"His violence was in the halo of his serenity." Norman Mailer, The Fight.
Serenity, however, is always in short supply on the North Shore in December. The place is teeming; a poked beehive of teenage cage fighters, teenage girls in bikinis, and the artery-fat of day-tripping tourists from Honolulu. Oh, alongside with every pro surfer in the Milky Way and a few from galaxies far, far away. For the two guys trying to keep their heads straight and win a world title it's a difficult environment in which to stay sane. Serenity is hard to find. If you can find your space and your waves you can find the halo of serenity George Foreman found in Kinshasa in 1975 before his Rumble in the Jungle fight with Muhammad Ali. But if people fill your space and people take your waves, you end up trying to create an anxious and artificial serenity. A serenity your psyche refuses to place any faith in. You suddenly aren't George Foreman, you're George Costanza. "Serenity now!"
Mick Fanning has been on lockdown in his Off The Wall compound. He's been reading books. He's been watching TV. He's been trying to avoid the gaze of the outside world, which isn't easy when you're simultaneously launching your own biopic movie amid a tsunami of hype. Speaking with him the day before his movie – Missing – premiered at Turtle Bay, he was trying to worm his way out of it. He didn't want to go to his own premiere. He wanted to live up to the strapline on the poster – "When you disappear the world becomes clear." Needless to say he appeared at his own premiere, made a speech that no one heard above the rabble (the Harrington twins held their mai tai surfing challenge at the hotel earlier that afternoon and the room was rummy and chummy). Mick walked off stage and smoke bombed immediately out the door.
The one guy who stayed and studied every frame like a hawk was Dane Reynolds, literally pasted his eyes to the screen while scribbling notes on his cortex. The film was richly shot and abstract enough to pique Dane's interest. Three years ago the odds of Dane sitting through a Mick movie would have been long, but Dane, with a thousand ideas swimming in his head, stayed to the final credits before walking intently out the door, contemplating potentially his new film that could aptly be titled Found. Dane has surfed every event of the Triple Crown here in Hawaii, and we've seen more of him in the past month than we've seen of him in the past year…and this is a good and a just thing. There is no longer anything in the ASP rulebook between he and a wildcard for 2014, and if of all those cards Zosea are holding close to their chest a Dane wildcard was one of them—whatever Faustian deal it would take to make it happen—then half their battle would already be won. Surf fans live in hope.
Kelly, predictably, has found serenity on the back nine at Turtle Bay. Golf Digest has sent their ace reporter out here to explore the unlikely but flourishing synergies between golf and professional surfing. Kelly has been their guy and has been accommodating. He's been in good form in Hawaii. The dark days of Europe when he walked around Portugal wearing a hoodie and a scowl as pro surfing soured after 20 years seem a long time ago as he cruises around the island smacking golf balls, trying to turn people into pretzels at Sunset Beach jiu jitsu class, and being the most engaging and ebullient he's been in a long time. If Mick has become George Foreman, then Kelly has become Ali.
Kelly's been busy and wasn't home the other afternoon when we dropped photographer Todd Glaser at his place. Todd's job is to document Kelly's triumphant ascent to surfing Valhalla. When we dropped Todd off from the airport the gate was locked, so we had to load Pelican cases of Todd's expensive camera equipment over the fence from a back alley into Kelly's place. It was a reverse break-in. Kelly had boards ripped off from his place the previous week (along with Taj who lost 13 the same night) and we joked we were on the payroll of the universe, going door-to-door, breaking into North Shore properties to deliver camera equipment and surfboards down the chimneys of pro surfers.
The surfing programs of both world title contenders could not have been different. Mick has been scouring the reef between Off The Wall and Pipe daily, catching anything with a pulse. In the week before the forecast firmed and the Pipe Masters became the Backdoor Masters, Mick was making sure he had every base covered. He dropped pins on all parts of the reef and sketched notes in his head. He's been working on Plans A through K. Kelly meanwhile, from what I can gather, has caught just the one wave. It was just before dark the afternoon before SURFER Poll, at the top of the swell. He knifed into Backdoor while paddling back toward Pipe, bit a rail and two fins, and swung the whole caboose straight up into the throatiest wave of the day. He was barfed out only for the wave to run again on the inside shelf, run long time, eventually depositing him onto the beach. If he had hair it would have been dry, and if there were judges it would have been a 15 out of 10. That single wave has provided restless nights ever since for any Mick Fanning fan who saw it.
The contest started this morning on a day that has traditionally become a bloodbath of lowly ranked tour surfers as they're lined up against a dozen flint-hard Pipeline specialists. The phrase "Christians and lions" has been used more than once before to describe it. But things have changed. The place was firing at dawn, four-to-eight feet with your dream Backdoor wave just waiting for you, but from the outset when Zeke Lau lost to Pat Gudauskas it was clear the place didn't have the same bad voodoo for tour backmarkers it once had. Pat won easy, and a pattern was set.
Like life itself, you don't choose how you get to check out of pro surfing, and I'm sure what happened to Kieren Perrow early this morning wasn't exactly what he had in mind. He had a posse of friends ready to head down the beach and chair him up were he to lose. He's a popular figure on Tour and rightly so. As Monty Python would describe him, he has "not only done only more than not anyone for our Society, but nonetheless has only done more." He's given too many hours as shop steward of the surfer's union over the years, will be owed a debt of gratitude by every pro surfer for the next 20 years, and along the way has forged an unlikely pro career centered around pulling into giant closeouts, some of which have occasionally refused to do so. But instead of being chaired up the beach by his peers he was carted up the beach on an ATV, the Pipeline meat wagon, and deposited into the doctors tent to have his shoulder popped back into place. The place that has broken his heart while also providing the highlight of his career, Pipe had one last turn in store for him, and tonight as this report goes live he's out at Turtle Bay singing karaoke, holding the microphone with his good arm while his other is in a sling. KP goes out today a Pipe Master and a good bloke, and that's more than most could ever hope for.
Kelly and Mick will in all likelihood surf tomorrow. They will, however, only meet if they both make the Final, and by then the world title will already be heading back to Coolangatta. Instead, this contest will be decided by allies in the draw and other surfers with something to surf for. Cutting the draw in half and seeing who lies on what side of the border there are two names we need to talk about, and two juicy heats in prospect. On the top half of the draw Mick could very well end up with John John in the Quarters. For Mick, that's just one heat away from a world title, and he may very well have to surf through the toughest guy in the draw to get there. On the bottom half of the draw – if they both keep winning – Kelly will meet Parko. When Kelly lost the world title to Joel last year the pair never met, it was all done by proxy. Joel may very well be gifted the chance to win the world title for his good friend, Mick, and another layer in that story may be added.
But at this point, fellow haoles, it's time to sleep. Serenity now. The jungle will rumble tomorrow.