Facing Off

First impressions of the new ASP World Tour after Round 1 at Snapper


[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.]

I had the pleasure of sharing breakfast with Peter Townend the day before yesterday. Friday, I think it was.

You know, Peter Townend, original Cooly Kid, original world champion, sexagenarian wearer of pink Converse boots...the guy who complicitly invented pro surfing. Over a breakfast of coffee and banana bread at the old Bamboo Flute, we discussed the very start of the very first professional world surfing title in 1976. PT's recollection of the start of the '76 tour--his world title year--was foggy at best, largely due to the fact that he wasn't there.

Michel Peterson was. The least professional surfer at the dawning professional era flew to Auckland for the Amco Hauraki NZ Surfing Nationals without telling a soul, least of all PT. Turns out the New Zealand contest would become the first event of the first ever pro surfing season. MP won the contest but wouldn't see the season out--demons, rallying--while PT would end up grabbing his own trophy from the trophy cabinet of the Waikiki Outrigger Canoe Club in December that year, telling the guy to take the photo, and the first world title was officially official. Thirty-eight years later and here we are with the wheel reinventing itself again. Pro surfing was reborn today at Snapper like a phoenix with feathertips on fire, and PT, for one, could not be happier. Thirty-eight years ago this is where he wanted it to be in 38 years time.

A lot to digest today; let's start at the beginning. On a lazy Coolangatta Sunday morning, I started to believe this was Taj Burrow's contest to lose again. He was at the time in relaxed conversation with his future-ex-brother-in-law Kelly Slater on top of the hill at Snapper. Behind the Snapper dunny block. This used to be the congregating point for all the guys on Tour, until the guys running the Tour built a giant marquee in front of them, blocking the view of the point (and the view of the sun itself). What Kelly and Taj talked about I can't fill you in on. Privacy is a rare commodity in this overpopulated corner of Queensland, but what I do know for sure is that if the world title was decided between March 1 and 31 every year, Taj Burrow and not Kelly would be your 11-time world champion. Taj is surely the greatest March surfer I have ever been lucky enough to witness, and that thought bubble of mine was only reinforced today. Taj again looks born for this wave at Snapper. He's been surfing Rabbits at home in Western Australia all summer--a little more flukey but a lot more powerful sand-barrel than Snapper--and he arrived here today...shit, at age 35 and after several centuries on Tour, TB just arrived--again--today.

But in this era of quantum change, today was always going to be about what changed--not what stayed the same--so let's start there, huh? The first change was the predicted Americanization of the Tour. Watching remotely from San Clemente, Sao Paulo or Medicine Hat, you'd clearly understand that the Americans had control of the levers of pro surfing, and the Australian surf plutocracy had been consigned to ancient history. There have been tumbleweeds blowing down the halls of the ASP Coolangatta office for years now, the lifeless office an avatar for the fortunes of the old regime.

But on the sands of Snapper today, this thing remained very much Antipodean. The ASP tent, while it may have been populated by six Dane Reynolds and five sad Chas Smith wannabes (including maybe Chas himself, so good were the impostors), and a dozen Sage Ericsons (one of whom was exquisitely the real Sage Ericson) was essentially an extension of the Gold Coast itself. But there was no more appropriate prism to watch today's bloodsport through than upstairs at the Rainbow Bay Surf Life Saving Club. It was the land of big schooners, big regretful tattoos, and big schnitzels--surely emu, not chicken--and while the broadcast of the Tour may have changed markedly, the veranda of the Rainbow Surf Club during the Quiksilver Pro week will remain the same for the next several geological eras.

Only that today Mick Fanning didn't win. Mick's always had problems backing up a world title--campaigning, not defending titles, being his forte--but while he looked engaged enough today, he had the misfortune of drawing Dane Reynolds. Typecast, they were the most and least interested pro surfers in the world, but the lines are currently open to interpretation. Dane Reynolds could win this contest. Really, he could. The axis of this planet is skewed enough to make it happen. The waves today only suited the energetic, the enthusiastic, and the engaged, and by some strange alignment of the planets, Dane was all three today and he beat the reigning world champ. While winning a QS contest might be a bridge too far for Dane, bombing him into this draw might be strange enough to actually work. There were echoes of his quarterfinal win against Parko here in 2010 when he surfed today, the only difference being the lack of muscle in the surf. That heat four years ago set the benchmark for what pro surfing still needs to look like today.

And soon after Dane left the water we saw exactly what kind of surfing will win the world title this year, and it came from a least expected quarter. Josh Kerr, take a bow. At the risk of blowing smoke up one's own arse, your correspondent penned this prediction for Surfing World magazine three weeks ago: "This is the year of two schools of surfing becoming one, on the same wave. It's been interesting to watch over the past few years the subtle oscillation between the style of surfing that scores big on Tour. Remember back in 2011 when everyone went loony over giant, single-turn airs? Kelly's twirlybird in New York on his way to the title? And remember when that era promptly died at Bells in 2012 when Mick's rails beat Kelly's spin, and Joel and Mick both went on to win titles without needing to get airborne once? Well, the days of grunt or punt are over...this will be the year of grunt and punt. Good surfing will be rail and tail, and you'll need both to score double figures. The surfing of the guys on Tour is now ready to deliver what formerly only existed in Dane Reynolds movies...or in two or three of his heats when he was on Tour. The judges will demand to see the flow of Joel with the finish of Toledo, and it'll be no longer enough to just be one or the other."

Josh Kerr is prodigally Californian these days but a card-carrying member of Snapper Rocks Surfriders Club and a guy who knows this wave as well as Joel or Mick. On one wave Kerrsy--on a dropping tide that chewed the break up and made it more rip bowl than pointbreak--laid down the blueprint for the 2014 world title. He went rail jam to rail jam figure-eight alley-oop to clean drainpipe to rail jam to oop finish. The space between the notes--Kerrsy's traditional Achilles Heel--were syrupy and seamless, the oop-to-barrel just beautiful to witness. With the forecast decaying and the wave now expected to remain similar to what we saw today, a Josh Kerr win on his repatriated sand is not suddenly so distant a proposition. Hat's off mate.

Oh, and Nicholas Cage showed up this afternoon. Yeah, Nick Cage in a snakeskin jacket. Flanked by hired Hollywood muscle, he somehow managed to get into the VIP area this afternoon where your correspondent had somewhat struggled earlier in the day. Don't they know who I used to be?! Under his hat Cage looked unwilling, unsure, more Charlie Kaufman than Sailor Ripley, more Stanley Goodspeed than Castor Troy, the Hollywood star hiding in plain sight surreally amongst the Sunday afternoon Cooly crowds. The new owners of pro surfing had hinted this new game might tow in some rock stars and movie stars at some stage to get this party started. But while Nick Cage got into the surfer's area no worries this afternoon, a polite, grey and stately Englishman whose history with pro surfing predates Nick's by 20 years or so couldn't get into the surfer's area...despite the fact that he'd kept pro surfing afloat during it's darkest hours. Greville Mitchell, I look forward to catching up with you tomorrow and toasting a new era made possible by your good self. Tally ho, ol' fella.