Well, can't say I saw that coming.
Kelly sure didn't.
And definitely not Joel.
In light of today's events in Fiji your correspondent might refrain in the future from calling laydays in advance. Kelly might make his entrances in the future more fashionable than late. Parko, meanwhile, might keep the number of long-range deep-sea fishing adventures he embarks on in the middle of World Tour contests to the bare minimum.
The Volcom Pro Fiji started today in near flawless surf at Cloudbreak, and before we plunge too deeply into what went down, let's examine for a minute what didn't. Kelly and Parko for starters. The defending champ and the defending World Champ were no-shows when the contest was called on at 9:30 this morning, both of them caught off-guard by the early landfall of a swell pulse that most everyone thought would see the contest start on Thursday...Wednesday at the earliest. Before we hear their respective stories, the interesting thing to note here is that of all the surfers in the field they are the two with the most experience here at Cloudbreak--Joel first surfing here 17 years ago, Kelly 23. If Joel and Kelly--with the aid of the every forecasting particle collider known to man--are this unsure of what's going to be out on the reefs tomorrow morning, that tells you it's a tough read. Today was forecast to be small on a long period. This generally means long waits, not conducive to three-man heats. What got both Joel and Kelly however is the glut of swell on its way. This looked a warm-up day at best, and plans were made accordingly.
Kelly is due to fly into Fiji tonight, a day late and a buck short. He's been back in Florida playing a game of brinkmanship, juggling the birth of his nephew/niece with the arrival of the Fiji swell. You're all familiar with Kelly's MO of bombing in late after the waiting period. Over the past eight years he's refined it to an artform, and unless the waves are firing leading into a contest, his first sighting at most events is in a contest rashie. He's even bailed from contests during waiting periods and chased a swell in some other far-flung state/country/dimension, only to make it back in time to surf his next heat. Well, this time it caught up with him. Those who've spoken with him on the phone over the past couple of days have intimated he's far from twisting himself in knots over it. To paraphrase the conversations: "If I make it in time, I make it." Remember Kelly only needs to safely set foot on Fijian soil and this contest changes immediately.
While Kelly was mid air above Palm Springs when the hooter blew on his heat, Joel was in the middle of the Pacific, a hundred miles from Cloudbreak, gone fishin'. Before we offer a forensic examination of the comedy of errors occurred that led him here, in Joel's defense, he's been on fire with the fish. He's been live-baiting off the back of Wilkes Pass and the Spaniards have been literally jumping in the boat to keep him company. He's been having the time of his life. And the great battle here in Fiji, when you come to surf this contest, is that there seems to be no battle. The red mist of competition just blows away on the trades. You feel on holiday. The drinks have swizzle sticks. The palm trees sway. And if someone offers to take you fishing, it can be goddamn hard to say no.
So when Joel was offered the chance to do an overnight 24-hour deep-sea fish to the wahoo grounds off the south of Viti Levu, he scoured the charts, made a couple of calls, and was soon packing his rods. The famous last words, spoken shortly before he got on the boat at 1 a.m. this morning, went something like: "There's no way the contest is gonna run tomorrow."
Joel's phone finally stumbled into phone range some time around 9 a.m. and somewhere well out of sight of the Fijian mainland. The line was scratchy as I spoke to him.
"Mate, the contest is on!"
"Fffff... yeah, right!"
"I'm not bullshitting ya, mate."
"Stop wasting my fishing time with your dumb jokes."
"It's no joke, mate. Cloudbreak's four-to-six and pumping. Your heat's on in 90 minutes."
"Bullshit. Give me someone else."
I handed the phone to Kieren Perrow, the Commissioner, the Big Cheese.
"Mate," said KP, with a note of resignation. "It's on. It's pumping."
I couldn't quite make out what Parko said in reply, but Kieren had to hold the phone away from his ear and grimaced. There were futile talks about helicopters, but nothing short of the Tardis was going to get Joel to his heat on time. Kieren handed me the phone back and I asked Joel whether he'd caught anything. He'd hung up.
Joel will not want to watch the highlights of today. What appeared on the forecast to be the least inspiring day of the next six, was one sent from the Gods. One after the other they marched in: long blue wormholes in the Pacific, backbreathing, drop-perfect. When the opening heat between Jordy, Fred and Seabass found themselves staring at a magazine poster they've collectively had on their walls since kids, the signs were there it was going to be quite a day. In the channel, Kelly's minder Stephen Bell crossed paths with Joel's equivalent, Wes Berg. Belly asks, "Is Joel really fishing?" Wes replies, "Is Kelly really flying in tonight?" Both shake their heads and laugh, incredulous their boys are missing this for nephews and fish.
Someone not unhappy about Parko's deep sea adventures was Matt Wilkinson, who was drawn against him. On the boat on the way out to Cloudbreak, Wilko is joking that Parko had seen him freesurf yesterday and had decided to sit it out and maintain his dignity. Instead Wilko paddled out and caught the best wave of his life...that came in at a 7.33. He then pulled late under a lip and was guillotined, screaming to the surfers' boat as he whizzed past on the ski in a tangle of confused hair, "I just got so f–ked up!" He then went on to lose to alternate, Heitor Alves, who caught the most perfect wave of not only this lifetime, but any other lifetimes he may be fortunate enough to have down the track.
The only way Joel's day was going to get any worse was if they called Kelly's heat off before Kelly had a chance to miss it. And it so very nearly happened. Mick Fanning was preparing for his heat--the one before Kelly's--when the wind shifted onshore. And when I say onshore, I mean one knot onshore. The problem with surf this flawless is that a one-knot onshore might as well be 30. It's like jabbing a lit cigarette into the Mona Lisa. "Wind's a bit whiffy," offers Mick to the contest brass. The wind, however, soon light'n'variabled itself back around trade, Kelly's heat was surfed without Kelly and he was demoted into Round 2. He and Parko won't be alone. For the first time in this scribe's scrubby years on Tour, all eight top seeds lost today, and will all find themselves in round two...whenever that may be. For this eight, the losses and no-shows might be a blessing in disguise. Their round two heats will be held in good surf. The forecast deems it so.