The Doherty Report: Fifth Gear

Recapping finals day at the Margaret River Pro

I had to remind myself yesterday morning that Margarets was still, in fact, running.

As we’d gotten on with our daily lives digging holes and filling them in, it seemed like weeks had passed since John Florence scorched our psyches on the big day. Looking back, we could have just given him the trophy at that point and all gone home early.

Instead, it’s been a boon week for the Western Australian government who’s footing the bill for this event, as surfers have scattered in all directions doing touristy things; quaffing vintage reds, surfing hidden bays, getting booked by overzealous Highway Patrol, skydiving from helicopters, and, if you’re Jordy Smith, spinning up some salmon off the rocks. The foodies have been having a field day with the Tour’s resident gastronome, Pottz, cooking up a storm. Like a jailed mobster, he’s been slicing his garlic so fine for his tomato sauce that it melts when it hits the pan.

The WA Minister for Tourism might, however, want to walk up the hall and have a chat to the Minister for Mining and ask him about the fracking leases perched on top of the local Yarragadee Aquifer, the catchment area flowing into Margaret River. Having the world champion immolated when the water catches fire at Margarets wouldn’t do a lot for local tourism.

The women finished up a few days ago in junky, rising surf, and while the surfing level suffered in the conditions, the result proved trés intéressante.

The sequence of events started a few days ago when Sally Fitzgibbon drew Carissa Moore in the quarters, a heat Carissa was strongly favored to win. For the past two seasons, Sally, who for years has kept Steph and Carissa honest through their run of world titles, has lost touch with them and has had to re-engineer her surfing – style flourishes, and most noticeably, her heat strategy – to stay in the mix.

Their heat started with Carissa inexplicably dropping straight in on Sally. Like, straight in, cold. The liberal interpretation of the interference rule that applies these days, however, saw Carissa escape without penalty. That was the catalyst that fired Sally up and she took the heat, Carissa leaving the water in tears, although we never really found out what the tears were about. It probably wasn’t that big a deal, but set against a backdrop where nothing like it ever seems to happen, you noticed it.

If there’s something the women’s tour needs right now, it’s a little friction.

I get it; the girls all get along, sure, but the shiny vibes have, over time, become too shiny. Watching the women’s tour often feels more like an empowering safe space than a bonafide, badass sporting league. Just count how many times you hear the word “fun” mentioned in the post-heat interviews. Surfing is fun, sure, but surfing heats shouldn’t be. All other women’s sports have abrasive attitude in spades, but the women’s surfing tour comes across pretty sugary in comparison. And don’t worry: it’s a crime also leveled consistently at the men’s tour, as well.

Thing is, there’s an untapped well of friction on the women’s surfing tour bubbling away, but no one goes there. I’ve been on surf trips with a few of the women on tour. Get them started on each other, and it quickly turns into an episode of Mean Girls, so the fact everyone is so damn nice to each other during events gives the whole thing the plausibility of a Pepsi commercial. What I’d give for Lynette McKenzie back on tour.

At Margaret River, however, the pretty picture got crushed a little, and it was Sally Fitz – the sweetest girl on Tour – doing the crushing.

They’d cut the wedlock collars off Pottz and Joe this event, and when Ronnie Blakey asked Pottz who he thought was the male equivalent of Sally on Tour, he had no hesitation in saying Adriano, the guy who gets under your skin like nobody else, and watching Sally surf all the way to the Margarets title, I had to agree. Sally channeled some steely Adriano vibes in taking down Carissa, Steph, and finally Tyler in the final. The waves stole the flow from the aforementioned trio, and Sal shortened her surfing and hustled them to the point where there whole game crumbled. It was a little Machiavellian, but in a way, it was also masterful.

Somehow I can’t see Sal flipping the bird at the judges or giving her opponents free character assessments à la Lynette, but channeling a bit of Andy maybe would definitely knock her opponents off axis. No one is used to dealing with it. We just saw that.

Photo: Joli

Yesterday’s finals for the men were largely irrelevant. It was purely ceremonial, like the Tour de France riding into Paris with the leader drinking champagne, as the reality of this event is that John Florence won it a week ago.

I know we’re guilty of fawning over the guy’s surfing at times when it doesn’t deserve it, but it’s clear that what we’ve seen here over the past week in Margaret River is something paradigm-shifting.

He is, as Pottz would put it, “the best surfer on the planet,” and has the trophy to prove it, but John won the world title last year in third gear. You’ve always wondered what fifth gear looked like, when his surfing, his body, and his boards all came together, and this week, we got to see it. With four 19-point-plus heats in a row, everyone else was only surfing for second. They were just lucky to be able to watch it from the water. It was imperious, and the only way he was going to get beat yesterday was by turning himself into crab food on the inside reef, which he almost did at one stage.

The reality was that the performance gulf between John John and the rest of the field at Margarets was as wide and deep as the Indian Ocean. He mastered Margarets right to the point of toying with it. He mastered the fundamental truth of the wave that you need to surf it down the line first before going anywhere near the top third of the wave, but the reality is that he was doing as he pleased regardless of what the wave threw at him. The drive and sublime release on his forehand hook was breathtaking. He essentially won this contest with one turn, but that one turn was so incredibly nuanced that it looked like 50 different turns, and it was so visceral, and so true to pure surfing, that it would have almost been a travesty if he’d finished any of those waves with an air reverse.

Shit, have I gone overboard again here? Nah…not after that. Not even.

John saved his tricks for the laydays, and even his layday surfing stretched time space. His forehand flip at Margarets and his paddling into Rabbits at the bottom of a stationary six-foot wave looked like someone who’d been beamed down from another planet to surf amongst us. After the final yesterday afternoon, you were waiting for the spaceship to descend and beam their boy back up.

John has shifted the ground under the Tour this week, and the big question is, what happens next? He’s had problems stringing two good heats together in the past, but he’s just strung five together and probably could have done another five. The challenge now is consistency event to event, and he goes to Bells with a blueprint of how to surf that wave, a wave fundamentally similar to the Margies right in how it needs to be surfed.

We’ve seen fifth gear, and we know that nobody can go with him once he’s popped the clutch. If he stays in fifth, we could be in for a short, but dazzling, world title race.