It’s been a cold, raw winter on the North Shore. The wind has been hammering north for days, the swell has been big and local, and the air temp has been the coldest anyone can remember for December. The beaches have been empty, the waves washing into yards, everyone’s bunkered down and it has felt like someone had opened a random page of Moby Dick and jabbed a finger at a passage.
This morning it all broke.
This morning outside the house, the bruddahs have got the car stereo on 11, the huge black truck screaming “Every Woman In The World” by Air Supply. It was easy listening and the Pipe lineup this morning was easy watching. I had Off The Wall to myself this morning for an hour while over the channel, Backdoor hosted half the contest field sliding into perfect four-foot tubes, not a lick of wind. It was almost serene, and depending on who you were, it was a welcome respite from weeks in the elements.
The only surfer not appreciating the morning dreamscape was Johnny Florence.
If it had stayed big and wild and oceanic you might as well have handed him the world title today. No one would have got near him. He’s been at sea for weeks. Two days ago, with organizers desperate to run this thing sometime before Christmas, John had paddled out at eight-foot, wind-junk Pipe with the explicit purpose of getting the contest called on. John wouldn’t have even surfed his heat that day. But Gabe Medina, his world title nemesis, would have. John found a wave amidst the madness and they almost ran as a result. For the past weeks, with the ocean boiling, John’s been taking drops at the Bay, sitting out alone at Rockpile, surfing Pipe when no one else would paddle out. With the world title almost in his hands, you might consider it a huge psychological blitzkrieg. Or, for Johnny Florence, you might also consider it daily life.
Gabe Medina surfed first this morning. Gabe has had moments out here in the past few weeks, but while John’s moments have been way out at sea, Gabby’s have been on the Insanities sandbar. Gabe drew Dusty Payne and should’ve breezed through. But this was small Backdoor. I sat there and as an exercise, I racked my brain for the Goofyfoot Hall of Fame at Backdoor. I couldn’t think of a single one. I asked Occy. He thought about it for a minute, smacked his lips and blinked before answering, “Not me.”
Didn’t matter. Gabby found one at Backdoor. Won easy. We’ve pondered whether Gab was going eye of the tiger, going all Andy in his quest to win this title, but he came in, stood there, and was the chattiest I’ve ever encountered him in eight years. Positively ebullient. He told me he would have been happy to surf junk yesterday, but he’s just going with the airbrushed boat trip waves he surfed today.
The rest of Round 2 had moments, even though the drama was waiting later in the day. Kolohe Andino put his hand up as a potential Pipeline Master, in the process consigning Jack Freestone back to the ‘QS and/or an idyllic lifestyle washed up on the tropical island of Kauai with his little boy Banks and his girl Alana. Could be worse fates I suppose.
The flogging of the day went to Joan Duru, who fell from the lip on one of the day’s few six-footers, blown to bits at the bottom. That’s the way he rolls though. I was in the line behind him at Foodland this week and he ordered a huge poke bowl, which, if you listen to the locals, is potentially more dangerous than anything served at Pipe. By this stage conditions were so still, the water so clear, that the waves started to look like they were wrapped in cling film.
We said goodbye to Bede Durbidge today. We probably shouldn’t have. Needing just a 3.73, the judges brought his last minute barrel in at a 3.70. Three-hundredths of a point! You heartless bastards! For the record, I don’t think Bede really cared. He came in and laughed his big guffawing Straddie laugh as all his crew met him on the sand and carried the big lovable lion up the beach.
Bede’s next challenge, as Australia’s national coach, is to find someone with an Australian passport who can out-surf Felipe Toledo in two-foot Japanese surf for an Olympic gold medal. Good luck. On that note, I’m not sure if Sierra Kerr has an Australian passport or not, but Bede should probably check. Sierra’s dad, Josh, also retired from the Tour today and will have a bit more time to invest in his daughter’s bright surfing career.
Kerrzy also went out in controversial circumstances – we’ll get to that later – and the Tour lost another one of the guys who just make the Tour, the Tour. Being on the road for 10 months of a year with the same guys, the same crew, could, without guys like Bede and Kerrzy holding it in orbit, drive people nuts. Kerrzy mightn’t have won a tour event – came close, should’ve won a couple – but leaves having ushered in a generation of aerial guys in his place. It was fitting that one of them would, later in the day, send him out.
