East Side, Wet Side

Notes from Day 1 at the Oakley Pro Bali

No matter how many times you've dealt with it in past lives, nothing quite prepares you for the white-knuckle anxiety of Indonesian traffic. It doesn't matter what form the traffic comes in--the Jakartan wheeled tsunami, the Padang cannonball, or the writhing Balinese dragon--it's a daunting prospect...even as a passenger. While the Indonesians seem to have a proprioceptive sense of where every other motorcycling maniac on the road around them is, and what their next suicidal move is going to be--creating an effect not unlike schooling fish--few white people are mentally hardwired to deal with it. Except for Matt George of course--he's just ridden past our bemo on a matte-black road bike, wearing vintage goggles and a flowing white linen shirt. He appears to still be in character from In God's Hands, although in his current get-up he's also channeling Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. The surf writer/actor/bon vivant and self-confessed dreamer joined the growing army of Western ex-pats here in Bali four years ago and seems to have found his groove, editing the local Balinese surf mag, Surftime, the "single greatest surf magazine on the planet" as his latest editorial modestly professes. He's riding to Keramas to watch the contest, and surveys the scene yesterday afternoon as the entire field warms up for the start of the contest. As Jordy Smith surfs down the line he offers, "Who is that man? I like the look of him. He looks like a young Reno Abellira!"

Walking through the rice paddies, the villas that have grown out of the rice paddies, and the half-built villas still emerging from the rice paddies, the mud soon gives way to black sand, a zipping righthander, and--like a mirage--a resort with pool, bars...and a World Tour surf contest. We're at Keramas and we're at Komune, the impeccably situated surf resort owned by Luke Egan and business partner, Tony Cannon. The one you've seen in a million Instagram shots, the ones with the pool in the foreground and the perfect right behind it. It's hard to believe that only a couple of years ago this was all rice paddies...until you look behind it and everything still is rice paddies. Last year while we were in Tahiti I recall Louie became quite emotional one night when he began talking about his "lights" and we were wondering what he was banging on about. "Maaaaate, me lights are killing me!" He was referring to the lights he was installing here at Komune at the time, stadium lights, lights that are a showpiece of Indonesian engineering, the lights that have somehow tapped sufficient juice from the Balinese power grid to mimic daylight, and the lights that will illuminate the night surfing exhibition due to go down here Thursday night. Unless the locals get overzealous with their burning off in the paddies out back which apparently has a bit of a pea soup fog effect.

"Man, the Balinese really know how to make a chair." Damien Hobgood makes this observation while reclining in a low-backed teak number in the surfers' area early this morning. It certainly beats the plastic lawn chairs you get at every other contest, and the thing he's in would retail for thousands in any overpriced Balinese import store in Laguna or Bondi Junction. "There's not even a cushion on it and your ass don't care!" It's just as well the chairs are comfortable, because we did plenty of sitting around and waiting this morning. "Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the..." the voice on the PA boomed before fritzing to nothing early this morning. It was a prophetic false start for the Oakley Bali Pro. The waves were clean and piping, but nobody seemed in any great rush to kick the thing in the guts and get some heats surfed. We're on Bali time after all, and besides that, before we surfed a wave in anger we had to offer a traditional Balinese Hindu blessing. The morning offering is taken very seriously and solemnly here in Bali, and it required all the gathered pro surfers to sit cross-legged on the beach and offer prayers dressed in traditional Balinese white linen. Somewhere, Matt George smiled.

The surfers have wanted this day--have wanted this contest--for a long while. Most of them have spent long sabbaticals from the tour here over the past few years, guys like Kelly, Jordy, Taj and Joel in particular, and they've looked on in green-eyed envy as the juniors have been pitted and punted themselves silly here every October. This wave might be in Bali but it's not a Balinese wave, at least not the way you know it. There are no neo-classical, diamond-strewn lines running down reefs below Bukit cliffs. Tamam Shud does not play in your head while you surf along it. But this wave has been engineered over eons with modern day performance surfing in mind. This wave will lift the Tour. You watch.

For those without their Balinese bearings, we're actually on the wet season side of the island, smack bang in the middle of the dry season. The tradewinds that brush the Bukit clean during this time of year are actually onshore here at Keramas during the middle of the day, which in theory makes running an event here, now, sound a little wack. "The last thing you want is for the sun to come out," offered Luke Egan this morning, surveying an oily clean line up under hazy skies. The sun would burn through the cloud later in the day, and the first breaths of the onshore wind puffed the second the hooter blew on the first heat, but you know what? It didn't matter. In fact, it transformed the nature of the surfing today, and it's likely to do so for the rest of the contest. The chances of us moving to the back up venue of Canggu (a three-week drive through peak hour Kuta traffic) is remote, so the surfers will need to get their heads around what wins heats out here.

Heat three of the morning gave you a feel for the kind of surfing that will win this event. The barrels of the morning were long gone by the time Taj Burrow, Kolohe Andino, and Yadin Nicol paddled out. In their place were ribbed, muscular walls with a strong air breeze blowing straight into them. Taj surfed with control. Kolohe spun wildly. Yadin, however, spun wildly with control, and his heat win set the blueprint. Jordy Smith took that blueprint to another frightening level in his heat with Brett Simpson and Indonesian wildcard, Oney Anwar. The young kid from Lakey Peak actually held the lead going into the final minutes, but Jordy started throwing his weight around at the lip, through the lip, and above the lip. It was maybe the best performance of his season--and for this sweaty hack The Big Guy should be considered a favorite here at Keramas. Oney meanwhile showed that with a lot of frequent flyer points and the right people in his corner, he has the chops to one day become the first Indonesian surfer to ever qualify for the Tour.

And so after five years the tour is back in Indonesia, and not before time. The ZoSea crew who are currently shaping the new tour for next year and beyond will be watching closely here, and an Indonesian leg of the tour should be a non-negotiable in their plans. Here on Bali or across the ditch in G-Land or wherever you want to plonk it, they'll have our undivided attention. And it goes beyond the waves--they alone demand the signing of an event license. Culturally, both the thousands of years of local culture and the 40 years of surfing culture, adds a flavor the Tour badly needs. If this really is the Asian Century, then the tour needs an event in Asia. The place is alive.

But the true validation of bringing Keramas to the tour this year came during Kieren Perrow's heat. If asked what event on the tour schedule for 2013 is least suited to the Byron Bay journeyman, a cursory glance down the list would see you jabbing your finger at this one; Bali. This wave is hi-fi, high performance, while lacking the necessary life and death element where KP thrives. So then, you could imagine the eruption of incredulity and stoke this afternoon when KP launched a huge double grab air and landed it clean...clean like nobody's business. The surfers' area--to a man--lost their collective shit. They all raced to the big screen to watch the replay, and it confirmed they hadn't just dreamt it. KP, at age 36 and supposedly in his career twilight, had just launched and landed what could possibly have been his first ever air...and it was a doozy.

"That's the best air I've ever seen him do," offered Andy King, who has traveled and surfed with KP for 20 years.

"That's the only air I've ever seen him do!" Retorted Mick Fanning. "Unless you count jumping the step at 15-foot Shipsterns."

It wasn't long before KP's milestone accomplishment was shadowed and then erased from memory by the towering alley-oop that John John Florence performed in the final heat of the day. Sticking around until the end of the day to witness a maneuver of such enormity and magnitude almost made the rush hour return trip to Kuta bearable. Almost.