Photo: Joli
Photo: Joli

The Doherty Report: The Loss Of The Spirit Animal

Alternate power rankings, birthday skulldrags, and more from Day 10 of the Fiji Pro

A memo went out two days ago to all WSL staff, telling them to stop surfing Cloudbreak… or at least cool their jets a little.

With perverse irony, some of the pros have been complaining about not getting enough waves out at Cloudbreak. My guitar gently weeps for them, but on evidence collected out on The Ledge over the past week, I'd have to go against every moral fiber in my body and kind of agree with them. The staff has been gorging at the trough, and if we were writing the power rankings for the Fiji event at this point, it would look something like this:

1. Kieren Perrow (WSL Commissioner)

The Comish has been dominating the dawn sessions, ensuring a healthy minimum wave count before calling the event each day, just to be sure if it's the right call, you know.

2. Pritamo Ahrendt, (WSL Judge)

The pick of the judges this year, he's been sitting up the Top Shop, surfing with speed, power, and flow, his grinning bearded head flying past disgruntled pro surfers at warp speed, claiming one tube double-handed and scoring himself a perfect 10. Why not?

3. Pottz, (WSL Commentator)

Surfing with the same dominance of early '89 (and looking through people like it was early '89), Pottz has been taking his own commentary advice and waiting for the sets and focusing, because that's what world champs do. He's just pipped fellow world champ Barton Lynch for a spot in the top 5. BL, on his first trip here in 25 years, has been in rapture. Paddling in deep every time, BL giggles merrily to himself, "You never know your luck…" before taking off and popping out near the boats.

4. Richard Marsh (Coach)

Back in the form that won him the Reunion Island contest back in '92, Dog's only slip-up all week has been taunting the lineup from the back of the ski, only to jump off, have his leggie snag, and fall flat on his face.

5. Glen Hall (Leprechaun, surf coach)

Micro was ecstatic at the news of making the list. "Fuck, I've never made the top five in anything!" He squeaked when informed of the honor.

The WSL staff, on the other hand, were a little indignant at having been called out. They started harrumphing, talking down their four-figure wave counts while pointing fingers at everyone else. The judges, who cannot be accused of not having a feel for the wave after feeling it all week, have started posting shots of themselves snorkeling and playing poker to openly mock the memo. Not us, sir. Who, us?

But you can hardly blame them all. A Ledge set at Cloudbreak, spinning the length of the reef, a fifth-color aquarium flying by, has a narcotic effect that's hard to just walk away from. How do you tell someone they can't surf something as remarkable as Cloudbreak? It's been an issue they've wrestled with here for a while.

It's been days since we ran the event, and those days have melted together under the Fijian sun. Every morning someone at the far end of Namotu island yells, "It's off!" and the message is relayed down the island until it gets to the guy down the far end of the island, who's told he's got a heat in 20 minutes.

While most of those days have indeed been horseshit, a couple were ruinously good. Two at least were better than what we ran in yesterday. Last Friday in particular was roping – perfect angle, four foot, steel grey and all the way – but with the luxury of a whole week of swell forecast to be coming up the pipes, Cloudbreak was handed over to the staff battling for valuable power ranking points. It's been a rugged event to forecast. Mixed swells, local winds, and the promise of something better over the horizon have all conspired to leave us where we are. Kelly has even floated the idea of Saturday: the day after the waiting period ends.

The wifi crashed yesterday morning on Namotu.

In the panicked minutes that ensued, people held phones to the sky while others subconsciously started double-tapping and swiping the table in front of them with their fingers. For a week, they've experienced Heaven on earth, a South Pacific Shangri-La, yet have spent most of it trained on a four-inch screen in front of them, wondering what everywhere else on earth, at every given minute, is doing. In the sudden absence of an online forecast yesterday morning, they looked out to the reef and actually watched the waves, which at least looked better than the day before. Painted into a corner with this thing having to finish Friday, they waited for the tide and ran.

