A note before we start: This column doesn't come to you from the fatal western edge of the Australian continent. No, it comes to you from the Pacific Highway—the eastern seaboard arterial—where your correspondent is parked on the side of the road, going nowhere with flooded cane fields on every side. The highway might open later this afternoon, but in the meantime as cows float by belly up, there's enough phone reception for your correspondent to sit and watch nature doing its thing on the other side of Australia. It's been wild in the east for the past few days, and it got wild in the west today.
I didn't see Kelly this morning, obviously.
The hour before the broadcast would have been instructional in regards to the fate of his "all-in" season. On a building swell the first call was to move across to The Box. Drawn in the first heat this was good news for Kelly, and good news for anyone from the '90s. Kelly has spent has spent a hundred GoPro hours and the past two days tuning up at The Box in readiness for today's call. But the thing with a building swell hitting the front edge of the continent is that there's no offshore swell indicator to go by, no phone call from down the coast to tell you something beyond the forecast. Like Hawaii, the forecast numbers are always nuanced, and the only way to gauge it is stand in the freshly asphalted car park at Margaret River, stare out to sea, and check out what the Roaring Forties have delivered.
No one expected it to be this big today. By the time the contest was due to start, The Box was Third Reef Box. The new swell got huge, and suddenly Margies Main Break began to look like it did back in 1990, with Nick Wood snowboarding 20-foot lefthanders and Pauline Menczer falling from the lip in a crash helmet. Kong Elkerton posted this morning he wanted to see 7'0"s with 12oz glass. This was an old school day custom made for old school surfers—just not Kelly.
Kelly is not a deep water guy. Kelly likes it shallow, likes to know where the reef is, and anything big and deep and shifty has always caused him problems. Think Sunset. Margarets. Even Bells. So, after originally being called on at The Box, suddenly being jolted into the stark reality of 12- to 15-foot Margies Main Break in the first heat of the morning would have been confronting. It was a worst-case scenario that manifested on his first wave, when Kelly knifed in late, just holding on, before finishing on the inside shelf with a figure-eight roundhouse that was too high and too late. From that point Kelly—amid a rare outing on a 6'6"—seemed a little lost and late on everything.
Kelly's year, however, doesn't live or die by Margaret River and he didn't seemed too ruined by the loss when interviewed later. Writing a post mortem on Kelly's season before the South Pacific leg is the oldest trap in the game, but the performances of some guys later in the day (John John alone) hinted at a big gulf opening up.
The broadcast brought Barton Lynch in from the wild today and gave him the post-heat interviews, and pro surfing's David Attenborough asked genuinely illuminating questions. He asked Kelly about the future of the Margaret River event on Tour (knowing full well Kelly isn't the number one ticket holder) and it seemed the best Kelly could offer in Margaret's defense was the wineries. A layday clickbait story had posed the question of whether the Tour is better served by Margaret River or a wavepool event. It was one of those brainless lion-versus-shark traffic generators, and the pile of useless it created was flushed away by today's swell. Today was oceanic. Surfers looked like fleas. My personal thoughts on wavepools is that surfing stops being surfing when the unknown is taken out of it, and I'm sticking by that until the day they can recreate random 15-foot clean up sets in chlorinated koi ponds.
It was Jack Freestone who beat Kelly in the first heat, by the way, looking physically assured in a lineup that was brawling like a drunken Irishman. Jack's win set the tone for the day. The guys winning through fell into one of two categories: they were a) physically big guys, or b) guys who would willingly be freesurfing Margies on a day like this. Julian Wilson fell into both.
After watching Kelly in the first heat, you wondered how tough it was to surf. But despite wearing a 15 footer as a top hat, Julian made it look kind of simple—start and finish big. Drive hard off the bottom on the peak, then cut down and ride out clean on the inside. The inside section was like the Revenant bear, and for every guy who survived it, eight guys didn't. But suddenly it looked a lot easier out there. Jules should have won here last year, and on this morning's form will give it another nudge this year.
The day after he won at Snapper, I spent a couple of hours talking with Owen Wright. He was still trying to make sense of the win, and in many ways still trying to make sense of the past year. Great chunks of it weren't there, but there was almost a hyper-awareness of the two months since the doctors officially told him he was out of the "trauma" stage of his brain injury. He spoke of milestones in his recovery and milestones back in the water. He said his first wave—a crumbling one-footer lying down on a soft-top—felt like Teahupoo. But once he was in the clear and surfing again, he measured his recovery not by the waves he surfed, but by the waves he could safely negotiate paddling out. Two foot, four foot, eight foot while surfing with Mick Fanning at Straddie. Step by step.
Owen's injury, you remember, happened duck diving what he called a 15-foot Second Reef Pipe set. So when a 15 footer lined him up today and broke, top-to-bottom right on him, his crew all freaked. He could not have been in a worse spot.
Owen popped up okay, looking a little rinsed like a dog after a bath, and you figured the result of the heat from there was inconsequential. That was a milestone—probably the biggest test he’ll get all year, outside of big Tahiti or Pipe—and he survived just fine. The fact he got the score he needed in the dying seconds was just a bonus.
I don't know where to start with the Florence kid. He toyed with it. He rode a 6'2", the smallest board anybody surfed during the pulse of the swell. He was even incredulous when interviewed later about guys riding longer boards, although I'm sure the Hawaiian's board was weighted in compensation for length. It was a heavy blade with no chatter. But while everyone till that point had surfed within the range of what they were given by the Margarets right, John simply surfed how he wanted. Young Jacob Wilcox surfed great in their heat, but John was simply out there testing himself against the ocean.
John would have freesurfed this day—nothing is more certain. He loves this place. For John, it's like home in a fullsuit. It's why he shoots here all the time. Give John the choice of today at Margarets or a mechanical wave in a pool, and you'll get one answer.