A Place Beyond the Cabbages

The World Title race boils over in Round 1 at Supertubes

Photo: Miller

Slater and Fanning both had performances that reflected the inconsistent conditions in Round 1. Photo: Miller

Growing cabbages in sand dunes is an art form here in Peniche. Nestled behind the beachfront here at Supertubes are miles of cabbage fields; millions of plump green heads sticking out of the sand like enemies of ancient Rome. The water and fertilizer are all pumped in and the fields are tended by hand as they have been since Magellan was a boy. Now, the cabbage is not a sexy vegetable, nor will this be a sexy surf contest, and there's something very right about that. Peniche is not Trestles nor Rio. It's unfashionable and rustic and there could be no more fitting location to play out a world title that needs to be hard earned.

Mick Fanning is staying just out of town, beyond the cabbage fields. Most of the surfers in the contest are. He's betraying his blue-collar Penrith roots and staying in an exclusive and cloistered estate built around a golf course, away from the crowds and away from the cabbages and away from the punch-in-the-face waft of slurried sardines. Two afternoons ago we sat on his verandah, looking out over the North Atlantic, shooting the breeze for a couple of hours. He's at an interesting juncture of his life. He riffed about how, despite his dog dying in February and regardless of whatever happens in Portugal this week, this has been the best year of his life. We talk about the thing that shall not be talked about - the world title - and he offers, "It is what it is". When he says he's relaxed he's not just speaking from the playbook. He's been surfing a fun little creekmouth beachie out the front on his own, and is staying with his coach, Phil McNamara, who works on 11 syllables an hour but they're all beauties. Fanning is in a contemplative phase of his life, sticking his head up out of the trenches of the world tour and seeing what else is out there apart from beating up kids in heats. He's bringing it back to his people. As we talk I remember the day my dog died back in August he'd texted me and offered his best wishes.

When Mick and I talked about the thing that shall not be talked about, he noted that how each of his three tilts at the world title have had a different feel. His first in 2007 was pure red mist. His second, in 2009, when he ran down an injured Parko, juggled friendship and blind ambition. This time around it comes at a time of personal growth when the title will take on more of a life context and may be a springboard to somewhere else. We ponder about how you'd remember 11 world title campaigns (not to mention three lost campaigns) and give them all some sort of individual meaning. We can't decide whether they'd teach you 14 priceless life lessons or whether they'd all simply blur into one long battle scene.

Mick certainly didn't expect what Matt Wilkinson dished out to him today at Supertubes. Like Mick, Wilko also has plenty to surf for at Supertubes, although it's all at the other end of the ratings sheet. He's sitting in 24th and for the third year running is surfing to save his skin at the tail end of the season. Wilko has had a particularly Wilko lead up to this event. The other night his housemates walked in to the smell of steak being cooked and discovered Wilko in bed, eating charred animal from a frypan, naked. His protein-loading worked for him today. Surfing in a wetsuit made to look like fishing waders, Wilko looked right at home as the sardine boats motored past out to sea.

Mick has a steeliness about him at the moment--the same steeliness that saw him win the event in France last week--that beats his opponents before he paddles out. Normally Wilko would succumb to the natural order but today he needed the win as much as Mick, and at this stage of the season it's as much about dueling motivations as it is dueling tuberides. With the dropping tide chewing up the lineup and the gems getting rarer, Wilko tore through the wave of the day, at the same time tearing a hole in the world title continuum.

Matt Wilkinson stirs the pot on the wave of the day. Photo: Rip Curl

Matt Wilkinson stirs the pot on the wave of the day. Photo: Rip Curl

Mick losing today was unexpected. Kelly losing was a downright shock. Drawing 16-year-old trials winner--Jacob Willcox from Margaret River--it was seen as a training drill for Kelly. Jake might have been the under-16 world champ, but the snowy, smiling sapling of a kid was expected to provide novelty value to Kelly's win, maybe scoring himself an autograph later on. But like Wilko, the kid found the best (only) wave of the heat, and closed the rest of it out like he'd been on tour for a decade. In the space of an hour the world number one and two had lost their first heats and while the world title race hadn't exactly been turned on it's head, it had certainly become less a fait accompli.

Kelly had earlier been joking in the surfer's area with Parko about the bodyboarder who'd got up in Parko's grill the previous day. He joked that he'd heard that the bodyboarder had sent Joel in and Joel had obeyed, sans dignity. Half an hour later during his heat it was Kelly yelling at a water photographer, sending him in and splashing water as he sat waiting for a wave that was never going to come. Watching Kelly surf without complete mojo is a curious thing, simply for the fact you so rarely see it. The ignominy of losing to a kid was paled beside the frustration of not being able summon his magic at will. It's just not there at the moment and the more he fights it the more it eludes him. It's almost like you can divide his season in two halves, the dividing line being the priority call in the Tahiti final. The water splashing started there. Up till that point he'd won at Kirra and put on a masterclass at Cloudbreak, and surfing was a joyous and wonderful thing that still hadn't given up all her treasures. But from that point--losing the Tahiti final, losing early at Trestles, watching Mick win France and then losing first up today--he's been surfing uphill. Kelly needs some heat wins here in Portugal if he's to keep himself in range going into Pipe, and with a chummy forecast he's going to have to toil hard for them and he's going to have to find some joy in that toil.

Kelly and Mick losing today shouldn't impact on the title--they've drawn Portuguese wildcards who they should account for--although when the prospect of those heats being surfed today on a dropping swell, a "nines and twos" swell, was raised, they were both quick to shut the idea down. Kelly still hasn't forgiven contest director Dooma Hardman for sending him out into slushy garbage here last year when he lost to Raoni Montiero, a loss that ultimately cost him the world title.

Dooma meanwhile walked up to Mick and barks, "You're surfing. I don't care what you say. Go and get your wettie on." Mick barks back, "Like hell we are!" Hook, line, meet sinker. Dooma grins and we surf another day.

See photos from Day 1 here.