While yesterday the air positively crackled, this morning it felt heavy, the day feeling kind of muted, the surf gone, yesterday's drama disappearing like the rubbish blowing down the deserted Ke Nui Road at dawn.
At the stroke of lunchtime, Mick Fanning exhaled.
He hugged his Mother and let it go in one huge breath that sounded like a polar bear roaring. He'd just lost to Gabriel Medina in the semis, given it his all in the circumstances, and his destiny was now out of his hands. He looked spent. Washed out. Nothing more he could do. It was in the lap of the gods, the same ones who've been playing some kind of drunken card game with his life since July.
Finals Day at Pipeline became orphaned in some pretty poor surf today. The highest stakes in surfing were decided in waves with low margins. Guys scrapped for twos pretty much all day. It wasn't pretty.
Given what was on the line (and the waves that have been passed up), it seemed like a miscalculation had gone down somewhere along the line. The Pipe Masters – let alone the World Title – needs to be decided at Pipe, not the anaemic impostor we had out there today. The theory with running a contest is that you try and put your Finals in the best waves in the forecast window, then work back from there to figure out what you need to make that happen. To the Commissioner's defense, he faces a rather large impediment to this goal in having the Pipe Invitational sitting inside the contest window. The event – and the guys in it – demand good surf, and so they should. But having it inside the Masters window skews the calls and paints the Masters into a corner with swell. Some recalibrating needs to be done, because today should have been yesterday, and the World Title should have been decided in screaming eight-foot Pipeline. The chance was there.
If it wasn't true beforehand, after yesterday's dark news, Mick Fanning officially became the most well-known surfer in the world.
If it wasn't true beforehand, after yesterday's dark news, Mick Fanning officially became the most well-known surfer in the world. In this macabre world, a shark attack and the loss of a brother will make that so, but it's also a world looking for true heroes amongst the fakery and pixilation of modern society.
Early this morning, we got some insight into what the previous most famous surfer in the world though of it all.
Kelly Slater's approach in his quarterfinal against Mick Fanning was the subject of conjecture as we watched from the backyard. "Maybe he'll throw it?" came one theory as to how this might play out. The cacophony of humbuggers squashed that theory dead. "Nah!" "Bullshit!" "He'll paddle Mick to V-Land!" Kelly has never been above taking down a sentimental favorite or two, but after three closeouts and two falls, it did indeed seem like Kelly didn't care too much for the win. And while we'd seen thin glimpses of Kelly's old majesty yesterday in firing Pipeline, today almost felt like submission. He was giving in to the sentimentality and the power of the narrative surrounding Mick Fanning's 2015. I'd later discover that before his heat, Kelly had walked over to the Fanning tent on the beach and taken a minute to console Mick's mother, Liz, the gesture bringing her and those around her to tears.
The being the case, Kelly still lead, of course, in the dying minutes.
Watching the heat with Taj and Parko (the other two grand ol' stagers of the tour), they were losing it. This was the crucial heat, as it not only took Kelly out of the contest, but took Gabe Medina out of the World Title race. Mick bobbed around out there in the seasick lineup as the minutes ticked on and the python-squeeze of the clock was felt. His pulse rate stayed low, his blood temp just above zero, and when a short Aints runner lined up, Joel screamed "No!", Taj yelled "Go!", and Mick pulled in for the winning score. It was what Kelly usually did to other people, and confirms Parko's theory that Mick has stolen Kelly's juju.
Suddenly, for Mick, the title was just…there.
Speaking of ol' stagers, we lost a good one today.
I went up and had breakfast at C.J. Hobgood's place the other morning and talked the afterlife… life beyond tour ,at least, which for the self-absorbed guys who surf for a living is as mythical a place as Valhalla or Hades. The Floridian's career post-World Title in 2001 has been up and down, in and out of the water, but it's shaped one of the real characters of the tour who has a true view of how surfing for a living fits into the hierarchy of reality. The shirts said, "Thank You CJ," and they said it all.
On the other side of the draw, the switch flicked over to Adriano de Souza, now the only other guy left in the World Title race.
Drawn against Josh Kerr, Parko wasn't optimistic at first. "It looks like Brazilian Hawaii out there," and indeed it did. The wind had swung north by this stage and turned the famous reef into a chunky beachbreak. Advantage: Adriano. But the waves were so bad and so scarce by this stage, that it became a battle of two-point rides. If you got a three, you'd just come in. Your job was done. And so it was that Josh Kerr was left chasing a two at the end of the heat to win the World Title for Mick Fanning. In theory, a circus clown was capable of achieving this, but throughout the whole event, needing a two has been a kiss of death. Just ask Filipe Toledo. And so it was that Kerrsy dropped into the winning wave, ready to reprise his 2012 role when he won the World Title for Parko by beating Kelly. All he had to do was come out of a clean little tube, and…wait, no. Somehow the wave seemed to grab him by the throat and pull him back in, never to return.
