Phil McNamara has spent the past three afternoons disguised as a Hawaiian hau bush.
Down on the beach, tucked under the foliage, he's been watching on silently as his boy, Mick Fanning, scours the reef between Pipe and Off The Wall looking for a potential world title wave. Phil meanwhile counts waves, counts heads, counts sand grains, all the while hidden away like a black-ops sniper. There's a theory I'm running that the effectiveness of a pro surf coach is inversely proportional to the time his head appears on the broadcast. That being the case Phil McNamara is a handy guy to have around. But Mick's destiny today was not entirely in his own hands. He needed Dusty to beat Gabe Medina to open the door to the title. Sitting on watching the freesurf this morning, Josh Kerr and Parko discussed that very fact, and suggest Mick sub contract Phil out to Dusty for an hour this morning for a few choice words.
Today was the second-to-last day of the waiting period for the Pipe Masters.
If you've consulted the Internet at any stage over the past week you might be aware that the event was called off on the best afternoon of the winter. It was undoubtedly the right call… at the time. Before the call it had washed-through at 15 feet for a 20-minute period straight, showing no signs of abating, and with the 4pm curfew there would be time for a couple of heats at best even if it did. Well, you kinda know what happened next, and with hawkeye hindsight even holding an hour of the event would have taken some of the heat off ASP commissioner, Kieren Perrow.
It wouldn't, however, have prevented the situation Kieren found himself in today, essentially needing to run a whole surf contest in a day, much the way Pipe used to run in days of yore. With a pen and paper he began scratching out the blueprint for how to do it. Shorten the heats, no restarts, overlap everything…and start the day earlier. The last factor there ran into some stumbling blocks. No event is more tightly regulated by the City – and the locals – than this one, and the original plan to start the day at 7.45am instead of 8 was shut down. It then went to 7.50am, before a text went out to surfers saying the first heat of the day would start at on the dot at 7.48am with a silent siren.
The swell was certainly there, if a little confused. But when Mick Fanning, Brother Andino and Dusty Payne got back-to-back-to-back Backdoor waves in the freesurf, the best waves of the morning, the forecast gloom of the past few days cleared a little. As Mick got that wave, out the front of the Rip Curl house a few doors up, boxes of merchandise were being loaded stealthily into the garage. Two sets, one of which was set to appear in a thousand beer-soaked Bacchanalian party photos later that night, the other set to join Parko '09 and Kelly ’12 and ’13 world-title merchandise in landfills at Wahiawa.
The first heat of the morning didn't provide much of a barometer as to what we were gonna get served up today, namely because John John was in it. Pipe simply looks like a different wave when he surfs it, and if the world title were to come down to the wire late this afternoon, you figured he might have a part to play.
It was hard to miss Gabe Medina walking down the beach for his heat with Dusty Payne. A blue, yellow, and green human phalanx marched down the beach in formation with Gabe at the front. His heat with Dusty was crucial…a win would take Kelly out of the title and that's a big shadow to lift.
With a world title and overlapping heats in play, the ASP shuffles the draw to ensure world title surfers aren't in the lineup together and play games with each other. That's great and all, but it doesn't stop other surfers feeling the call of duty along some party line – patriotically, personally, whatever – and exerting some kind of influence on the other heat in the water. That's been the case here at Pipe since time immemorial when it comes to world titles. Ask Gary Elkerton in '93… and even Kelly in 2003.
When the round three draw was seeded up a week ago, one notable aspect was the cluster of Brazilian surfers in Gabe Medina's quarter of the draw – Miguel Pupo, Jadson Andre, and Felipe Toledo – guys for whom a Medina world title would mean as much to them as it did to Gabe himself. Gabe had allies in the draw today, and in his round three heat that ally was Felipe Toledo who later told the viewing audience he was actively out there blocking Dusty on the rights. What the House of Volcom made of it is one thing – their boy and the Triple Crown leader getting jostled like that – but my Hawaiian friend next to me was less than impressed. "I'm never eating acai again!" he blubbered through purple teeth, a bowl of the Brazilian breakfast fad-food in his hand. Two minutes later he was looking through his binoculars at a group of Brazilian girls in bikinis on the beach at which time I pointed out the irony.
Gabe didn't need any help today.
