There was a time when a surfer couldn't set foot in Coolangatta without being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon. If you were lucky you'd simply be frog-marched to the border at Tweed Heads and told by the cops to never come back. Ask Wayne Lynch. If you were less lucky you'd get fitted up with a bag of weed under your mattress on a dodgy search and get the full press through the courts. Ask Nat. These were the Sir Joh Bjelke days of course—Trump before Trump—a time when surfers were the lowest social caste in Queensland.
Man, things have changed today. Surfers now are the law. It seems the stretch between Snapper Rocks and Bilinga has ceded from all legal jurisdictions and operates like international waters. You can drive skis through weekend crowds and slalom around kids on a foil board and no one raises an eyebrow (try doing that anywhere else in the world). But pro surfing seems almost above the law around these parts. It might not be that way in Hawaii (in light of the WSL's battle with City Hall over Pipeline), but it sure is in Queensland. Nowhere in the world is pro surfing more welcome. If such a thing can even exist, Coolangatta is the spiritual home of professional surfing.
As I drove around Marine Parade on Monday afternoon, however, all was quiet in Rainbow Bay. It was raining, onshore and flat. There wasn't a soul in the water. The steel skeleton of the giant WSL marquee was being constructed on the beachfront at Snapper, but apart from that nothing moved. It was eerily quiet. I drove up the hill to Point Danger and looked out over Duranbah, which was barely breaking and almost empty. Earlier that day, Joel Parkinson had been surfing and was chased in by an eight-foot tiger shark, which had been lurking in the deep channel that has formed in the middle of the beach.
From there I drove around to Mick Fanning's place. Joel was there. Mick was asleep. He'd spent the day hanging out with Henry Rollins, the punk legend now spruiking cars more than revolution. Mick will soon have plenty of time for afternoon naps as he's announced his impending retirement. This will be the last time he'll surf his home event at Snapper…at least until they offer him an inevitable wildcard next year. Joel joked, "You're gonna do a Johnny Farnham, aren't ya?" referring to the Australian singer who's publicly retired a dozen times already and is still doing concerts today.
That comment made me think back to this time last year when Kelly announced it would be his last full tilt at the world title. Most read that as code for retirement, and yet a cursory glance at the draw for Snapper next week sees the name "K. Slater" right there in the draw, alongside "M. Fanning" in heat 12 of Round 1. While these two giants will continue to pull the strings of pro surfing long after their names disappear from the draw (Kelly in particular) their influence on the draw itself is waning. Mick has seen that at close range this week. Gabby Medina has been staying at his place, and the pair has been off down the coast surfing together. Watching Gabby tear holes in the fabric of space-time on a small breakwall left was enough to reassure Mick that the timing of his exit was right. Win, lose or draw, though, this week will belong to Mick. And then it will belong to Eugene.
The good news this week at Snapper is that there'll be swell. The southerly trades are howling as we speak and next week we say hi to Cyclone Hola, which is dropping down in the Coral Sea into a Gold Coast swell window. They're building scaffolding up on the hill at Kirra in hope, but Kirra is really living in hope.
The bad news is that there's not much sand. Snapper got scoured on the Cyclone Gita swell and even with a southerly flow it's unlikely they'll be able to fix Snapper in time. Be prepared for plenty of "wraps," plenty of "downtime," but nobody is getting barrelled behind the rock. The hope lies with Hola, which might bring the contest into the bay and onto some better sand.
After 20 years, this will be the last time Snapper will open the Tour. After the WSL's scheduling fiasco with Pipe, it now looks like the Tour opener will be moving to Europe next year. There won't be the same buzz.
Snapper came to life the day after I left. The wind turned southerly, a little swell kicked up and with a click of your fingers the entire Tour, just like that, materialized on the point. On cue. All of them. They grew out of the sand and took over the lineup. Phil Toledo surfed at warp speed. Steph Gilmore took off and time stood still. Everyone hustled for sets. The whole scene radiated a vital, thermal energy that will be impossible to recreate, say, on a cold, empty beach in Portugal at the back end of the Northern Hemisphere winter.
The WSL has bitten the bullet and pulled the Tour apart; the danger now is that they'll struggle to put it back together with the same chemistry. Snapper and Pipe seemed like logical start and end points for the Tour, anchoring it, and as of next year they'll both be gone from those spots. As will Mick. And as for Kelly? Like John Farnham, he might only retire in a pine box. But one way or another, change is coming for pro surfing, so for this week at least we should just sit back and enjoy the familiar, manic spectacle.