of the margin.
“8.34.” I replied.
[Beach announcer] “Jeremy Flores needs and 8.27 and it’s an… 8.34!” I shit you not. John, denied!
But man, I was stoked for Jeremy. Guy can tube ride. John kinda owed him one anyway – and he’s one of the last remaining fountains of entertainment and unfiltered honesty on Tour that never runs dry. And now he’s a two-time Pipe Master. Salut, bro.
And so, as the sun sets over Kaena Point, the Seven Mile Miracle parties hard tonight. There’s a tailgate party in our front yard and the cops aren’t breaking it up, but drinking and playing ukuleles and singing as well. And it’s all in celebration of their boy Johnny Florence, the best surfer in the world, who needs only another nine titles now before he gets to Kelly. Hell, I was ready to give it to John after Margaret River in April, but I’m glad this one went the distance here at The Pipeline.
[Mantle image by Glaser]