It's been a good week for Mick Fanning stories.
With Ol' White Lightning calling it a day it's been time to reflect. He gave us a good story yesterday afternoon when, after bowing out of the contest, he handed his board to a grommet on the beach. The gesture made more news than his untimely departure.
One of my favorite Mick Fanning stories, however, comes from a few years ago after a night out in Coolangatta. Walking home north of midnight he saw the early shift at the Kirra Bakery were in there busy at work. He walked in, jumped the counter, put on an apron, and started putting pies in the oven. And you wonder why people love him.
No Kirra pies today for him, although he stuffed a couple in the oven at Snapper.
Eliminated yesterday he didn't get the opportunity for a fairytale final win at Kirra, where the contest moved this morning, but to be honest I don't think it bothered him too much. He'll have plenty of Kirra days on his hands. While the contest ran at Kirra he and Joel Parkinson were back up the bank pulling into perfect, perfect Snapper. It was symbolic. The end of an era for the town. The start of a new life for Mick, and eventually for Joel too. Parko got one that's being called the best wave ever ridden at Snapper.
Kirra was an interesting call.
Watching from Point Danger with a coffee at 6 a.m., Snapper was bombing. Behind the rock – if you made the drop – was a guaranteed stand-up every wave. If you didn't make the drop, however, they'd be finding pieces of you washing up for months. It was airbrushed clean, lined up, and it would have been epic.
They rolled with Kirra instead, and I can understand why. If the opportunity presents itself to ever surf Kirra on finals day, you take it. The decision makes itself, and is as much cultural as it is tubular. Kirra is the original.
Eyeballs are still spinning from Cyclone Gita, and that might have influenced the call, but by the time they were setting up at Big Groyne guys were arm-barring overhead pits and with the tide dropping it would only get better. On the news of Stephen Hawking's death they were sending them out into a field of black holes. No one got near the best ones. Watching on, they were hard to make in your imagination, let alone in the water.
The problem however is that Kirra is a long bank, and while there are black holes all up and down it, being there when they open up is tricky. It's not like Snapper that has the rock for reference, and all eight surfers left in the event watched on trying to work out where the hell they needed to sit.
It also presented challenges to cover on the broadcast. Without the elevation to shoot from you can't capture the scope of what's going on. Kirra needs a wide shot to make sense. The energy is diffuse and doesn't conform well to a screen. I watched the morning from Big Groyne and the afternoon on the TV, and the TV coverage struggled. Apart from the water shot, the rest of the angles didn't compel or do it justice.
The first quarter this morning was Owen against Ace, and I watched on as coach Glen Hall talked to one and then the other. He coaches both of them, so what does he say to each? The same shit? Send one to Big Groyne and one down to Little Groyne? What does he say to them anyway? Does he leave them, say, with a Hawking quote before they run for the ski? To Ace: "Your goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all." To Owen: "Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at…now get out there and fucking tear it up." I imagined the last bit in Stephen Hawking's voice.
No such contemplations for Michel Bourez. He sat there before his quarter and ripped into a bacon and egg roll the size of a soccer ball, an ancient Polynesian pre-heat staple. He then stripped down to his boardies, waded out into waist-deep water next to Big Groyne, and just stood there. Peter King worked out what was going on. The competitors were all in a tent. There was no toilet. "Michel go pee pee?" Griffin Colapinto, grommet nerves jangling after making the last eight in his first ever tour event and about to surf Kirra for just the second time (the first was this morning), saw what was going on and was soon also standing in waist-deep water, just standing, laughing goofily.
Without a Mick or Joel or anyone with accredited Kirra pedigree there was no clear favorite today. Three of the last eight hadn't even surfed Kirra before. Ace set the blueprint early. The wave is so damn quick that you have to temper your ambitions, look for shoulders because they're gonna barrel anyway, and stay away from the big sets. Ace locked two sevens. Owen took a set and broke his board.
