Photo: Glaser
Photo: Glaser

The Devil In Coolangatta

Day Three of the Quik Pro Gold Coast, from the notes of Sean Doherty

Geez, you knock off half an hour early for a Friday afternoon beer and all hell breaks loose.

In my defense, posting the other day’s column before Jordy and Zeke Lau paddled out in the last heat seemed fair enough. I'd been here since dawn, and after a day of surfing like that, there wasn't a shortage of material. There'd been the Armageddon storm during Parko's heat, John John's last minute escape against Mikey Wright, and Steph's '70s steeze.

But who knew Zeke Lau would drop a 10 behind the rock, just a day after the tube was officially declared dead? Then who knew Jordy would have the gumption to claw it back and win in the dying light? Not me and my third beer, obviously.

I was late getting to Snapper this morning, and by the time I'd found a parking spot, I was technically in another state and began walking. I was double-timing it as Mick Fanning and Owen Wright were in the water already. It was a poetic draw, as Mick has been heavily (and quietly) involved with Owen's recovery over the past year and wanted nothing more than for Owen's recovery to continue here at Snapper…just not at his expense.

For all the talk of Kelly and his call to go all-in, you forget that Mick is all-in, all the time.

Photo: Glaser

Anyway, walking in, I passed Mitch Parkinson, Joel's cousin, watching the heat on his phone while having breakfast at Rainbow Bay Café. He yelled, spitting chunks of ham and cheese toasted sandwich. "You shoulda seen Mick's barrel! So sick!" Mitch gets barreled at Snapper as often as his cousin, so he isn't prone to hyperbole out there. He informed me Mick only needed a mid-seven to take the lead and it was as good as done.

I hustled through the back lanes of Coolanghetto, through the dawn crowd, and crossed the road at Rainbow Bay just in time to hear the beach announcer tell Mick his barrel had come in half a point short of what he needed. Mick splashed the water. It's been almost a decade since he won his home contest, and if he wanted to make a mark on this season (he does), a result here would've been nice.

Owen's surfing is all there, everything is in its right place, and – more impressively – he seems to be dealing with the mental chess game of surfing heats and the mental drain of being in the middle of 10,000 people. If he's lacking anything right now, it's the physicality we're used to seeing with his surfing. Owen's a beast on a wave, but he's spent the best part of a year in a dark room and out of the water and his tall frame has lost some beef. He looked a little gassed by the end of a few waves today, but after the mental recovery, the physical one will seem easy.

Photo: Joli

Having no problems physically was Julian Wilson…his problems were more on the scoreboard. Jules looks like he's been lifting in the gym over the off-season, and came into this contest beefcaked and primed. He looked a million dollars at the Manly contest, just got hitched, and just dropped what is likely to be the edit of the year with Wayward, but yesterday, he got dusted by the Japanese-Australian rookie with the Irish name, Connor O'Leary. Jules looked great on what he got, but got shut down inside the day's best tube and then got marooned without a wave for the last five minutes. We've been waiting for him to cut loose on this tour and we leave Snapper…still waiting.

"You know the thing with this contest," offered stately photographer Lord Ted Grambeau in a voice of deep mahogany. "The worse the forecast is, the better it gets."

True. As he spoke, a set rolled down the length of the point, uniform, green, sectionless, followed by another three identical to the first. Two weeks ago it was forecast to be flat, a week ago it was supposed to be huge and onshore, and yet here we were looking at the best Snapper this contest has had since the first edition 15 years ago when Cyclone Des pulsed for a week across the freshly pumped Superbank.

Probably more than anything, it's the bank that's made this happen. Just three days ago, it was patchy with no sand behind the rock, but it's like the sand elves have been at work every night and every morning we get back here and the bank has grown an extra 30 feet. The sand pump has had the needle in the red for a fortnight now and I'd be surprised if there's a grain of sand left between here and Byron. With Surfers Paradise in the background – a city built on reclaimed sand – it seems if you need sand moved, this is your place. I'm sure I even heard over the commentary someone pitching a sand dredge like he's selling used cars: "If you need a sand bypass, go and see these guys!"

But alas, the waves weren't destined to last.

Photo: Joli

I sat alongside photographer Todd Glaser, and as we chatted about the future of surf magazines (a short conversation, sadly), a ruler-edged set rolled down the bank better than anything Todd had shot during his first visit to Kelly's wave ranch. I asked if he was going to shoot a lineup shot and he replied, "I'll just shoot the next one." Just then, an ornate cowry shell decoration hanging behind us in the surfer's area started clinking, and by the time we looked back at the ocean, an onshore front was blowing and would blow its tits off for the rest of the day.

The devil wind was in.

It actually getting worse, if anything, as the wind notched more northerly, but with days of more northerlies coming and the swell only here this weekend, they're in a race to finish, so onward we marched into the teeth of the breeze.

After watching Gabe Medina surf his heat yesterday morning, I felt compelled to go and twist my own knee viciously and rupture some ligaments, because doing so had worked wonderfully well for his surfing. It was a miracle from above as the guy who was carried off the beach in Shakesperean agony returned today and tore blue murder into the Snapper lineup. His spontaneous drive off the bottom seems to defy physics and has a lot to do, you'd reckon, with that corky, almost flexless epoxy. Gabe either does terribly at Snapper or he wins, and with a day to run, the odds are looking like the latter.

Photo: Joli

The afternoon session was junk, with guys surfing down the line like they were riding a rollercoaster through a Dali painting. Parko somehow managed to swoop a couple of turns before the wind went really devilish, and iced the heat with a long straight-legged floater on the end section. The irony is that Joel's floater knocked out Adriano, Lord of the Float.

Owen then spread his wings, found some bigger waves, and took down Conner Coffin. The win took him into the quarters. Think about that for a second. A year ago there were no guarantees he'd ever surf again, let alone regain life as he knew it, and yet here he is, in the quarters. His victory this afternoon marked the point where, in terms of this contest, at least, he stopped being Owen Wright brain injury survivor and simply became Owen Wright again.

Jordy and Kelly was the final heat of the round, and both would consider a loss before the quarterfinals a fail. Kelly had bounced between boards, surfing his 5'6" squash the previous day, his 5'10" roundtail yesterday, and his 5'8" swallow at lunchtime in Round Four. Kelly only arrived here the day before the contest, and you get the feeling he's unplanned, freestyling, just going with it. There is no master plan for this season. He's going to improv all the way.

Well, he had to improv yesterday afternoon.

I'm not even sure what board he took out yesterday afternoon, but it worked. He's looked a little skittery at times this week, but somehow made the waves yesterday look eminently rippable. It was like someone challenged him to ride a mechanical surfboard wearing rollerskates, drunk…and he pulled it off masterfully! He did it with flow where no flow was even possible and now finds himself in tomorrow's quarters. Against Gabe Medina.

[Title Photo: Glaser]