As you drive north on the Pacific Highway, just before the Murwillumbah turnoff, you’ll notice, if the car window’s down and the wind is blowing right, the smell of gas. The strong smell of gas. That’s because just beyond the canefields, if you look carefully enough, is an industrial-size crematorium perched in the middle of nowhere. The smell of gas wafting across the highway is a sign that they’re stoking up for the morning burn, and some unlucky ex-Gold Coasters, victims of strokes, highway crashes, liver cirrhosis, bad kebabs and surfing misadventure are all about to be reduced to an urn of dust.
It was fitting, I suppose, as I was driving to Snapper Rocks to watch the first sudden-death heats of this contest and the first burnt cadavers in the draw.
This is usually where I’d insert some kind of comment about the pointlessness and clunkiness of the opening “losers” round, but we know where we all stand on that, right? But once again, we’re going to see an event start in better waves than it will finish in. We’re in a race to beat Monday’s diablo wind that will ruin the second week of the waiting period.
Filipe Toledo wished the devil wind was already blowing for his heat with Zeke Lau, the first of the morning. You had the smallest guy on Tour against the biggest, and you figured Toledo had the inside run despite the lack of an air wind. Thing was, the Brazilian kinda looked flat and a little unenthused…not the bionic molecule we’ve seen here at Snapper the past two years. Enthusiasm isn’t a problem for Zeke Lau.
The onshore wind, however, was up by the time Italo Ferreira paddled out against Italian, Leo Fioravanti. I watched their heat with former Tour surfer – and lifelong madman – Chris Davidson. Davo is living down the coast these days but thought he’d swing by and check out what his old crew was up to. He watched on in disbelief as Italo launched into a giant backhand flat spin on the outside section. He spun so viciously he actually seemed to levitate up there. “Thanks fuck I’m not on Tour anymore!” barked Davo. “He could’ve just kept spinning and helicoptered back to Brazil!” The judges dropped a 10 almost immediately, although not everyone agreed. Barton Lynch had questioned the 10 on the broadcast, more on principle than anything. “I think I’m in trouble,” he said, walking past. “It’s a long pointbreak. What if he’d done another five turns after that? What does that score?”
Losing straight up in the first event of the season is a shit sandwich. A whole off-season of sit-ups and sand dune runs, and where did that get you? A whole season’s worth of bad rhythm can start here, and one loss at Snapper has a way of quickly becoming five.
It seems like Jeremy Flores has been on the wrong end of close calls for as long as anyone can remember. His surfing has been razor sharp for a couple of years but he can’t cut a break. He wore another one on the neck here the other day when a last-minute Mick Fanning score consigned him to this shitty second round by a bee’s dick. Jeremy’s trademark volcanic Gallic reaction, however, didn’t eventuate. He just kinda sagged and sighed. Here we go again. But yesterday morning, it tipped his way. Needing a big seven in the death throes of the heat, he found a wave and surfed it well enough for the judges to make it close, but, well, you know how these things end.
Only this time, they gave it to Jeremy by three-hundredths of a point and the weight of the sky lifted from him.
Halfway through the day, I lost interest in the backend of the round and stumbled on an exchange on Brad Gerlach’s Instagram account. It had been sparked by Gerr’s offhanded comment, “Kelly’s board overall looked too small and light to me.” A dozen commenters boldly followed, all in furious agreement, teeing off on Kelly’s board from the other day. His inside rail was bogging, the board was too discy, no flare, made in Thailand. They forgot one thing. He’s always watching. The comments bar in Gerr’s account fell stony silent as Kelly strolled in, pulled both his guns, and started popping off commenters one by one. Clean shots. It was a bloodbath. And the opinion of this commenter? Well, Kelly’s boards – and his surfing, and Kelly himself for that matter – have never looked better.
My interest was re-engaged when the women paddled out. Yesterday afternoon, there was an amazing correlation between the women not being sent out in knee-high onshore mush infested with Portuguese man ’o’ wars, and a dramatic increase in their performance levels. Who’d have thought it? It had actually started late yesterday afternoon with Lakey Peterson…at least, it said Lakey Peterson on paper, although her surfing the other day looked closer to Kolohe’s. She lit it up, and yesterday afternoon, the other girls carried it on, right across the board, the final 12 all relishing the spinning rights on the inside bank. Steph Gilmore might have lost her heat, but put on one of those art/performance pieces she’s famous for, featuring cheater fives, deep tube rides, some Alby Falzon-style vibes, and playing matador with sections as she flew down the line.
So with this contest now with a Sunday afternoon deadline, before days of northerlies set in, the men were thrown back out until dark.
With his luck changed, the now unstoppable Jeremy Flores paddled out against Matt Wilkinson, the defending champ here at Snapper. The rule here at Snapper is that when the bank is behind the rock, regulars win. When it’s down the point, hello goofies. Wilko won down the point last year and with the lower end of the bank grain-perfect, he must have liked his chances, and he led for most of the heat. Jeremy was left chasing a score and with seconds to go – wouldn’t you believe it – he got piped all the way through the inside. Considering his changed fortunes, he just waited for it to rain numbers, and it did…only he fell half a point short. He wasn’t angry, more baffled. “But I got barreled?” He said as he walked back to the surfers area. He clearly didn’t get yesterday’s memo about tuberides being the new floaters.
At that point, Armageddon broke over the Gold Coast, and as the sky cleared, the figure of Joel Parkinson flying down the point came into resolution, drawing languid lines down the point, spaced with vertical drives at the lip. Then he got barreled. Then he got barreled again. He ended up at Kirra, and if the waves stay true to the forecast, I’d like to see the surfing that’s gonna beat him this weekend.
By this stage, the tide had dropped and the end section was beginning to impersonate Kelly’s Lemoore wave ranch. But perfect counted for little on the scoreboard…just ask Caio Ibelli. He parked himself inside the most perfect sandbar tube you’re likely to see for just a seven.
John Florence hasn’t broken second gear this week, but paddling out against Maddog Mike Wright, you guessed he might need to. It’s been a big few days for the Wrights, obviously, and Mikey might be channelling the emotion around his brother’s return to the Tour. His sister certainly has been. With the tide still dropping, someone at some stage this afternoon was going to paddle out and sit behind the rock, and the guy with the mullet looked just crazy enough to do it. When Mikey came flying out of the behind-the-rock barrel, Two Johns was facing a pretty serious test and suddenly started fumbling for fourth gear. He found it with three minutes to go, surfed it calmly enough, and probably got the shake-up he needed.