By this stage, I was in the tent on the beach with Team Fanning, and you could cut the air with a knife. The pressure was heavy and felt by everyone… apart from the guy burning down a joint in the house behind us, who didn't seem to be feeling much pressure at all.
As Mick paddled out against Gabe Medina, you sensed it was the biggest challenge of the most challenging two days of his life. After losing his brother the previous night, Mick then drew, in order, at Pipeline: Jamie O'Brien, Kelly Slater, John John Florence, Kelly again, and now, Gabe Medina. If this really was destiny for him to win the title, he was sure being made to earn it. But in challenging times, you always do what you've always done, and Mick got out there and clinically, coolly built a lead – even scoring a seven, which, in today's terms, was a 12.
But he never got out of range of Medina, and you knew what was coming. We couldn't work out why Gabe hadn't just sat on the Pipe left, pulled into a quick head dip, then launched his deadly forehand air-reverse into the wind. Well, he finally worked it out with a couple of minutes to go. There was no barrel, but there was a violently inverted air-rev that he eventually rode out of. The vibe in the Fanning tent was that they wouldn't give the score. The air was sick, but this was the Pipe Masters, a tuberiding contest since Moses and even Kelly were boys.
They gave the score.
Mick walked back to the tent, ashen, clearly with nothing left to give physically or emotionally. He knelt down under a tree, pushed his head into his towel, and stayed there for five minutes. It was then he went over and hugged his mother, who was already in tears. Then, in a gesture of just how much Mick's story has affected the other surfers, Gabe Medina came over and hugged Liz Fanning before walking over and embracing Mick, Gabe's eyes welling up. It was a powerful moment.
And so that left Mason Ho to be an unlikely savior. If he won, Mick won.
The Hawaiian had been playing showman all event, but against Adriano, he was deadly serious. Not only was he surfing for the sentimental favorite, but he was surfing to continue a family lineage at the Pipeline, where both his dad and his uncle became surfing icons.
Mick looked at Parko and said, "What do I do?" He has won all his World Titles in the water, and this was the first time it was out of his control. "Don't watch," came the reply.
"Watch this," barked Tom Whitaker, "Mason will work him over here. He never gives up the inside." And it was true, Mason did an Adriano on Adriano, paddling him all over the confused lineup, out-hustling him, completely throwing Adriano out of orbit. It seemed impish, mischievous, like he was playing a game with Adriano. Shaper Duncan Campbell, who was standing next to me, laughed. "When he was a kid, Mason would blow up my letterbox every Halloween. Every goddamn year."
The game worked great, but then came the problem of actually having to find scores himself. Mase snapped a board, even paddle-battled Adriano for priority, but for the life of him couldn't find the wave. Adriano, meanwhile, found threes, fours, and found some semblance of rhythm. He always does.
Mick meanwhile was pacing in concentric circles, doing so many laps he was soon a foot shorter having slowly dug himself into a hole. He looked at Parko and said, "What do I do?" Mick has won all his World Titles in the water, and this was the first time it was out of his control. "Don't watch," came the reply.
Mick's mood lightened for just a minute, but as the inevitability of an Adriano win became more evident, the façade cracked and it looked like he aged 10 years in a minute. As the siren sounded and Adriano came to the beach as the new World Champion, Mick was already halfway back to his house. For a guy who has controlled his destiny so masterfully over the years, he's just had to go with this one, and despite every fairytale metric pointing to a heroic and emotional Mick Fanning win today, he'll accept in time that today was just another crazy day in the craziest of years.
Halfway through this season, I was preparing myself for a world where Adriano de Souza was World Champion. It was initially hard to reconcile. His results had all come in less than exotic surf, and the blue-collar nature of his surfing sat at odds with the roll call of gifted savants who have held the title. But then in Fiji, in June, Mick Fanning poured a Skulldrag cocktail down the teetotalling Adriano's neck in an initiation ritual, Adriano didn't win a heat for three months, and it seemed like I didn't need to worry.
But Adriano never goes away. He never gives up. And if you can suspend your conditioning for a second and imagine that a World Title can be won on hard work as well as God-given, blinding talent, and if you can untether the twin notions of "best surfer in the world" and "the World Champion," then indeed Adriano's win today was a great thing and hugely deserved. His victory speech was total class, acknowledging this very fact above, pointing out how far he has come from his first $7 surfboard back in Sao Paulo, and how he's worked his ass off to get to the beach at Pipeline today.