The Doherty Report: The Last Word On The First Wave

Finals day for the Women's Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach

Two mornings ago, as the first heat of the day was about to start, a lone grommet was still floating around in the Bells Bowl, ignoring the beach announcers’ calls to get his ass outta there, the waves too good to simply paddle in. The grommet just wanted one more but was cutting it fine. A stacked set was steaming around the corner and Jordy Smith was sitting there ready for it. The hooter sounded, Hells Bells tolled, and Jordy took off with the kid duckdiving straight in front of him, perfectly in the way, eyes wide and suddenly thinking he should’ve gone in five minutes earlier. The grom washed in down toward the Winkipop Button and hotfooted it to the car park as fast as he could. Everyone was asking who the kid with the red board was who’d almost screwed up Jordy’s wave.

Yesterday, the kid did his penance.

Turns out he’s a Californian grom by the name of Max Beach, who with his red hair and freckles admittedly does look pretty mischievous. Max is here at Bells doing some coaching work with Brad Gerlach, Bells’ newest local. Anyone who’s worked with Gerr knows his surf dojo teaches both the art of surfing and the art of life, so when Gerr heard Max had interloped, he called up Tour judge Dave Shipley and organized for Max to come in and apologize to the panel in person. It wasn’t done to punish a kid whose only crime was wanting to surf perfect Bells, but for him to take something from the experience.

Max and Gerr met the judges today while they were working heats, Max apologized, then got to hang out in the judges’ room watching the heat and seeing it judged live. It was an invaluable experience for a grom trying to make a go of it and Max was kinda pumped afterward. As they walked out, Gerr reminded him of the reality of the surfer/judge relationship. “Remember, these are the guys who can turn your nines into fives. You gotta respect them.”

Speaking of judging, I don’t think in the history of pro surfing we have ever seen a perfect 10 dropped on the first wave of the day. Yesterday, we probably should have. We saw a perfect 10 dropped on the last wave of the day at North Point recently with Seabass, but you’ll never see one on the first wave because the judges have nowhere to go for the rest of the day. Go back and Google Taj Burrow’s wave at the 2006 Mexican Search event. Watch it, then watch it again, and try and understand how it wasn’t a 10. The reason why, of course, is that it was the first wave of the day.

Filipe Toledo shouldn’t surf Bells well. He’s the master short-arc surfer plonked out there on a long arc wave, but Toledo is threatening to turn this contest on its head in much the same way John Florence did at Margaret River. His full rote air spilt coffee all over the contest site, but in concert with three or four violent slashes and a drawn out turn or two, it may have re-engineered the thinking of how this wave can be surfed.

The first wave of the day came in at a 9.77. If it was the last wave of the day, it would have been a 12.

Parko and Jordy both won their heats yesterday morning and shape up as contenders. Both are probably overdue for wins here, while at this point in time, no one knows what either Toledo or John Florence are capable of. They seem ready to cross into a Fifth Dimension at any given moment. Adriano is the one nobody is talking about and that’s nothing new and that suits him just fine.

The key moment in yesterday’s women’s finals came in the very first quarter…and didn’t actually involve any surfing.

From the moment both Courtney Conlogue and Carissa Moore kicked off waves together in the Bells shorebreak, eyeballed each other, and looked at the 250 yards to the take off spot, it was on. The waves had slowed yesterday and priority became more important, so the two girls dropped the clutch and raced each other out the back.

Advantage: Courtney.

There’s nobody fitter on either Tour – women’s or men’s – and she’s even been sprint paddle training with coach Luke Egan in the pre-season. Carissa kept Courtney honest, but Courtney won the race and promptly turned straight around a minute later and rode a wave back to the beach again. She wouldn’t have blown out a candle. Courtney was a physical presence at Bells and by the end of the day she’d outlasted – and outsurfed – in sequence, Carissa, Tyler, then Steph.

That’s some chops.

There’s more to Courtney than a one-dimensional power game. Nobody’s surfing exists in one dimension and there are overlooked elements in Courtney’s surfing that get lost in the feverish rush to stereotype. “I feel I’m very artistic so I’m always changing my lines, but the consistency, I suppose, is power. I love displacing water and pushing through my turns and feeling the wave push back. I think it’s assertive, but not aggressive. It’s me seeing how much I can feel the wave through my feet. It’s like a dance, like Baryshnikov is seamless, but then also explosive off his feet.”

Courtney’s power stereotype met Steph’s grace and poise stereotype in the final, but in the end, surfing had little to do with the result. With the waves slowing and the tide filling in, the final became more tactical by the minute.

I watched the final from the Bells stairs with Steph’s crew, and when Steph paddled for a wave with priority and missed it badly, Zeke Lau turned to coach, Jake Paterson and yelled, “If I did that, you’d be swimming out to scream at me!” Jake replied, “No I wouldn’t…I’d wait till you came in and throw you off the cliff!”

Courtney caught the winning wave with that priority.

Steph lost the final yesterday tactically, after heats both here at Bells and at Margarets where she’s seemed lost. It made me wonder just how coachable someone like Steph could even be. For starters, she’s done everything, and beyond that, her surfing runs purely on feel, which makes it so beautiful to watch but also makes it hard to put in a box.

Still, she leaves Australia leading the ratings, and we have the real chance of a seven-time world champ from a parallel universe to our current seven-time world champ.

Kelly was also watching the women’s final from the stairs, drinking a kombucha and contemplating an afternoon round of golf. He was in good spirits and seemed like he’d washed off the other day’s loss to Mick as he watched a set roll through and break all the way from back Rincon to the beach with nobody even close to it. “There it is!” He exclaimed. “There’s Maurice Cole’s wave!” While he was thinking of golf yesterday, he also had his mind on Wednesday’s new swell. The contest should finish on a fresh, solid, 19-second pulse, although Kelly won’t be part of it. He’ll be somewhere else.

“I’ll be off getting scared or barelled…or both.”

Photo: Joli