Out fishing the other day here in Fiji, I'd heard a story about a mutual friend pulling in a yellowfin, slicing it open as it fluttered on the deck, cutting out its beating heart, eating it, then discovering – if only in his own mind – that he now possessed some kind of primal animistic power, which manifested most potently out in the surf. He was suddenly the tuna god. I thought that, at the time, as a winning strategy here in Fiji, it would be without peer. The story alone would ensure you'd have the peak to yourself. Whatever supernatural powers you assumed would simply be a bonus.
The fish, to their credit, have been on the chew. We filled The Duck – Namotu's fishing tender –with wahoo and mahi two days ago, a couple of rainbow runners, and one sad, scaly, foul-hooked longtom. The fish having escaped the Chinese factory boats working the horizon but fallen instead on the drop-off to the humble Duck. Sea Shepherd has the Chinese factory boats on their radar but might just find sinking The Duck a better net result for the ocean.
I jumped in the boat yesterday morning, looked down, and found my shorts covered in congealed fish blood. Something big and bleeding had been hauled over the gunwale the day before, and its life-claret was now soaking my shorts. The putrid, metallic smell would eventually permeate the entire contest boat to the point where I simply borrowed shorts and throw the bloodstained ones into the ocean.
Before the trifling matter of finals day, we need to an update on the alternative Fiji Power Rankings.
As reported earlier, the original list caused quite the stir on both islands. In the wake of a WSL memo telling event staff to stop stealing waves off wave-starved millionaire pro surfers, the list was quickly dubbed The Pest Rankings and proved a bit of a running joke with crew on both islands…with just one exception. My lack of facts, lack of credentials, and lack of world titles were all called into question by one member of the original list. Regardless, with the contest wrapping, I felt compelled to update the list, and here it is, counting down:
5. Yago Dora: The unwritten rule of the tour contest is that after you're knocked out, you're outta here. The Brazilian kid lost a week ago but his freesurf numbers since have been through the roof.
4. Pottz: Has dropped a spot since last week, due to the fact he's spent so long marinating on his inclusion in the original list that he's actually missed surfs as a result. Plus, I've been g’d up to re-include him by all his mates, so, ladies and gentleman, here he is.
3. Glyndyn Ringrose: Don't be fooled by Ringa's saintly demeanor. His access to a ski means he doesn't miss the early, the late, or the lunchy. Paid the price yesterday when he washed onto the reef and limed within an inch of his life. When called out by surfers, he barks, "Check the ratings!" He's actually there after winning the trials at Bells.
2. Renato Hickel: The WSL Tour Manager and author of the original memo has, himself, hypocritically, been regulating the lineup. The lineup in question, however, has been Namotu Left, the longboard and kiddies wave out front of the island.
1. Kai Garcia: Borg is a deserved inclusion in the list on the strength of his surfing. And on the fact he told me I probably should.
As we drank coffee at 6am and surveyed the waves, the lads picked it as a diamond. There's an art to telling what Cloudbreak is doing from Namotu, three miles away. The Love Shacks section up the reef gives you the size, the reef straight out front gives you the wind, and you just put them together. They thought it would be good, and it was. Kelly is still smarting they ran the other day, the day he lost, and his mood wouldn't have improved when he saw Cloudbreak yesterday morning. Kelly woulda been all over it, and with another new swell due late today (bigger, better), be prepared for several Internets full of Kelly surfing Cloudbreak tomorrow to prove the point.
It wasn't quite standing up square on The Ledge, so the inside racetrack was key…but brother, it was quick. Like a tear through space-time, it drew you down the reef, crushing you smaller and smaller, until you became one with a single dry point. It was a day that looked like a goofies' picnic.
The first quarter seemed to hold the winner.
Wilko and Julian Wilson have made the last two finals here respectively and it was immediately clear both intended not to lose. They quickly disappeared up the Top Shop and paddled themselves so far up the reef that you needed binoculars to spot them. But just as the heat started, Wilko, suddenly the tactical mastermind of the Tour, bellyboarded a wave a hundred yards down the reef. The siren blew and from the sweet spot on the reef he went to work before Julian knew what was happening. The first eight was part of the plan, the second – jagged paddling back out – was some blind luck. But within mere minutes, he had 17 points on the board. Jules never recovered, and when the pair later broke down the heat together, that first gambit of Willy's was the key.
