[Editor’s note: The ASP’s media policy states that surf photographers like Peter “Joli” Wilson, who have documented the World Tour for decades, cannot cover the event without relinquishing ownership of their images to the ASP. We hope this issue is resolved in the near future.]
The battlesong of the new pro surfing republic washed across Snapper Rocks this morning, loud, proud and homiletic. It was Creed's, With Arms Wide Open.
It was March 1st and the dawn of the new era of pro surfing. It was a day that surf fans have been hotly anticipating for over a year since the ownership of the ASP World Tour changed hands. In that time every component of the game had been scrutinized, reengineered and recalibrated to be bigger, better, slicker. It's been bionically rebuilt. Everything has been micro-planned down to detail of both God and terror... Except for the fact that someone blithely hit "play" on their Creed playlist and the futuristic ambience washing over Snapper Rocks was suddenly ruined. Before a wave had even been surfed in 2014 it was suddenly 2000 all over again, as the first day of the new ASP was accompanied by what's been judged one of the most heinous crimes ever committed against music. I could feel my greasy millennial ponytail growing back as I listened, and started looking for a mountaintop as Scott Stapp broke into chorus.
It was an oversight, surely, and I hope my power-ballad polemic doesn't get the poor guy who hit play sacked, but With Arms Wide Open in a way was fitting. This, we're told, is the fan's Tour. The new era is welcoming the masses, taking professional surfing boldly where it has never gone before. Well, the huddled (and heavily tattooed) masses (surely this event in five years time will be sponsored by a tattoo removal franchise) were a little slow getting out of bed this morning, the first morning of the waiting period. The swell was equally lazy. Your correspondent, upon looking at the forecast, had written today off as a layday and was surprised at 8am to see both the men and the women on standby to surf. With juicy waves brewing in both the Tasman and Coral Seas, there didn't seem to be a pressing urge to hit the go button this morning. That point was about to be argued vociferously in the surfer's area this morning, when the surfer's themselves were politely asked to beat it. So used to these decisions being made by a committee of 20 or more interested parties (surfers, judges, contest directors, sponsors, team managers, janitors) all designing a days surfing like you design a camel, some of the world's best surfers this morning were a little taken aback when they were told the decision to surf or not no longer belonged to them. They discovered quickly that now owning 10 percent of the ASP instead of 50 came with some fine print. They'd figured back in late 2012 when they gave up their half-share of the ASP that half of nothing (if the old ASP folded) was still nothing, and had backed the acquisition. Today was the first day under the new owners, and the surfers discovered that day one of this surfing contest was going to feature actual surfing, come hell or high water (7:51 a.m., in case you were wondering). This is entertainment, after all.
And you know what... It actually turned out to be a good idea. It was the girls, of course, who were sent out, although the waves, which had started the day shouldery and weak, improved significantly on the dropping tide and provided a fair canvas to judge whether doubling the girl's prize money had doubled their surfing. "I don't think money’s ever been a driver for any of the girls," offered Steph Gilmore, "but at the same time it's a step in the right direction for the future of our sport." When I point out to Steph that her previous four wins here at Snapper netted her a grand sum of just over $50,000... less than she'd get if she won the final here sometime next week. In fact, if adjusted retrospectively under the current prize money schedule, she would be sitting on nearly a quarter of a million bucks for her past Snapper wins. Quantum meet leap. Steph lost on an interference call that was fair today yet simply part of day-to-day life here at Snapper, but she smiled and on the strength of her forehand carve alone she's in with a big shot at doubling her 50,000 Snapper dollars.
