I write you today hopelessly buried beneath a stack of surf mags and DVDs from the '80s, '90s and early '00s. My oxygen is running perilously low and I fear, without a brazen plan concocted by a crack team of rescuers to free me from this avalanche of glossy paper and silver discs, my time is short. Before I succumb though, I must share with you what lured me into this most-dire circumstance. Driven by a gnawing question, I was tearing through decades-old surf magazines and videos. My trembling hand reached up for a dusty copy of the 2005 Globe Fiji Pro DVD. A vague recollection of Chris Cote, merry with kava, prancing around Namotu, flashing before my eyes, then the stacks did tumble upon me, everything going black.
You see, I was searching for a time long forgotten. A time before surf contests were broadcast live on the Internet. A time before Joe Turpel, before Martin Potter (as a commentator, anyway) before heat analyzers, even. A time before we spent hours staring at the backs of surfers bobbing listlessly during seemingly endless lulls between sets. I was searching for the answer to a simple question that nevertheless drove me nearly to madness:
Was contest surfing still entertaining even before we could watch it live? Or, maybe more maddening—was it better?
Before the Age of the Internet stretched open its terrible maw and swallowed the world whole, almost every surf magazine devoted the final feature of each issue to recapping the most recent World Tour event. Sure, it was weeks after the contest had ended. But unless you had connections on Tour, or lived in a coastal town that hosted events, this was how you found out who'd won an event, who was leading the points race, who the champ was, or which surfers might be flaming out, embarrassingly. There was no other way. At least none that I can remember. Contest reviews were shorn of the filler, the best, choicest cuts of meat were plucked from the bone. There was drama baked into the telling because there had to be to maintain a reader's interest.
Videos of contests, too, like the wonderful Fiji event mentioned above, naturally, through the editor's scissors, dismissed with the boring, bringing you only the finest of action. During that '05 Fiji event, we see nothing of judging errors, mind-numbing lulls, waves inelegantly surfed just to goose needed points to advance through a heat. We got heat-pulsing action at giant Cloudbreak and ridiculous Restaurants. We got pro surfer antics. We got great music. We got, basically, a modern-day surf movie (or edit), just with surfers in jerseys. It was must-watch stuff.
On a trip to Australia last year, as I laid on a plush, king-sized bed in a downtown Melbourne suite, I flipped through the channels and was surprised to find, on a national sports station, the day's footage of whatever WSL contest was going on at the time (I can't quite remember which one—France, maybe?), edited neatly together in a highlights package. Driving music, interspersed with Turpel and Potter barking excitedly, many fist pumps, exuberant claims—my goodness. No breaks in the action, no moments to catch a breath. Genuine excitement. It was like watching the highlights of an honest-to-god sporting event, dramatic in a way contests rarely are.
Anyway, as I lie here, trapped under piles of old surf media (perhaps a telling metaphor, no?), I can't help but wonder what it means that highlight packages, rather than round-the-clock live footage once sustained us as surf contest fans. Is there a lesson there for the WSL or contest organizers in general? Are the edited gems better for a pro surf fan than real-time broadcasts? Did we enjoy the spectacle more before we had it crystal clear and live? Am I alone in wondering this?
Here’s that Fiji pro video, by the way…