Okay, so what did I miss?
Having spent the past week camped out surfing in the red dirt of the South Australian desert, the Portugal event might as well have been happening on Pluto. The World Title seemed a million miles away, although, if the whispers of the new-and-improved Tour schedule prove true, then a World Title showdown held remotely, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, locked down exclusively and sold as a pay-per-view special, might not be so far fetched. The South Australian desert? It's been tried before, but good luck. They'd be offering World Title odds, as well as odds of at least one of them waking up in his tent to car headlights, before disappearing Wolf-Creek style.
Having spent that desert week surfing with Dave Rastovich, however, the Zen-like detachment from the pro surfing juggernaut has been complete. "Who's winning this year?" he asked when I mentioned Portugal was running. He hasn't watched a heat all year or even maybe all decade. When I told him John John could wrap up the title, though, he nodded affirmatively. "Yeah, that's nice." A Florence World Title cuts through all colors and creeds of surfing society. When John wins, things are right in the world, no matter where you are.
I arrived home yesterday and watched the replays of the week that was. What a mess. A million closeouts, tons of Ones with the occasional lucky Nine-Pointer, Jordy's World Title challenge turned to cabbage soup, and John John on the verge of wrapping up a second World Title. He only needed to make the final overnight and the title was his.
The Portugal event, second-last on the schedule, is positioned as The Kingmaker, but in recent years – and again today – it's ruined more World Titles than it's won. For all its rustic charm and the boundless enthusiasm of its hosts, the Portuguese event shouldn't be deciding World Titles. It's a test of dumb luck more than a test of surfing, the Portuguese Pipeline is a redheaded cousin compared with the other global Pipeline franchises like the Mexican and Australian versions. As the WSL looks to make the Tour more aerodynamic and marketable, I'm sure someone has a red pen hovering over Portugal as we speak. The new WSL Big Kahuna, Sophie Goldschmidt, was on hand, and surely she looked around at the adjacent cabbage fields, sniffed the waft of the local sardine plant, and figured they could do something a little more glamorous for a World Title.
When scrolling back through the results of the week, I had to double check that I wasn't imagining Julian Wilson had won the very first heat of the contest with a total heat score of 4.97. Christ on a bike. Surely that was some kind of dubious record, and it was a record Julian looked like he might challenge again in his quarterfinal last night with Seabass. The pair scoured the lineup for anything that remotely looked like it'd allow a turn. The heat was decided in the final seconds with Seabass chasing a Two and only getting a One.
Despite the hype, I liked Kolohe's chances against John John. Bring a bit of hustle, catch enough waves, and you made your own luck out there. Brother bagged Sevens early. Sevens were Tens. It had been raining numbers for Florence all event, some earned, others gifted, but here he sat there with a heat total of just 3.8. John sneezes bigger than 3.8. He dropped anchor and looked mopey. His crew retreated into their hooded jackets like tortoises. Neighbors back in Hawaii went to bed.
Thank the Guy In The Sky that nobody won a World Title out there today.
When Fanning lost to Medina soon after with a paltry heat total of 3.17, if you were conspiratorially inclined, you'd have started thinking that the whole thing was being engineered to make sure the World Title went to Pipe. Or was something else going on? Joe said on the broadcast that, "Mick wasn't happy with his legs." Why? What had they done to piss him off? I thought immediately of a famous Australian rugby league player, "Maddog" McDougall, who used to talk to his legs before a big game, each leg, one at a time, telling them what they needed to do out there. Medina had God. Mick had his legs. I imagined Mick coming in after the heat and giving each leg the riot act.
Mercifully, we got some actual surfing in the semi-final between Kolohe and Julian. Brother got tubed forehand. Julian got tubed backhand and even threw in a turn. Wilson had swapped boards from the previous heat and looked like someone completely different. Suddenly blitzed on confidence, he even attempted a couple of Sushi Rolls and cruised into the final against, well, who else?
It's funny to think that it was five years ago that Wilson and Medina surfed that famous final in Portugal, the one Wilson won with a controversial last-minute wave. It's been five long years, but no one has forgotten it. Poor Gabe. It was like the joke about the Irishman and his goat. You shed one little tear on stage with a sad face and your crew kicks some furniture and no one lets you forget it. Gabe was still a boy then, but the guy paddling out for the Final last night was something a little gnarlier.
The contest that had started ugly ended the same way. The Final was sent out at dead low tide, and if it had been awful in the morning, it was worse now. This, of course, played into Gabe's hands, and he was soon all over the lineup like a tropical rash. It was exactly like he'd done in the Tahiti final against Wilson earlier in the year, except this time it was the right strategy. After 20 minutes of closeouts and throwaway airs on that hard-sprung board, he finally stuck one and was looking good. Gabe caught 14 waves in the final at a rate of one every two minutes, and took pretty much every wave except for the one he should've. With priority, he somehow let the best of the Final go, and Wilson happily grabbed it to at least make the dying minutes interesting. The pair was too busy scrambling to get in each other's grills in the Final, which was a pity. Of everyone on Tour, they have the potential to be the abrasive antidote to the sugary love-fest we've become so accustomed to.
So Gabby, huh.
Two wins in a row and he now goes into Pipe just a couple of heats behind John. It couldn't happen, could it? The Hawaiian sure would have rather had Jordy, who's mathematically still there along with Julian, but who doesn't pose the same sleepless nights as Medina will for the next six weeks.