On the plane on the way over to Tahiti, I read The Atlantic's recent cover story, subheaded "When did America become untethered from reality?" It describes the steady erosion in what Stephen Colbert described as the "truthiness" of America, eroded to the point where America ironically elected a reality TV star as President to guide them through these fabricated days. As a result, there is no more bad news, just fake news.
Likewise, pro surfing has had issues with its own truthiness. Trying to delineate what's really going on in pro surfing has become difficult in recent times because it's good – all the time – so it was refreshing yesterday that the reality of the situation we face was dealt with square on. The waves in Tahiti will be ordinary, very ordinary, and this contest is on a war footing over the next three days to get it done.
Sitting in the channel yesterday morning, there could be no other conclusion. If it looked bad on the broadcast, then it was a million times worse on the open sea. Sitting in the boat with Timotei, the monolithic Tahitian credited with being the first to ever surf Teahupoo, he simply turned his back on the wave. He couldn't watch. The boat, meanwhile, rocked wildly in the strong onshore. Someone spewed gin and tonic in the back of the boat. John John lay across the front of his ski, half asleep like he was on the lounge at home. It was horseshit horrible, but with a longer swell expected to appear throughout the day and nothing else behind it, well, here we were.
How bad was it? It was so bad, Wiggolly Dantas – the most wave-hungry surfer on tour – couldn't find a 1.5 in 10 whole minutes out there. Parko won the first heat with a perfect 10, although the 10 was comprised of two fives. When someone woke John John up and paddled out, even he wasn't able to give the day a heartbeat, despite the judges pumping numbers into him furiously.
The turning point was Ace Buchan jagging a west peak eight-pointer. It came from nowhere, and looked like every single wave that had broken today fused into one. Suddenly there was hope. The new swell was here.
By this stage, I'd given up on the boat and moved into the surfers lounge, a tent on the point. I was the only one in there, sitting alone in front of a big screen, on a blow-up lounge, with free drinks and a mechanical surfboard, if I felt so inclined. Where was everyone? Ace's eight, meanwhile, had a visible effect on the commentary team, whose spirits were suddenly lifted. Pete Mel surmised that Ace had indeed summoned that wave using powers obtained, not by tapping into the mana – the South Pacific's all pervading spirit – but by reading The Secret. You remember the pulpy self-help craze from a decade ago, where simply through willpower you could bend the cosmos and the occasional set wave to do your bidding? I looked at the fridge in the corner of the surfer's area and I channelled The Secret. I looked at the fridge, stared intently at it, furrowed my brow, and repeated several times, "Ask, believe, receive." I opened the fridge and it was full of water.
The thing about this event is that actually being here – on a three-foot onshore day, especially – the thing doesn't have a visceral presence. It's a Friday here in Teahupoo village, and apart from a handful of French tourists strolling around the place, some swaying palm trees and the occasional dog moving between its favorite sleeping spots, not a lot happens. The surfers simply stay in their houses, watch the contest online, and only emerge to jump a boat out to surf their heat. And what was really noticeable today was how Kelly's absence changed the energy of the whole event…or, more to the point, drained it. It was only Round One, sure, but on a day like this, he was always good to liven it up with some ocean conjuring or some vaudeville shit. And if he was missed in Round One, wait till finals day.
The writing was on the wall that this contest needs to finish on Sunday local time, but Parko – on the phone to his travel agent back home – needed to be sure, so he simply sung out over the fence. He's staying next door to Kieren Perrow, the Tour Commissioner, who is looking at the charts and seeing a week of local southeast junk swell. "But have you seen what's coming on the last day?" KP yells over the fence, messing with Joel. In the end, KP tells him they're finishing Sunday, which means they'd need to run four heats of round two this afternoon, news which was quickly conveyed to Ethan Ewing inside.
The young lad from Straddie, of course, hadn't won a heat in his rookie year, and it was getting harder as the season rolled on to see where that win was going to come from. His seeding was shot. His confidence was shot. Ethan checked the draw while eating fried chicken and discovered he was now drawn against Filipe Toledo, the guy who'd put the jazz in J-Bay three weeks back. Ethan put the chicken down and a familiar ache washed through him.
Filipe was at the opening ceremony the other day, dancing with the Tahitian girls, all hips, all Latino swagger. But Tahiti has been taboo to him. It's almost like that zero heat two years ago – where, on a strong west swell, he simply didn't take off – is still keeping him awake at night. But it was three-foot, whackable, and he was drawn against a young guy totally depleted of confidence. A Toledo win was, as they'd say in these parts, a fait accompli.
By this stage, I've walked back to Papa Teva's house and am watching the final heats with Sebastian Zietz, who's staying in the lagoon bungalow. As Ethan paddles out, Bass is campily singing Queen's, "I want to break free…" referring to Ethan not having won a heat this year. Bass lays a bet with his filmer, Peanut, that Ethan will beat Toledo. Peanut readily accepts the bet, and stakes a dinner at Snack Herevita on it. Peanut is, in his mind, already order poisson cru, sashimi et frites, the house special. He asks if the bet covers the beer tab as well.
With all this interest in who was going to win, the heat started, and it appeared both surfers were trying their best to lose. Ethan sat way up the point and caught rubbish. Filipe just sat there and caught nothing. As the minutes ticked down, both surfers were sitting on a pair of ones. In the shadows, both caught waves, Ethan's a decent tube, Phil's all flicky and timid, looking a fraction of the beast he was at J-Bay. The key moment, it seemed, was when both surfers paddled out side-by-side, racing for priority in the crucial dying minutes, and Ewing wilted. He allowed Toledo to steam past him and take priority. We watched on in disbelief. Did he just give up? It actually seemed like he didn't even want to win, let alone believe he actually could. Clearly, he hadn't been reading The Secret. But Ewing comes from his own Pacific island with its own unique brand of mana – Straddie – and the Gods looked after him, throwing him a wide set. The seconds ticked down, Toledo couldn't find a crumb, and that was it. Ethan Ewing had finally won a heat. It was possibly the worst heat he'd ever surfed with the best result, and it'll be a big night at the Straddie pub tonight.
Belief in The Secret – much like copies of The Secret themselves – was yellowing and gathering dust by the end of the day, and it was all about the mana. Mick Fanning, you'd think, would be more of a devotee of The Secret than the mana, but here was Mick, after cleaning up Josh Kerr in the last heat, thanking the mana for the win. Pottz was all about the mana in his aloha shirt. So was Pete. And suddenly, the fate of this contest was in the hands of the gods.