Today, the first day of the new era, might just have had its genesis with the women. The new owners of the ASP have been a little less than forthcoming on how - and why - they found themselves here today. They're a private company and it's their right to keep their private company private. Sure. But while we don't know who is on the ASP board of directors, we do know the Tour is being backed by Floridian billionaire, Dirk Ziff. What isn't clear is why, Dirk - a guitar-slinging non-surfer - has taken a sudden shine to professional surfing. Well, word on street tells us it's not Dirk, but his wife Natasha who is the surfing tragic in the partnership, and it's Natasha who's been the driving force in growing the women's Tour this year. For so long a patronized sideshow to the men, the women suddenly find themselves center stage... and their surfing never more ready to validate their newfound status. Literally, if you'd believe it, the girls are running this town and your correspondent as the father of two surfing daughters for one is not uncomfortable with this in the slightest. Like I said, interesting times they are we live in.
Carissa Moore's heat was worth $60,000 today. Watching the reigning world champ dismantle the tidal-runners on the bank at Snapper today, it almost suddenly seemed unfair... unfair for any girl who might have to surf against her this week. Last year we saw Carissa's long rail turns blossom in a season of good swell. Well, today, she took her rail turns to another level, while at the same time incorporating tight, sparky pocket surfing and a bottom turn so laid over it was hinged on a single outside fin left buried in the water. Halfway through her heat I was not only ready to hand her the heat, I was ready to hand her another world title.
As we last reported, the photographers and filmers are up in arms about having to hand over their (copy)rights in lieu of an ASP media pass. Walking in this morning I half expected effigies of the ASP's media bosses to be burning out the front, but instead it was quite civil. Peaceful even. In fact, few of the recognizable faces who've covered the Tour since Moses was a boy were even here. In there place there were thousands of punters with cameras, from iPhones to Canon 7Ds, none of whom with passes, all of whom about to disseminate their images to internets both here and in other parts of the universe, media pass or not. The only people who seem effected by the new regulations are the photographers who've eked out a meager living by supporting the Tour through some less celebrated years, and if the new regime is all about respecting those who've got pro surfing this far as they've said, they need to throw these guys a bone. As for your correspondent, a word nerd whose rights were safe and a freeloader of some renown, my attention had been drawn to a paragraph further down in the media accreditation form, written in the three point legalese, which stated: "I further acknowledge that ASP is not responsible for food or drinks provided on site and I consume food and drink, and accept services on the Event site solely at my own risk." This was of grave concern to me, and I'm sure to the venerable "Fatty" Al Hunt as well, an ASP veteran who circles the contest buffet like a matador circles a bull, a man who has for 30 years elevated the degustation of the modest contest lunch into an artform. Today I was offered a free lunch, but declined should I come down with a stray case of ciguatera or botulism.
Instead I opted for the flathead and chips special upstairs on the veranda of the Rainbow Bay Surf Club, watching a great day of women's surfing with the matriarch of women's surfing here on the Gold Coast, Joan Peterson. Yep, MP's mum. For a woman now in her eighties - don't be fooled - she's clued on to what the kids are doing out there. "I haven't seen a helicopter out there yet," she offers curtly. I thought she was referring to a drone with a camera, a drone maybe operated by a rogue tour photographer without a pass. "No helicopter... what do you call them? Aerials. The wind is perfect for forehand airs!" Betty White would have been proud. Joan couldn't read the scores on the big screen, but she could see Tyler Wright warming up in a series of plyometric jumps in a surfer's area lined with bamboo chandeliers and pot plants that looked like it was hosting a wedding. "Michael never warmed up like that!" I reminded Joan that indeed Michael never warmed up like that, and that his particular pre-heat routine might not have got through the new ASP's drug testing regime.
The reason the women's Tour will work this year and the reason it will be worth every cent the ASP is investing in it was seen later in the day. Three girls who nobody has breathed a word about in the lead up to today were (Carissa aside) the shining stars of today. Teenage Sunshine Coast wildcard Keely Andrew, Reunion Island rookie Joanne Defay, and the five-foot-two-and-nuclear Dimity Stoyle surfed with a swagger and confidence that less-than-subtly hinted that it's the rising tide of women's surfing that will float everyone's boat. When you're not just watching Steph and Carissa, but watching Dimity and Keely with equally undivided attention, that's when you've got a tour.
And that's what we've got, surf fans.
[Tears of joy running down faces. Welcome to this place.]