A few years back, I watched Michel Bourez almost drown, right in the spot where he raised his arms yesterday afternoon and claimed the Pipe Masters title.
"Fuck, man," he recalls. "That was the worst day of my life."
It was a wild Second Reef Pipe day, and the young Tahitian, unable to pick off a Pipe set, had hunted an inside Backdoor wave. The wave clamped shut, and he popped up in chest-deep water to see a Second Reef set lining up to take turns pummeling him.
"It was December 2nd. I remember it because it was the anniversary of Malik Joyeux's death. I just went out and tried to prove myself, I don't know. It was really west, but there was the odd Backdoor one. Everyone's going left, but I'm pretty sure there are rights, so I took that first one and looked back out and saw the rest of the set. I thought, Bro, what the fuck am I doing? I remember swimming under the first one. I went all the way to the bottom and my leash broke. I knew I was in a bad spot. The second one broke right on my face and I went under all the way to the bottom and lost so much energy. I came back up, same spot, then the third one – Bang! I realized I couldn't keep doing this, so on the fourth one, I had no more energy, and I just let myself go. I got smashed all the way to the beach. I was so weak but I tried to pretend to be gnarly when I got out. I remember the lifeguard coming over and asking if I was okay, and I'm like, 'Brah, I'm fine,' and I sat down on the beach seeing stars. I went home and grabbed a beer and skolled that thing."
He drank a beer yesterday afternoon, too. Probably 20. But this time, he wasn't celebrating survival. He was celebrating the tiny barrel that secured him the Pipe Masters. I asked him a few years ago about his home event in Tahiti, figuring it was the one event on Tour more than any other he'd want to win. He shook his head.
"People keep telling me that winning at home would be the big one, but for me, I don't think so. Winning anywhere is good, but winning Pipe is the ultimate. To win Pipe, you're going to have to go through John John, Kelly, the best guys out there, and if you win Pipe, it's the best day of your life." It's a pan-Polynesian truism, and that's pretty much how yesterday played out for him.
The Spartan might have seen it coming, but I bet he didn't see the stars of the final day being Jordy, Phil Toledo, and Kanoa Igarashi, guys with zero Pipe form. Most thought it'd be John John and Kelly all the way, that the father-son airshow we'd seen a few days ago would just keep rolling through to the Pipe final. But the waves kept the field pretty close. You take out big, murderous Pipeline and run in small, perfect Backdoor, you're going to get some upsets, and there were plenty yesterday, none more so than John Florence losing.
In the euphoria surrounding his World Title season, most dismissed it was even possible, but John's home event is fast giving him a complex. He's the best guy out there 364 days a year, but each season, he finds some unlikely way to trip up and lose in the Masters. Mind you, he was a heartbeat away from winning his quarter with Michel Bourez, a half-board too deep on a sick one that would have won him the heat…and if he'd made it, this report would be telling a vastly different story. In the end, John can take consolation in his Triple Crown, his World Title, his Eddie, his whole season, his contract bonuses, his movie, his beachfront house, his boat, the fawning adulation of the surfing world. John didn't look too unhappy afterward, put it that way.
The other upset was, of course, Kelly losing in the semi to Kanoa Igarashi. The stats flashed up on the broadcast at one stage that Kelly had surfed 1100 heats. Eleven-hundred heats times 30 minutes probably adds up to longer than Kanoa Igarashi has been alive, but that didn't stop the rookie grommet simply paddling around Kelly for the first wave of the heat…and it didn't stop Kelly from just sitting there, watching him do it.
The kid couldn't believe his luck on several levels. This was perfect, small Backdoor, the kind of day that usually would see the lineup resembling a Black Friday department store sale, and Kanoa had it with one other guy. Beyond that, Kanoa was also surfing to get Hawaiian teammate Zeke Lau onto Tour next year by double qualifying. Every heat he won, the more excited everyone around him got.
Personally, I was hoping for a Jordy Smith win, simply to see his reaction when it happened. When he squeaked out of a long Backdoor barrel during Round Five yesterday morning, he was immediately struck down with a full-body Tourettes, claiming all the way to the beach. It may, of course, have been the demons of every other nightmare Pipe Masters campaign being exorcised.
And so we ended up with Michel Bourez and Kanoa Igarashi in the Final, and the ocean promptly stopped dead. Like, nothing. The grommet just sat there, not interested in anything but the sets that weren't coming. But if there's one thing Tahitians do well, it's sitting around casually, and Michel also sat waiting. In the end, the most respected contest in the world, the supreme test of heavy-water surfing, came down to two guys scratching into head dips with a minute remaining. Michel's head dip was better and he was crowned the Pipe Master, a title he'd started earning five years ago on the same section of reef.
As the sacred Pipe Masters trophy does the run from Hawaii back to the ancient Polynesian homeland of Tahiti, we reflect on the end of another season.
In a year where the world has collectively lost its marbles, with the threat of the clown apocalypse looming large, and with the systemic dysfunction in-built into pro surfing seeing sprockets flying loose, at least we had the best surfer in the world – John Florence – officially claiming the title of the Best Surfer in the World. There's something in that.
And so we bravely march on, looking forward to Kelly's final season…his final season, at least, until he turns up again the following year.