This photo of Dusty Payne was taken during round three, heat 15 of the 2010 Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach, while Dusty was surfing against Kelly Slater. I know this because I was there. And just minutes before this shot was taken I was sitting with Dusty, asking about his daunting upcoming heat with Sl9ter. I sat and subtly pried at the World Tour rookie: “Are you nervous?” “Is he one of your heroes, too?” “How you gonna beat him?” “Do you think his foot is really injured, or is it a Kelly mind game?”
Dusty didn’t look too concerned, though. “I’m going to go about it as usual. No different than any other heat,” he said, chewing on sunflower seeds.
And what you see here is apparently what he calls “going about it as usual”: a first-wave, first-maneuver tail-blow nose-pick during a wave-starved heat at Winkipop. Not exactly conservative; not exactly safe — in fact, you might argue, not exactly smart. It was high-risk on several levels, and yet Dusty and his like-minded peer group know no other way.
So what’s the problem with the shot? Well, Dusty lost. Kelly won with a pair of low sevens.
While I doubt it’s a heat Kelly will remember for his own performance (after all, he did have an injury), he made it through to round four and actually ended up winning the contest — and I’m pretty sure he remembers that. As for Dusty, he got the photo and a ticket home that night. But staring at this image, I’m confused as to who really won. And it has nothing to do with scores or podiums.
The past few decades, competitive surfing has been ruled by surfers with a classically trained competitive mindset. It’s been dominated by those who want to win at all costs, those who will stop at nothing to pop the Champagne at the end of the final. They’d pray for lulls if it meant a victory. Paddle battle. Get all Dingo and grab for a leash (allegedly). Scratch at priority buoys. Grind three to the beach. Anything to surf another day. Lombardi dudes with the “Winning isn’t everything — it’s the only thing” mentality. But maybe that’s not how we’re supposed to do it in surfing.
I’d like to think there are a few guys on tour right now who care more about surfing wave for wave and putting on an exhibition of good technique than they do about making it through in some less-than-graceful fashion. They’re a new guard of competitor whose style of success comes with fewer bold statistics and more street cred, whose competitive style is shaped by the other side of the brain. Think about the likes of Dusty, Dane, Jordy, or Matt Wilkinson, Owen Wright, Pat Gudauskas (if a rodeo at Teahupo’o doesn’t catch your eye, you may need glasses). Even Josh Kerr, if they’d stop denying the man a damn wildcard. These guys are less run-out-the-clock, more slam-dunk-and-shatter-the-backboard.
I know for a fact that Dusty wasn’t stoked to lose that heat at Winki; his blue Holden rental peeled forcefully out of the parking lot right after the heat, stranding Dane, his roommate, at the contest site without a ride. But the fact that this photo of Dusty, in his rookie year, going for this maneuver against Kelly Slater, is getting run in our magazine — in a jersey (something we’d have deemed an unconscionable sin under normal circumstances) — represents so much more than a round-three win would have. It represents change. So when you think about who really wins in this instance, I think it’s pretty easy to see it’s us, the surf fan. Now tell me if you see anything wrong with this picture. —Travis Ferré