I watched John John’s round three heat from the Lopez house. In terms of Pipe lineage, it was fitting. A Pipe Masters win and a world title in the process would seal it for John. And while it didn’t have the flamboyance or decibels of a Brazilian beach crowd, the Hawaiian crew on the beach were willing John. Big. Red and white flags with “Go John” and his spirit animal frigate bird were everywhere on the beach, and John’s first wave shook coconuts from the trees. Despite the noise, they were as relaxed as their boy. There was no way he was going to lose. Nah-uh. I was watching from the Lopez balcony with Dave Wassel, who was in furious agreement.
Wassel grimaced as he said it, though. It was top of the tide and a slow heat, and John’s best was a six. Ethan Ewing, at heats end, then matched John’s six. And with the clock ticking, the judges brought him in four-hundredths of a point short of John’s lead. But then the Straddie kid got another wave, got barrelled, belted the end section and the beach fell deathly silent. Ethan only needed a 4.67, and suddenly the kid who hadn’t won a heat for the first six months of his rookie year threatened to win the one heat he didn’t want to win.
It was heavy. The crew in the Lopez house, all Pipe hardasses, were mortified. I was mortified and thought about running back to the house to lock my hire car in the garage, because if the judges gave Ethan the score and John’s home-sand world title dream was over, I pictured cars (and potentially judging towers) being flipped and burned. I hadn’t taken insurance.
Ethan needed a 4.67. After several decades they announced a 4.60. Seven-hundredths of a point. The beach, John and Ethan himself all breathed. Even the hardass Hawaiian crew knew their boy had got real lucky. One tour correspondent, brandishing a red and white John John flag, waved it comically and quipped, “Look, the judges all have one too!”
John emerged from the scrum on the beach and seemed genuinely relieved. His ice-chill demeanor was a bit on edge as he talked. He mentioned the “f word” a bunch of times – fun – although I don’t think he’d actually had too much fun out there today. The last five minutes certainly hadn’t been fun. One newspaper guy pointed out that people had almost been physically sick while waiting for that score. John laughed. Kinda. But when I asked him about the past few weeks and all the big days he’d surfed and what they’re going to do for him here in the contest, the spark returned. “It’s helped me for sure. Getting a few sets on the head at Waimea, getting caught inside out here, is fun, but it’s the way to get in a rhythm with it.” He’ll need to find the rhythm tomorrow.
And then there was Gabby. He’d drawn the retiring Josh Kerr, who has made a habit of ruining world titles at Pipe. Just ask Kelly. By this stage, the sea breeze was in and it had almost stopped barrelling. It got scrappy, even more so with the overlapping heat in the water featuring fellow Brazilian, Italo Ferreira. Is there beef between those guys? I’m not sure. I’ve never seen Italo happier than when he beat Gabe in Fiji this year, and Gabe happily stuffed Italo on a priority wave today.
But trailing in the dying minutes we saw the Medina we came to see. He was only chasing a three, but instead of chasing a three he chased a nine, launching that big forehand flip he’s been practicing down on the Insanities sandbar. He almost stuck one. He almost stuck two. There was no thought of tap-tap for a three. It was ballsy. It was a boss-fucking-move. He started catching waves into the rip, was pulled straight back into the lineup, then would simply catch another. With 90 seconds left and Gabe trailing on the TV scoreboard, my friend said he was done. I pointed out that in 90 seconds he could catch three waves. As it turns out, he already had a winning wave. In that flurry somewhere was his winning three.
And that left only Jordy. And Kelly.
What a horrible, horrible draw for a guy chasing a world title, especially a guy with a patchy Pipe record, finding yourself suddenly pitted against the guy who wrote the Pipe record book. And it didn’t matter that Kelly’s foot feels like a block of timber, hell, it wouldn’t matter if he paddled out with a wooden leg, Jordy wouldn’t have felt any better. Jordy lost and Kelly surfed into the final day of competition.
There’s a saying in mountain climbing (and I think also in competitive eating) that goes something like “gravity bats last.” Well, at Pipe, Kelly bats last.
[Mantle photo: Gabriel Medina. Photo by WSL/Heff]