Aside from Fiji and Tahiti, both won methodically, the Brazilian has never looked more assured in a heat this year. He chopped it into cubes, skewered it, rolled it in hot sauce and churascariaed the shit outta it. He looked completely in control against Dusty, to the point where his winning wave was a draining Backdoor cabin…the same Backdoor that was expected to be his Achilles heel today on his backhand. The hooter signaled a preview of the celebrations that would really get into swing later. Even the usually stoic Charles Medina came to life with double fist pumps… before quickly regaining his composure. Kelly was out and the day opened up.
But Gabe's real ally would be the unlikely – but highly likable – Alejo Muniz. As the day rolled on he surfed the house down, and while he was surfing for his own skin – he had to make the final to save his bacon and requalify – the Brazilian guys surf as a collective and you figured all along Alejo was surfing as much for Gabe and a Brazilian world champion as much as for himself.
While publicly Kelly had declared his broken toes were good to go, privately there were doubts about his fitness. His first wave in his first heat was predictably incredible, but the fact that for a second year running he was out of the world title race at Pipe without even paddling out had taken the wind out of his sails. He looked deflated emotionally, while physically he also lacked fluency… but more importantly couldn't find his waves and when Alejo – who had everything still to surf for – took him down with a last minute Backdoor pit, the bigger picture of today started to resolve. It was going to be Gabe's day. His compatriots had parted the Red Sea for him, but Gabe still had to walk through it.
And he surfed just great today.
Halfway through Alejo Muniz's heat with Mick Fanning – the last man standing between Gabe and the title – we were in our backyard at Off The Wall when we were joined by Brazilian surfer Ricardo dos Santos. He'd dislocated his shoulder the day before the trials, his arm was in a sling, and tucked away in a sling was a rolled up Brazilian flag. They weren't in short supply at Pipe today. We asked him how he was going to chair Gabe up the beach with his one good arm, and he replied he'd pop his other shoulder back in for the job. "And I tell you what, I'll buy all you Aussie guys a beer!" This day has been a long day coming.
Down on the beach things were a little more tectonic.
As the minutes ticked down on Mick's heat the noise built, and when Mick picked the wrong wave of the set two minutes from time, the noise became a rumble. Great swathes of the crowd on the coalesced into a Brazilian flash mob and the chants began. There were thousands, seemingly millions of Brazilians and they were about to have their long awaited moment. The crescendo built, the siren sounded, and seemingly all of Brazil exhaled with a roar.
Only problem was their boy was actually in the water at the time, about to surf his quarterfinal. Gabe quickly thanked his allies – Felipe and Alejo – who were both in the water, hugged Mick who's been more idol than rival, and made for shore. His stepdad Charles had already charged into the waters of Pipe for a ritual cleansing, and then chaos ensued. Gabe paddled in from his quarterfinal and was met halfway in by the crowd, who were in neck deep water, unconcerned by the waterproof capabilities of their smartphones and cameras, just wanting to touch the new messiah and never wash their hand again.
Fifteen minutes later, and with his quarter half over, Gabe was still on shore embracing his crew and even giving interviews in English more eloquent than some of the interviewers. The kid has grown from the spindly grommet who didn't speak a word of English who nobody knew who won a contest in France five years ago with two perfect 10s. Here he was, just 20, now an undisputed world champ – he's been the best surfer this year over the course of this year – but not only that. He's become a national hero in Brazil in a year when Brazil needed one (insert footage of Brazil losing the World Cup semi 7-1 in Rio). But more than that, he's breathed life into a tour that had for so long been dominated by guys north of 30…40 even. Pro surfing changed today.
The final was in a hustle to happen. There'd been rumours circulating earlier in the day that a bunch of local guys were going to paddle out at 4.01pm if the final overstepped its curfew. Julian Wilson didn't even come in from his second semi even though it was his sixth surf of the day. With the world title and the attendant drama attached to it now done, final could have been a big ol' heap of nothing… but then Gabe's perfect day just got even more perfect. His Backdoor 10 seemed sent from above, the script now seemingly writing itself, and it just seemed a matter of time until he won both the world title and Pipe in the one day. That was until the fateful last two minutes. Julian dropped into a Backdoor bomb and got huffed out. Gabe took the next wave on Pipe and got huffed out. The hooter went, the judges pondered and the tension was knife and fork thick. It was Portugal 2012 all over again.
Gabe's perfect day fell one wave short. Julian Wilson won the Pipeline Masters, and Gabe cried on stage…tears of joy this time around.