Yesterday’s report began with your correspondent detailing one of the greatest moment’s of Owen Wright’s young life. It was only 8am in the morning and he’d just climbed in the boat at Cloudbreak after bagging himself three tubes he’ll take to the grave. It was an early sign of great portent. The day would roll out golden and grand and it’s already being labelled by many of the guys who surfed it as the greatest big-wave session of all-time.
Today, Owen Wright is lying on a banana lounge, poolside on Tavarua. Inflatable li-los in a kaleidoscope of candy colours float lazily by. He’s fast asleep. He surfed himself into a puddle yesterday and was tubed and ragdolled and hooted like a schoolboy. The physical and emotional spike provided by yesterday’s swell has left little in the tank for everyone. Owen’s heat is on in an hour but he doesn’t seem to be in a rush to go anywhere. I look over five minutes later and he’s gone, but has only moved five metres and is now asleep on a mattress under a palm tree. It’s a lazy day on Tavarua. Everyone was hungover today, yet no one drank a drop last night. The munificent Cloudbreak session of yesterday was always going to be a hard act to follow. When guys like Mark Healey start calling it the most perfect big-wave session of his life, holding heats the following day in ho-hum-flawless three-foot Restaurants was going to struggle to compete. Desensitised, blissed and fried, it was hard to raise the heart rate today—even though a day featuring three perfect 10s can’t be all that bad, surely.
The murmurings were still there this morning about whether today’s round should have been thrown to the lions yesterday in 20-foot waves. As the last 24 surfers in the event looked across a Restaurants lineup beset with a little high tide morning sickness, a handful of guys were still lamenting a missed opportunity yesterday. “I would have loved to have surfed my heat out there yesterday,” said Joel Parkinson of the waves at Cloudbreak. “Seriously, the comp should have been on. I was heat six and may not have even surfed, I might have been last heat of the day maybe, but seriously we should have surfed. Even though guys were undergunned and I only had a 6’10”, I was asking last night why we didn’t take that opportunity. There were some good points for not running, for sure. The big-wave guys were ready for it, they had jackets, boards—they were ready for it and we weren’t. But the bottom line for me was that all the surfers would have had a chance to get the two best waves of their lives in a heat in the best conditions you’ve ever seen. I dunno…would Tom Carroll and Pottz and those guys have paddled out? You wouldn’t stop them. I think it’s a huge missed opportunity. Would everyone have stepped up with the whole world watching? We won’t know.”
But this was all fish ‘n’ chip wrappers now, yesterday’s news, and there were heats to run as the clock starts ticking on this contest with days of devil wind set to fill in the back end of the waiting period. John John paddled out in the second heat of the morning at Restaurants, wishing he’d done so at 2:40pm yesterday at Cloudbreak. “I would have loved to have surfed those waves in a heat. I had to wait two hours for my last wave yesterday afternoon, so I wouldn’t have minded having those waves with just one other guy for half an hour. They were the biggest barrels I’ve ever seen.” But alas, here he is at three-foot Restaurants. It matters for nought though as the kid shines. He paddles out for his first heat with Ace Buchan and does what he does. He gets barreled four times on his first wave, his ability to slow ‘n’ go in the tightest of barrels is prodigious. On his next wave he mixes a series of tubes with a floater that he loses control of, lays back radically in the flats, only to turn it into the perfect stall for the next section. I watch the replay and it immediately reminds me of Kelly’s late drop at Teahupoo in 2005, the wave that kick-started his renaissance and led to another five world titles (and counting). John, like Kelly, surfs with a sense of theatre and people are hanging off every turn right now. The restaurant on Tavarua is screening the broadcast on the big screen, saving the assembled the trouble of having to pirouette 180 degrees and God forbid actually watch the thing live. After both of John John’s waves the place is rushed as everyone scrambles to watch the replays. He clocks close to a perfect heat and upon his return to the island is mobbed by the Fijian girls working in the restaurant, who all run out and hug him. The island, it seems, has a new favorite son…a point not lost on the incumbent favorite son, Kelly.
John John seems limitless at the moment, and the parallels are there with Kelly in 1992, the year he won his first world title as a 20-year-old in his rookie year. I ask John if he’s feeling it. Whether he can sense everything he touches turning to gold. The perfect 10s, the contest wins, the adulation. “I’m just having fun at the moment,” he replies laconically. “Everything’s fun and everything else is just falling into place.”
Meanwhile, a brace of big-wave chargers—Ian Walsh, Mark Healey, Dave Wassell and Peter Mel—are all sitting around the Tavarua restaurant. Walshy, who along with Wassell scored the waves of the day, is still buzzing. “You were pulling into 20-foot closeouts that just didn’t close out,” he says. Walshy is having some panelbeating done by physical therapist Chris Prosser, and he’s not the only casualty of yesterday. Pat Gudauskas, who along with brother Dane, went above and beyond, is bandaged up like a mummy. The casualty ward gets even busier when Damien Hobgood comes in from his heat, the ass torn out of his shorts after being bum-dragged across the Restaurants reef. The tiger claws across his ass are bleeding and his butt has already swollen like a Kardashian. “I was just putting on a show for the honeymooners on the way up,” he jokes. He doesn’t sit down the rest of the day.
I’m yet to see Kelly paddle out for a heat—ever—and not have the conditions clean up and the lineup pulse on demand, and that’s exactly what happens when he surfs against Fred Patacchia. The tide is dropping and the wind angling more favorably and Kelly wipes the reef with Fred in the opening stanzas. He looks as commanding as John John did in the morning, and as he rides in over the reef on the lee side of the island he surfs the crosswaves onto the beach, pinballing off sections, fading left and right—a trick he first learned here when he was John John’s age. Kelly and John John both surf again in the afternoon and both drain perfect 10s. They sit on opposite sides of the draw, and the promoter’s dream final tomorrow afternoon would see the master and the apprentice squaring up. If the Fijian Gods of wind look favorably upon us, the contest is likely to move back out to Cloudbreak tomorrow, where this afternoon a familiar silhouette dropped into a windblown 10-footer. It was Bruce Irons.