The lineup was seasick at high noon when they called it on.

There were the ghosts of a groundswell in there, but there was a grade-five river tearing back up the point and a local wind that shifted wildly on the hour. Mick Fanning and Michel Bourez paddled out and were quickly dunny-flushed up the point and disappeared. You had to squint to see them. No one – including the skipper of the contest ferry – could drop anchor. The boat lurched as the current pulled one way and the wind blew the other. It was a disaster movie waiting to happen, both in the boat and in a heat.

The carnage started with Mick.

Celebrating his 36th birthday, his waves had the consistency of cake. The thinking was Cloudbreak would get better as the afternoon went on and the tide dropped, and we joked Mick would want the heat run before it got good. Bourez works exclusively in the medium of perfect surf. It didn't pan out that way however, and the birthday boy is currently in residence as bartender on Namotu.

Leo Fioravanti washed ashore on Namotu a few days ago, and as tradition dictates, the grommet quickly found himself having a Skulldrag poured down his neck. In the hour before the sorcerous mix of Old World spirits rendered him horizontal and wrestling innocent furniture, he managed to make it back to Tavarua and make a bet with both Kelly Slater and Stephen Bell that if he beat John Florence in Round Three, they'd both have to do Skulldrags as well.

What were the chances? The Italian rookie against who hadn't won a heat all year against the Hawaiian world champion, sporting a Diamond Darrell heavy metal beard, just missing the burning blunts.

Every heat yesterday looked like a different wave, on a different day, breaking on a different planet, and while Mick's heat had been sparse, there were actually scoring waves out there…the worst possible scenario for Leo. No one wins a shootout with John John. But it wasn't barreling, and fresh push in the swell let Leo train his 6'2" grommet frame straight at the lip. Watching on, impressed, Richard Marsh jabbed Parko in the ribs and barked, "That's it, mate! Don't fuck around. Hit the fucking lip!"

The big one, though, was Kelly.

As we speak, he's sitting across the bar from me on Namotu having just drained a Skulldrag, things just getting interesting, jokingly asking Mick Fannning whether he should have tried to get Connor O'Leary on an interference? The Skulldrag – all eight shots of it – is just kicking in. Kelly's's running around giggling, mischievously wrestling people in the bar. He's talking golf, but it's actually interesting. He's talking of a deep admiration for Adriano (I don't know whether this is the Skulldrag or Kelly talking).

Kelly and Connor's heat was a rabble.

The current chewed it to pieces, and Kelly – even Kelly – later admitted to being lost out there. He could see his marks; he just couldn't get to them. He felt like he was paddling backwards, and technically, he might have been. Kelly lost with trifling scores, but hats off to Connor for having a plan, masterminded by Luke Egan: hanging in close, then taking mid-trackers that played to his forehand. Connor has done great already this year, and yesterday’s win had Louie's big paw prints all over it. There was a strange exchange in the dying seconds as Kelly chased a four with no luck, and that was it.

They dropped like flies yesterday, and the season took on a new complexion.

All the past winners are gone, most of the top 10 are currently packing bags, and suddenly this event is wide open. The potential finals day on Thursday, well, the forecast might be the least reliable indicator of what we might get. It could be anything, and the winner could be anyone.

We flew over here with Kelly on the same flight, and he was in great form. He'd been on the Gold Coast for a few weeks, had been helping the Munro family through some tough days, been rehabbing his back in the barrel at Greenmount, and even hanging at the Rainbow Bay Surf Club and drinking beers with the Harrington twins. I wanted him to be here on finals day. This event ain't the same without its spirit animal.

As this sends, the spirit animal of this event is back in the bar on Namotu. He's got Mick in a headlock. His ski is parked on the beach with a hole in the hull. The sun is setting and somehow has to make it back across the channel to Tavarua. The odds on him getting home are getting slimmer by the minute.

Photo: Joli