Phil Toledo sat nearby, still like a hummingbird. He came into the final eight with a strong form line. This contest felt like his to lose. His old boy, Ricardo came over, the two locked in tight, threw a couple of prayers down, Ricardo planted a kiss on his lad and sent him out. Against Tomas Hermes, Phil sat up the point and dropped straight into one. Hermes has a Shane Powell top turn, threw a couple of them, pulled in down near Little Groyne, and put a lead on Toledo who by this stage had somehow paddled against the current too far up the point. Ricardo started whistling madly at the very range of his whistle but his boy couldn't find the wave. Phil came in, threw his board and roared.
At 11:12 a.m., a four-wave set rolled through and there it was. Kirra. Legit, '90s-style Kirra. The wind was offshore, the sun lit it up blue, and all four waves spun perfectly below sea level. At 11:17 a.m. Griffin got his wave. The first section he did easy. The second was the tank. The third was an afterthought. It was the easiest 10 the judges will have all year. The crowd on the point lit up and suddenly they had a new cult hero. Griff ran through a pack of adoring kids on the beach. Griff himself looked like a kid…looked the kid that Mick Fanning had given his board to yesterday.
Griff will be a star. He spends an inordinate amount of time at Pipe so is comfortable in serious surf, has a great air game, and is a funny little bastard. And his first event on Tour almost ended with a final. His only mistake all week, getting clamped on a winning wave, cost him the semi against Julian. Griff knew. He came in looking like a dog that'd just been made to have a bath. To make it worse he got back to his car and he'd been ticketed.
They sent the women's semis out at Kirra, but not before taking another good look at Snapper. I'm glad they did. Kirra was a challenge, and the women's Tour needs challenges. It needs them and it's ready for them. Low tide Kirra was a challenge, and it's lucky the girls have universally adopted boardshorts, because low tide Kirra is no friend of the surfing bikini. By the time their semis got sent out it had come off the boil a little, but Malia Manual and Lakey Peterson both looked comfortable. Lakey, who'd been sitting there watching since 7:30 a.m. this morning, surfed hard through her semi and doubled down in the final. She out-enthused both Kirra and her opposition. She's got the chops to make a title run and with the air game a point of difference, and now that she's a part-time resident at Bells Beach – the next event – she's got a big chance to finally do it.
Hats off to Keely Andrew who made the final. Totally under-celebrated, her style is as easy to watch as Steph's, only without the same level of marketing. Without any marketing, actually. That's a second final for Keely now, and she is part of that second tier on the women's Tour who are almost indistinguishable from the girls at the top. Well, technically, she's now second in the world. It's her at the top.
Julian Wilson has been waking up at 3 a.m. and driving down from his home on the Sunshine Coast. He's a new dad and knows where he needs to be. Man, after risking his neck every day on the M1 – a stretch of highway used as a lawless racetrack by tradies and meth tweakers – he deserved to make a final.
But in another way Julian had no right to be there. He'd snapped his shoulder clean on a trail bike only a month ago. It was a miracle he even made it back to this event at all, but he rode some early round luck to make it to finals day Kirra. Once he got to finals day at Kirra he went beastly.
The men's final was epic. The incoming tide flicked the switch and just like that Kieren Perrow's call to move to Kirra was vindicated. The final pumped, and within minutes Julian had a 10…at least it should have been. His delayed drive into the belly of that thing was sublime. But to Ace Buchan's credit he threw down, pulled into a couple of mine shafts, and made a final of it. Jesus, Micro. One event with Micro and Ace makes the final.
But it was Julian's day. And for a guy who could hardly paddle, to win at the most paddle-heavy event on Tour was brave. When the siren went he couldn't lift his right arm to claim it. He claimed it with the left instead.
Julian can surf. He can surf well and we know that. On God-given talent he probably should have had a world title by now, or at least given one a serious nudge. He's won everything from Pipe to Teahupoo and now Kirra. They're the markers of a title. But it's been his temperament more than his surfing that's let him down in the past. He's burned through coaches without looking hard enough at himself.
Any first-time dad will tell you the transformative nature of the experience. How it puts you in the room of mirrors and suddenly you see yourself and your place in Stephen Hawking's universe differently. How an emotional maturing inevitably follows. I'm stoked for him. Little Olivia Wilson might just have been the missing piece in Julian's world. If you could have tapped into his thoughts on the M1 at 4 a.m., driving alone, what was scrolling through there, then today's win might not have been such a surprise.