In the background of their exchange, if you looked carefully enough, you might have noticed Stu Kennedy listening in. Stuey had just gone down to Parko, and the arm he was holding behind his back as the pair talked for the camera was holding a 10am beer. And why not? He'd been horribly unlucky to lose, and in his gloriously unfiltered way, had not only in his own post-heat interview said that with a beer in him, he could've surfed like Trent Munro out there, but he also said that maybe Parko had got a few "world champ points" from the judges on his winning wave. The Tour may have its new cult hero. Stuey, now in his second year in elite company, is finding his range. Possibly the whitest guy you'll ever meet, he spent the bender night here on Namotu emu-dancing to the Warumpi Band. The following day during a discussion on the placid nature of dolphins, he placed both hands on the table and said, "Whaddaya mean? Dolphins? Dolphins are assholes!" And how do we know they aren't? Has anyone asked them?
I'd watched the Wilko/Julian heat from the contest ferry with Leo Fioravanti, the Italian rookie who has won more heats this contest than he has all year, which wasn't hard…he hadn't won a chook raffle until earlier this week, but was about to paddle out for the quarters. The young Italian speaks five languages, a fact I'm sure you've been made aware of, and was speaking Fijian the other night after necking a skulldrag. His stepdad/Tour dad Stephen Bell has also got him speaking Australian, and Leo warmed up for his heat to AC/DC's TNT as loud as he could play it. As Leo waxed his board and sang the chorus, "T-N-T", Seabass, listening on, started singing, "It-a-ly! Oi! Oi! Oi!"
At this point, it looked like Michel Bourez might be the one to crush Wilko's perfect little picture. He has been playing Bonestorm out there all week…in a gentle, Tahitian way. During his heats, you're waiting for him to swim down, break off a chunk of reef with his hands, and just chew some nutrients out of it before paddling off and throwing tectonic turns at the lip. Then he gets back on the boat, and when congratulated on winning, in a lulling, Pacific paean, simply says, "Thank you, brother." He's a big-hearted, lovable beast of a man.
Most thought Michel's semi with Wilko would decide the final, and it came down to a last-minute wave for Wilko. When the score was read, half-a-point to the good for Wilko, Michel simply bowed his head graciously and paddled off to the ferry. At that point, the last Tavarua surfer exited the contest and the whole of Namotu Island evacuated in longboats for the channel at Cloudbreak. The only person left on the whole island was Adriano De Souza, who would also be the only guy on the island you'd trust with an unguarded bar.
The second semi featured Parko and Tour rookie Connor O'Leary, whom to that point had both progressed with the odd flourish but nothing that was going to tear the contest a new asshole. That was all happening in the top half of the draw. I watched their semi from the channel with Luke Egan who was betwixt the two. Louie's coaching the Cronulla rookie and doing a pretty good job of it, but the history is with Joel, Louie having added some hard edges to that most viscous of talents and helping Joel to the unreachable world title. By this stage, Connor, in a masterful tactic hatched by Louie, had switched focus to the inside reef. The big kid drained a tube, a sublime cylinder that looked like an ad for a Mentawais resort, and found himself in a Tour final.
Wilko reaches peak comedy early in the day, between 7am and 8am, between his first and second coffees (the hours between midnight and 3am are generally pretty good, too). At breakfast the other morning, he was telling the story of trying to kiteboard the previous afternoon. "Fuck that!" He barked before extrapolating the experience beyond kiteboarding. "I'm not doing anything new in my life ever again! I'm only doing old shit I know I can do!"
He knows this ain't true, though, and we've seen that this week.
His forehand has evolved remarkably, possessed by the ghost of Occy in his prime – wild, spontaneous, just enough time for a hair flick, a fraction of a second from disaster but always in control. His feet are either going through his board or hanging on weightless by his toes, nothing in-between. He spent a week in the Maldives with Owen prior to coming here, the pair scoring a perfect southern atoll left to themselves, all day, the wave looking something just like what he surfed yesterday. He came here ready.
Wilko has christened himself The Tugboat and was as reliable as one today, right up to the point where he fell on his first two waves in the final. Surely not. He'd been the best surfer all contest, but the Shire kid was pushing him, taking cues from Wilko himself and surfing with his toes over his tail, pushing as hard as he could go…and it was almost enough.
I debated Wilko's final wave with Parko and Kieren Perrow, and we had it a 2-1 split in Wilko's favor. The judges agreed. Kinda had to argue otherwise after the surfing they'd seen from him this week. It wasn't quite John at Margaret River, but it was a statement nonetheless…and if that wasn't enough, he's now wearing the yellow jersey again, a year after he first wore it to everyone's disbelief. It's currently soaked in Skulldrag and caked in sand and, just like last year, he won't take it off for three days.
[Featured Image: Matt Wilkinson, Photo by Glaser]
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