In the 1800s they used to feed crayfish to prisoners. So abundant over here were these “cockroaches of the sea”, and so lowly prized were they that they were fed to the prisoners while the free gentry dined on delicacies like mutton and black pudding. These days, the only way you’re likely to get fed lobster in prison is order it before you go to the electric throne. It just shows how perception is everything. There have been a lot of people racing to judgment about the quality of the waves here at Margaret River and whether they’re up to scratch for a Tour contest, but for finals day the eight remaining inmates in this event got served a crayfish dinner.
This morning, however, it became clear that any talk of a day surfing The Box was just that. It was never going to happen. Man, the hyperbole has been laid on thick since four heats were moved over there on Thursday, but anyone with an iota of local knowledge knew that as soon as the swell shifted south, which it did overnight, The Box became a surging mess. So it was that the final day of the Drug Aware Pro would be surfed exclusively on the righthander out front at Margaret River, and for all the shitcanning the wave has copped this week it actually served up a performance canvas that a few other Tour stops might have trouble trumping this year.
We started the day with eight surfers, but unlike finals day at Snapper there would be no backhand socialism in action here. Both remaining goofyfooters – Gabe Medina and Nat Young – were summarily dispatched this morning with neither looking like they made a dent, surfing straight into the offshore wind and looking chattery and confused.
From there though, picking a winner from the other six looked tough. Although the field still included Kelly, Parko, and Jordy, it appeared that it was destined to be Josh Kerr’s day. It’s felt like that all week. Nobody looked more comfortable across the channel at The Box, and no one has mastered the art of surfing the right here at Margarets better than he. It was back here in 2010 that he not only stole the final here from Taj Burrow in the dying seconds by going right, but in the process redefined how this wave could—and should—be surfed. Up until that day Margarets had been a relic of the 20th Century, surfed on bigger boards with the left being the dominant side of the peak. By taking to the air that day into the southerly breeze Josh Kerr dragged the wave kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.
But it was more than simply Kerrzy’s taking to the air. He’s also a really good short-rail surfer, which means he is perfectly suited to the right at Margaret River which can only be surfed six feet in front of the nose of your board. Try and do too much beyond that and you’re daring the wave to do something unpredictable and dumb, to which it will often oblige. The end section remains a dogs breakfast. Today however, on a long groundswell under good winds the right actually threatened to line up cleanly, and Kerrzy dealt with it well, choreographing his waves to make sure everything was in its right place. Kerrzy has never been charged, however, with the crime of consistency and the fact he strung heat after heat of explosive yet measured surfing raised Australian hopes he’d finally crack a long and richly deserved win here at Margarets.
Kelly had an interesting day. No, he’s had an interesting week. I sat down with him on Thursday night for an hour, and over the course of the interview it was clear that surfing without a sticker on the nose of his board for the first time in 23 years had had a cathartic effect on him. You’ve sensed for a long time now he’s grown increasingly frustrated at being told what to do by institutionalized forces, even if those institutionalized forces are paying him handsomely to simply go surfing. He’s been trying to hatch this for a while. First the ASP, now Quiksilver, and suddenly, unshackled from the stickers, the greatest surfer the world has ever known can see an open road ahead, and he’s free to travel in whatever direction he damn well wants.
On one wave today in his quarterfinal win over Parko we saw just where this unbridled freedom might lead. Flying out of a clean inside tube, in a heartbeat he threw himself up onto the roof of the wave and floated on down the line. While a barrel-to-float may not exactly seem like the surfing of the future, the spontaneity and the seamlessness and the creativity of it stole the breath from your lungs. Kelly looked reinvigorated out there today, and was even gracious despite being on the receiving end of a touch-and-go judging call in the semifinal with Michel Bourez. The world is suddenly full of possibility again for him. He’s suddenly Lester Burnham, in his garage, pumping weights and smoking a joint. He’s got another institutionalized Old World force facing him next week…Bells.
I’d had a conversation with Bede Durbidge earlier in the week how Margarets is has a habit of throwing up an unlikely winner (for a while today that looked like being him) and so it proved to be when Josh Kerr paddled out against Michel Bourez for the Final. But the Great Leap Forward of pro surfing continues with these two guys in the Final. There are suddenly goofies, Brazilians, and Tahitians winning. The old temples are being raided, and this will not be the last event this year to throw up a mixed bag of quarterfinalists.
While both Kerrzy and Michel had made Tour Finals before, the first half of the heat saw both of them lose their heads. It appeared that the point of the exercise was to actually finish with less points than the other guy. In a way it might have been easier for them to surf against Kelly or Parko, but it seemed that both of them knew they would never get a better chance to win an event and they lost all structure as a result. Kerrzy tried to punt on everything; Michel caught unfathomable waves. In the end it was the Tahitian who came to his senses first and just surfed straight and hard and simple and put himself far enough in front as the swell slowed and the minutes blew away on the southerly wind.
Late at night gathered around a television in a small house just past the isthmus of Tahiti Iti, on a small tropical rock in the middle of the big Pacific pond, the family of Michel Bourez – “my little family” as he calls them – watched their boy surf his way to his first Tour win, surfing a world away on the dry and scrubby edge of the Indian Ocean. It was a victory for his little family and his tiny island as much as it was a victory for Michel itself. It was also a victory for one of the truly warm souls on this Tour. If you can fetch me three people with a bad word to say about Michel Bourez I’ll swim to Papeete and back. There’ve been a lot of people—Tahitians and otherwise—waiting for the day Michel finally wins one of these things, and this afternoon they’re celebrating. Manuia Michel.
But it’s been a true week in the west. And so we drive off and prepare to head across the Nullarbor, over to Bells for the start of the next event in three days time. The whole show needs to be packed up and driven east. It’s a big country to cross, a lot of desert, and I picture the ASP broadcast truck taking a wrong turn west of Esperance and things going all Wolf Creek on them. But before we leave the car park the cops are already onto them. The government has spent a small fortune in bringing the Tour here to Margaret River, and it seems the local constabulary has been given the job of recouping as much of the outlay as they can this week. From dawn they’re on the job, Wallcliffe Road has become a mint for them, speed cameras at 20 paces, pinging people who roll through stop signs, there are cash registers ringing. Our local hosts, meanwhile, have simply reverted to navigating their way around the rat maze of sand tracks at the back of Prevelly to get around, leaving just the tourists as a source of revenue.