A Fear of Perfect

Notes from Tahiti after Day 2 of competition

Miguel Pupo needed a near-perfect heat to advance past Yadin Nicol into Round 3. Photo: ASP/Kirstin

It's Friday afternoon in Tahiti and, like on building sites all across the world, next door the work has stopped and tools have been set down and beers are being drunk. The scene doesn't look dissimilar to how it did at lunchtime, the Tahitians never likely to rival the Japanese for efficiency, however after a week of toil the cinder block shell of a dwelling stands and the stout men who put it there toast the achievement.

Workmen of another kind meanwhile are laboring out on the reefs in front of the village, workmen with soft hands but hearts hardened by their adventures on the same reef last year. After a lazy opening day, the Billabong Pro Tahiti notched up a gear or two today. With man-on-man heats beginning and the sword of Damocles hanging above them, a trip back to Faa'a International Airport awaiting the losers, things got a little spritzier out on the reef. It doesn't seem fair to dispatch anyone from this sylvan paradise after only two days, but the forecast is a demanding mistress and the forecast here is demanding heats are run before this lick of southwest swell fades away. Today heats were won and heats were lost and the fine line between winning and losing, barely the thickness of a cigarette paper, was made patently clear.

Losing after scoring a perfect 10 takes a special skill, and Kai Otton has it. At this event last year, he opened his heat against Matt Wilkinson with a perfect 10. He then, somehow, conjured a way to lose after being unable to find a three-point backup score in half an hour of surfing. It still haunts him. "That was pretty much rock bottom for me," he recalls. "Melling (Kai's roommate in Tahiti who he's christened Prince Joffrey after watching Game of Thrones together) still laughs at how sour I was after that. That was pretty shocking cause I needed a result at that time and it was the first wave of the heat so I had 30 minutes to find a three and I just couldn't. I raced home, packed my boards as fast as anyone has ever packed a boardbag, and drove straight to the airport. I was straight out of there." The thing with Teahupoo is that the dark, deep waters beyond the break--as deep as the mountains behind the village are high--have the ability to deliver a Hail Mary or a left hook, depending on who gets it. "It's never over out there," offers Kai. "It never is. Someone can turn around and get two nines in two minutes cause it's a 30 second paddle out, and the wave is coming out of deep water so you never know what's going to show itself."

Kai lost here last year, and perfected the skill of losing with a perfect score when he did it again just two months later in Portugal, opening with a 9.97 against Julian Wilson before capitulating in a bad dream, one where you're being chased by a malevolent pursuer but are running in honey. The two losses developed a special form of neurosis in Otto which results in sweating whenever he scores anything above a 9.5. I Google searched "perfection phobia" but no such condition exists, so Otto's condition I believe is unique. Today against Travis Logie, Otto had flashbacks of last year when he opened with a 9.43, before again searching for a backup score that he just couldn't find. "To be honest I didn't think about it, I just tried to better a score. It took me about an hour, but I did eventually."

Do you sometimes ever wonder why a large finger will occasionally point down from the clouds Monty Python style and touch one surfer on the crown of the head, a guy who will proceed to surf with divine mojo and wheelbarrows of good fortune, while the other guy is left living in a cardboard box? The heat where the paper-thin line between winning and losing was made patently clear today by featured Tour rookies Miguel Pupo and Yadin Nicol. Yadin came into Tahiti after an unlucky year. He'd lost in the second round in Fiji to Gabriel Medina, who opened the heat with a perfect 10 and, unlike Otto, had no problems backing it up. This morning had been slow, and so when Yadin opened with an 8.67 his fortunes looked to have turned. Queue the finger from Heaven touching Miggy Pupes on his young and wooly Brazilian noggin, followed immediately by three waves all topping nine-point scores. It was orchestral. Yadin lost with a heat score that would have won every other heat, and he was last seen headed north in the general direction of the airport in Papeete. "I got out there to see one of Yadin's eight point rides and one of Miguel's nines," says Otto. "I know it's Yadin's first year and it's just one of those things. I remember my first year; I started good but went shocking after. He can turn it around."

Tomorrow the third round is likely to run. At dark here at Teahupoo, there is still enough juice in the swell to get it done if it can prevail through the night. Heats to note include two that have overtones of retribution. Mick Fanning has Fred Patacchia in the first heat of the round, a replay of a Round Three heat last year that effectively ended any chance Mick Fanning had at a third World Title. Joel Parkinson meanwhile has Taylor Knox, who beat him in 2009 and started the rot that would eventually cost Parko a first World Title. The Owen Wright/Miggy Pupes, Damo Hobgood/Josh Kerr, and Kelly Slater/Ricardo dos Santos heats all hold mondo interest, while Kai Otton has drawn good mate, Taj Burrow. If Otto opens with a 10, go to the fridge, grab a beer and sit down, because the following 20 minutes will be entertaining one way or another.