Decompression Day

Notes from the channel as the Fiji Pro heads into the quarterfinals

CJ Hobgood, perfectly in rhythm with the tricky conditions at Restaurants. Photo: ASP

The decompression continues.

Two days after The Big Day, the shock waves are still being felt. Kai Otton got driven so deep by a set during his heat on The Big Day, he contends he's suffering from the bends and is still feeling giddy. In the absence of a decompression chamber on Namotu Island he's devised his own plan to get well. He's in the bar, wearing a pair of goggles and a snorkel with a funnel attached to the end of it. Into the funnel is being poured a notorious local concoction known as a Skulldrag--a mix of rum, gin, vodka and triple sec, with splash of grenadine for colour. As a temporary panacea it works, but Kai doesn't really get right until this morning when he paddles out at Cloudbreak and scores a six second stand-up tube.

Gabe Medina is staying on Namotu Island. When they first arrived, Gabe and his old boy, Charles were the odd men out. The island--Australian owned--is traditionally populated by the Aussie tour contingent, and as such it can tend to get a little rambunctious at times...and downright mutinous at others. Initially, the Brazilian Medinas kept largely to themselves, but the island is cosy, a postage stamp in the Pacific, and over the course of the week Gabe has spent more time with the Aussie surfers than he has in the whole year he's been on Tour. The fact he started winning contests and became a threat the second he walked onto the Tour didn't exactly endear him to his more established peers, and they've largely kept their distance. On Namotu there is no distance, and the Aussie guys on the island are trying to culturally assimilate him. He's learning some tough lessons. Yesterday Gabe was drawn in a three-man heat at Restaurants against his fellow Namotans, Parko and Mick. Over lunch Joel asks Mick, "So what are we going to do to Gabby? We're going to work him over, right?" Gabby is sitting six feet away, in earshot and laughing. He knows the boys are taking the piss. Mick turns it back on Joel. "Mate, me and Gabby are going paddle you up the reef out to Cloudbreak, hey Gab?" Gabe replies, chuckling with a shaka, "So stok-ed." The mood is not so chummy when Gabby beats them in the heat, moving straight to the quarters and consigning both Mick and Joel to today's sudden death round.

With all the local wind around yesterday the swell period has shortened considerably today, and the reef at Cloudbreak is a far trickier read. Parko gets two double-barrels in the morning freesurf, but the decision is made to hold the contest off till the tide drops in the afternoon. Joel's loss to Gabe yesterday means he's surfing against Taj in the first heat of the afternoon. As your correspondent is penning this, Joel and Taj are (spoiler alert) sitting here in the bar on Namotu drowning their sorrows with a beer each, trying to work out the last time they'd surfed against each other. Joel thinks maybe J-Bay in 2007. Taj thinks ancient history. They mightn't have surfed too many heats lately, but they've been through a few adventures together lately. They're in Fiji, fresh off a boat from Indo, where the chopper they chartered to fly them to the airport to meet their Fiji flight almost crashed in the drink.

The broken swell and a southerly wind that won't let up makes establishing any kind of rhythm in the Cloudbreak lineup this afternoon impossible. Joel, who has looked at ease out there for the past week, suddenly can't buy a wave. He tries to get barreled, while TB simply starts throwing big backhand whips and takes the heat decisively. He'll meet Gabriel in the quarters later in the afternoon, where he'll suddenly find himself out of rhythm...and Gabriel will find himself in the semi-finals.

Mick Fanning, meanwhile, is sitting next John John Florence on the marshalling boat. The pair is about to paddle out together in the first quarterfinal, but can't escape the proximity. We're in the middle of a World Tour event, but there are only half a dozen boats floating lazily in the channel and all the guys left in the contest are clustered on the one boat. The quiet is only broken by the Fijian crew from Tavarua and Namotu, who are cheering for the surfers from their respective islands. John John, who looked final-bound, suddenly finds himself heading home.

There's already been one reasonably consequential call made to can the contest in this event, and late this afternoon we got another. The last two quarterfinals were due to paddle out when the wind strengthened cross-shore out of the south. The four surfers involved--Julian, Kelly, CJ and Adriano--pow-wowed and decided to surf on. At least that's what Julian thought. He paddled out in his rashie, ready for war, only to be called back over the PA as sets rolled through. He's not happy. Kelly has changed his mind. Words are exchanged, but it's a fart in a thunderstorm compared to the implications of the event being cancelled on The Big Day. The boys will reconvene tomorrow and the final has to run as three days of devil wind are following. There's hope floating on the South Pacific breeze that the winner tomorrow is one of the guys who paddled out at Cloudbreak on The Big Day and surfed it at its wildest, which at this point would make Mick and CJ sentimental favourites.

Back on Namotu, Joel is in the spa with a beer when Gabe Medina jumps in. "Gabby, what are you doing? You took my boy Taj out!" Gabby, a lot bolder in the presence of these guys than he was a week ago, pumps his fist. "So psyched." He'll surf against Mick in the semi tomorrow for a place in the final. He's got his iPhone with him in the spa. It goes everywhere with him. He may have even surfed his heat with it. "What are you doing?" Asks Joel. "Tweeting your 600 girlfriends?"