The Lords of the Fly

Huge upsets at Moche Rip Curl Pro Portugal

John John Florence, on his way to posting a perfect 10. Photo: ASP
John John Florence, on his way to posting a perfect 10. Photo: ASP

Watching on from adjacent corners of the globe you’re probably struggling to comprehend what’s been happening here in Portugal this week, and today only got stranger.

Over the past week not a day has gone by without some outrageous surfing act being beamed out of here, the coast seemingly drowning in swell, middle-aged men are spinning in the sky, and yet not a heat in the contest was being surfed in anger.

Two days ago under at a rivermouth righthander to the north of here, John Florence freefell into a wave no one else would take, a black 10-footer, and proceeded to get barreled the length of the bank. Two of the guys who pulled back on it – both in the top 10 – would say it was the craziest wave they’d ever seen ridden. Kolohe Andino surfed the same rivermouth yesterday, and got barreled for a hundred yards and landed a giant alley oop at the end of it. He was so excited his arms were still raised in the air when he arrived at the beach this morning at Supertubes.

And I can presume you saw Kelly’s wave, right? I’ll spare you the clickbait “Was it really a 540?” technobabble article and look beyond the turn itself for a second and look for some deeper meaning.

Kelly hasn’t looked like Kelly for much of this season. Apart from the predictable virtuoso performance at Teahupoo his surfing this year has actually started to look like the surfing of a 42-year-old. He’s currently sitting in the world title frame but the surfing that’s put him there has lacked the same compelling life force of previous title years. A world title just hasn’t seemed fated like it has in the past. That was until two days ago.

When he landed the double-spin it did a number of things. It put every “air” guy in the world in front of a mirror to have a long, hard look at themselves. It more than likely ensured Kelly Slater will still be on tour at age 50. But in a more immediate sense, it meant the world title that was Gabe Medina’s to lose has suddenly become mucho interesting indeed.

Last year Kelly lost here in Portugal to a Portuguese wildcard in chumpy two-foot surf, his world title chances cooked, and he left here a miserable wretch. Since landing the air down the beach at Baleal two days ago he’s been running the town. He’s developed an Ali swagger and has been scouring the coast for the nastiest, heaviest surf he can find.

He drove up the coast yesterday, past an abandoned golf course development and stumbled upon a big, slabbed out left, and put on a show. He then came in and did donuts in his hire car then went back out and surfed all day till dark. The omnipresent Mayor of Peniche, who has spent the past week kissing babies, hugging pro surfers, riding on jet skis and generally schmoozing anyone involved in the contest was suddenly playing second fiddle. Kelly is back, and his 720, 540, 810 or whatever it was became the opening gambit in a belated charge for the title.

As Kelly was being interviewed on the beach afterward by a media scrum that had grown out of the sand, calling out the kids and the aerialists, his double rotation growing in degrees like a trophy fish, if you looked hard enough in the background you would have noticed a figure in a grey and orange wetsuit in the background who’d just surfed down the beach and was walking to the car park. Gabe.

Kelly needs ratings leader Gabe Medina to crumble to dust under the pressure, although the chances of this seemed slim yesterday afternoon when Gabe was dancing on the tables at the Atlantico Hotel. He’d just won a hand of poker from his Brazilian amigos and was celebrating. Gabe has his family, his extended family, his entourage and a legion of Brazilian media here with him, and the hotel has been turned into campaign headquarters. And if he’s feeling any pressure at all he’s definitely not been showing it. In fact he looks more relaxed now than he has at any stage this year. I chatted with him the other night as he was quietly drinking a coffee and he exuded a Zen-like calm.

I was halfway through my ritual coffee at 6am this morning when I looked down and noticed a winged bug the size of a matchstick backstroking around in it. When I got down to the beach soon after the air was thrumming with all sorts of critters, as an unseasonably warm and wet run of weather has hatched a multiverse of insects from the onion and cabbage fields surrounding the town. Fortunately, for the past week the wind has blown them all into the exclusive Praia Del Rey golf course estate just north of town, and all the pro surfers who stay there to avoid having to mingle with the great unwashed in town – locals, sardine fishermen, dreadlocked white guys surfing soft tops – have been experiencing an Old Testament plague of flies and bugs invading their villas and buzzing furiously in their ears and noses.

