Death by Fluffy Pillows

The Billabong Pro Tahiti grinds on and its as dangerous as it ever was

© Ben Thouard :

After a rough start to the season, Slater seems to have found his rhythm at Teahupoo. Photo: Thouard

Imminent danger is a tremendously effective marketing tool. It can really shift units. How many car-mounted flame-throwers do you think got sold when car jacking became the crime du jour in Johannesburg in the ’90s? And after the run of shark attacks in Australia, is it an accident there are suddenly ads everywhere for shark-repellent legropes? Where danger lurks there is always someone to watch it and someone waiting to make a buck.

Danger has recently become the buzzword for pro surfing.

After the Fiji contest back in June, Paul Speaker, the boss of the WSL got on Fox Biz and started talking up the inherent of danger his boys faced. The razor sharp coral, the water two inches deep, the waves 13 feet overhead. Then, for no apparent reason, sharks appeared on the screen. "Oh look, we've got sharks on the screen," guffawed the toffee-nosed host, barely unable to control his glee. "Loads of sharks!"

"It's a dangerous sport," offered Speaker, seemingly unsure what the sharks had to do with anything.

"And that's what makes it attractive, isn't it!" Flubbered the host. "You're selling danger!"

He had no idea how right he was. A few weeks later and Mick Fanning was almost chomped by a shark on live TV, and suddenly the world knew what pro surfing was all about. Sharks! Loads of sharks! How directly attributable the attack was to that interview we can only ponder, although it probably now makes uncomfortable viewing for the pro surfing brass in the wake of the attack on their champ.

But this newfound global audience in the wake of Mick's encounter and the mania that ensued will prove far from resilient. In fact, those ghouls might have given it two heats – three tops – without a surfer being bitten in half in Tahiti before flicking over to the NFL or UFC or something far more bloodthirsty and better suited for beer drinking. The reality of course is that Tahiti is on average a far more dangerous event than any other on tour by a factor of night and day…although there has been little to fear this year.

The contest resumed this morning, and the most dangerous aspect of the eight lays days that had preceded it might be a case of terminal boredom, a case of mercury poisoning from a week of poisson cru lunches, or, someone accidentally Instagramming themselves to death while conducting some kind of crossfit routine. The time stretching capabilities of the South Pacific are amplified down at the End of the Road, where eight days can be the longest three weeks of your life.

For the second time in three years, the contest has been painted into a corner by the swell forecast and been forced to run on the final two days of the waiting period. The swell today while it was fluky and funky, was undoubtedly at least there.

Today, there were two heats of particular interest for mine.

© Ben Thouard :

In his heat against Jeremy Flores, Parko found himself outdone by the Frenchman. Photo: Thouard

Joel and Jeremy was a study in reversing fortunes. Turn the clock back a year and you wouldn't have even found Jeremy here in Tahiti. He'd been suspended by the WSL for abusing judges after a half-point loss, the last in a long line of episodes that followed him around all year like dark clouds. And the darker he got the worse his fortunes became.

In contrast, the five years since his world title in 2009 have been a breeze for Parko. His heat wins have all seemingly come in second gear, winning waves have come to him like lost dogs, and while he hasn't challenged again for the title he's been the master of his domain on tour.

Well, not this year and certainly not today.

© Ben Thouard :

After a head injury in Indo, Jeremy Flores was forced to wear a helmet in the lineup. That didn’t stop him from putting on one of the most impressive performances of the day. Photo: Thouard

Jeremy drained two bombs to win, while Joel just seemed, as he has all year, out of rhythm. His surfing has been solid, and even today he bagged two sevens and would have won pretty much any other morning heat, but the way his season has played out it just never seemed like it was going to happen. He's rarely been outsurfed this year, but he has been out-selected and out-hustled, and since his losing run became a thing, it's proved hard to stop. This will now be a true test of his class, and he goes into the home straight of the tour with some serious work to do save his bacon.

One surfer already resigned to not being here next year is CJ Hobgood, and today we saw serenity in that resignation. Drawn against Julian Wilson, in a heat that would have handed Julian the lead in the ratings, CJ's long and proud history on this reef appeared to be coming to an inglorious end as a squall chewed up the waves and the pair traded two-point rides.

When CJ dropped into the one bomb of the heat he appeared far too deep as the thing imploded. One one-thousand…two one-thousand…three one-thousand, and with the cameraman – along with pretty much everyone else watching on – about to turn away, suddenly there he was. He wasn't on the foamball, he wasn't in the foamball…he was the foamball! He emerged from the tube that was no longer there, floating on "fluffy clouds" like Monkey Magic. For a guy who channels his faith at the big moments, he looked like a religious apparition emerging from the mist.

© Ben Thouard :

CJ Hobgood, en route to one of the day’s most jaw-dropping barrels. Photo: Thouard

CJ goes into the final day tomorrow with a chance for the perfect send off. It would be a popular victory. A few years back I interviewed CJ at Papa Teva's place just up the road, and asked him if this wave was special to him. He replied that of course it was, but that he'd also won events in Japan and Spain and that they were also special to him and he wasn't simply a one-dimensional tube rider of heavy lefthanders. I asked him then if he'd rather be known then as "Mr. Japan" instead, to which he replied, "When you put it that way, "Mr. Teahupoo sounds pretty good."