But this morning the wind switched, blowing them back into town while also finally smoothing out the waves at Supertubes and allowing the contest to get going again. At dawn it looked like big, dumb Backdoor. The waves were mission brown and brutal, and if you pulled into anything you needed a miner’s lamp in there to see where you were going. This morning at Supertubes was pretty typical of the surf here in the past week – there was a ton of swell, there were some very angry waves, but you had to deal with a lot of crazy ocean to find them. The highlight reel from this event – as it is every year – will look great, undoubtedly, but to watch the event live and see miles of closeouts in all directions is to get the true perspective on how hard the gems are to find.

John John might well win the contest, maybe as early as tomorrow afternoon. Sitting watching his round three heat with shaper, Jon Pyzel, the kid dropped into a tank, just avoided the guillotine and was spat out the end to the cheer of the 10,000 strong crowd. “Well,” he chuffed, “tens work fine for me.” It was one of the easier perfect rides the judges will award all year and keeps the phenomenal roll of John John Florence going. I predicted after France he’d win both of the last two events on tour – Portugal and Pipe – and nothing I saw here today and over the past couple days is changing my mind on that.

John John aside there weren’t a lot of highlights out there today. The day started with the second round, which saw a minestrone of motivations on display. There were a few guys desperately trying to save their careers, however they were vastly outnumbered by guys who seemed like they didn’t really give a shit. Backmarkers and mid-trackers in the ratings without much to surf for surfed accordingly. They weren’t helped by a typical Supertubes lineup that looked like a different break every three minutes. The highlight of the round was the Portuguese crowd going absolutely batshit loco when their boy Tiago Pires was surfing. Tiago, a likely future President of Portugal, has felt the weight of expectation in his home event and in five attempts has never made it out of a single heat here. Well, today… he made it six. The pinnacle of the crowd’s excitement was reached when Tiago managed to paddle out after being pinned in the impact zone for 10 minutes.

And so round three started and all interest was in Kelly and Gabe, who surfed in consecutive heats. World title scenarios were flashed up on the screen. The two guys they respectively surfed against ran down for their heats and no one even noticed. People were already looking at the draw and who Kelly and Gabe would meet in the finals.

And that’s when shit got weird.

Against Brett Simpson, Gabe forgot that it was his best two waves that were scored, not all his waves added together. He prowled the lineup in 50-yard sweeps, trying to find his waves. Simpo meanwhile, let the waves come to him. Gabe trailed late, and his entourage were contemplating his early demise when he pulled into a gummy inside tube, threw a couple of turns, then – bizarrely – paddled in with two-and-a-half minutes to go. Why he chose to paddle in we still don’t know, but the working hypothesis is that he thought he’d done enough, and that by coming in and making it his last wave, it dropped the judges in the proverbial acid bath. Suddenly, as he walked up the beach amongst a rabid crowd chanting his name, the ghosts of the 2012 final were summoned. Surely the judges wouldn’t take a crucial result off him in Portugal again.

They did, and they were right.

Gabe initially looked confused. The calm of the previous day, well… screw them calm! He paced between his Mum, Charlie, members of his entourage, receiving consoling hugs and backslaps on the way, before heading into the locker room where the sound of something being turned into matchsticks was heard. He re-emerged with his boards under his arm and disappeared into the sand dunes. Somewhere in storage there are several thousand Gabe Medina world title T-shirts that will now be shipped to Hawaii.

I’d been sitting next to Kelly while most of this was going down. His schadenfreude was actually quite restrained as it became clear his main rival for the world title was going bye-byes early. He sat there and simply explained that on a day like this, you were just as likely to get two ones as you were a perfect 10, and the difference between the two was largely out of your control. It was prophetic because Kelly never looked like getting past Aritz Aranburu, his scores closer to ones than 10s.

The world title will not be decided in Portugal, and maybe this in itself is right. The Portuguese were eager to crown a champ – Medina, obrigado very much – and claim him as their own. I’m sure the Mayor of Peniche was already measuring up the billboards around the town and having the photos of he and Gabriel smiling shoulder to shoulder blown up into election posters. Gabe, the Crown Prince of Peniche. A little bronze somewhere maybe. But it won’t be. Speaking with Francisco Spinola, the commercial mastermind largely responsible for making Portugal the new centre of the pro surfing universe, said it best when asked about Gabe losing today and the crown going to Pipe.

“As a businessman, it’s not ideal. But as a surfer, it seems right.”