West of Gnarabup

Notes from a day of upsets at the Margaret River Pro

Yadin Nicol, putting together the kind of near-perfect performance he's always been capable of. Photo: Joli

Yadin Nicol, putting together the kind of near-perfect heat he’s always been capable of. Photo: Joli

Look west, seafarer. That's a big ocean out there, big enough to hide all sorts of mysteries. Big enough to hide sea creatures with steak knives for teeth. Big enough to hide a commercial jetliner and 250 souls so completely that not even Chinese spy satellites can find them. Looking west from Gnarabup on the red edge of the Australian continent you're left with the impression that this is an easy place to get lost. Yesterday, west of Gnarabup, 28 surfers disappeared right in front of our eyes...well most of them, anyway.

We're back in Margaret River of course because Western Australia has a bit of a PR problem at the moment. Ocean goers being torn asunder by giant fish hasn't done much for tourism in Australia's biggest state, so the government has stumped up the cash and invited the world's best surfers here to prove that it's not everything the six o'clock news might have you believe. That it is, in fact, a place where you can get barreled in the morning and drink a glossy, full bodied cab sav in the afternoon, the grapes crushed, dexterously, lovingly, by the feet of Rosie Hodge. While this corner of the continent is indeed stunning on several levels, whether the wave here at Margaret River is the ideal place to run a world tour event was the subject of debate in several quarters here today.

The problem with the wild west is that it's often wild, and the world's best surfers have had a tough time domesticating it this week. Bede Durbidge surfed the first heat of the round this morning, the onshore already up, the waves already ribbed, the lineup already hard to decipher. There were waves out there today Dali couldn't dream up and Bede knew he was no longer in Kansas...nor Snapper. "It's such a different ballgame," he laughed. "After Snapper I started surfing The Alley because I knew I wasn't going to get Snapper when I got here to Margarets. There's no draw off the bottom and the waves really slopey." It was a stark contrast to the shimmery cuteness of Snapper. There'd be no finesse about today. Today would be about concrete milkshakes and winning ugly. When pressed for his strategy Bede laughed again and replied, "You just have to hack into it while you can."

In the dying seconds of his heat with Taj Burrow--who lives 15 minutes up the road and is the poster boy for West Oz--Bede had hacked into it so successfully that he was in fact leading. When Taj mysteriously went over the falls on what looked like a winning wave, Durbo had chalked up the first of the day's upsets. Unfortunately, Bede is as honest as the day is long and came in and told anyone with a camera that Taj had accidentally hooked his legrope on that wave. Well, committees and sub committees were immediately convened and it was announced the heat--under a new rule allowing it--would be resurfed later in the day. The rule had been drafted apparently after Ace Buchan's missed priority call in Brazil last year, and immediately after the news of the resurf was announced the ASP hotline was flooded with calls. Retrospectively applied, Kelly now wants to resurf the Tahiti final from 2013, Gabe Medina wants to resurf Portugal 2012, and Cheyne Horan wants to resurf the 1979 Haleiwa final that cost him a world title.

There will be no such thing as a favorite for this event. Not after today. Put the names in a hat and draw one out. We saw exactly why when Yadin Nicol dispatched world champ Mick Fanning. You last saw this pair of course at Pipeline last year in the heat that decided the world title, Mick winning in a lineball call in the dying seconds. A forgotten player that day, Yadin was the other guy in the water, and lost in the euphoria of Mick's win was the fact that Yadin's loss excommunicated him from the Tour and sent him back to the minor leagues. That's a tough break for a guy with a family, but Yadin took it with a shrug of the shoulders, a pat on the back for Mick, and a smiling face full of teeth that had no right being there in the circumstances.

Today, in the event only as a wildcard, Yadin literally threw caution to the wind. On his first wave, on his first turn, he promptly launched his board into the breeze and to his great shock, landed it clean. Then he did it again. And again. Everything that had gone so wrong for him for three years on Tour suddenly went so gloriously right. Everything he touched turned to gold. It had been the heat Yadin had been threatening to surf for three years but never did, and Mick never stood a chance. One of Yadin's waves nudged perfection, two judges actually giving him a 10 that nobody thought they'd see this year. The judges have noticeably crushed the scale, in reaction no doubt to criticism of them handing perfect 10s out like candy to kids last year. In an interesting aside, during John John Florence's heat yesterday when he scored a near perfect ride, beach announcer Jake Paterson (who was famously sacked mid-event from the webcast in France last year for calling out the judges) asked cheekily over the beach PA, "That was a 10, right?" The knock on the door from the brass came within a minute. Laughs are in short supply on Tour these days.

The day had started with the women's semifinals, and initially they looked just as lost as the guys out there. Carissa Moore and Steph Gilmore found themselves drawn in the semis for the second event in a row, but as assured they have surfed this year the moonscape conditions knocked them out of orbit. It wasn't until about halfway through their semi that Carissa realized she was the more powerful of the two surfers and simply started surfing through the chop, rather than around it. The heat changed in an instant and Carissa was on. Later in the day when asked what she'd learned today about surfing Margarets she replied, "I learned how to surf the chops." The two most powerful girls on Tour met in the final, and for a while it looked like Tyler Wright might have entered what had previously looked to be a two-horse race for the women's title between Carissa and Steph. But Carissa Moore simply let Tyler draw level, looked across at her, smiled, dropped the clutch and drove out of sight. I'm not sure right now that even Carissa herself knows what her surfing might become, and watching it evolve this year in quality waves will be intriguing to watch.

As a postscript to the day, Bede and Taj Paddled out in the dying light of the afternoon to resurf their morning heat. Well, at least Taj paddled out. Durbo was nowhere to be seen, and for a while we silently contemplated an act of civil disobedience from the most easygoing guy on Tour. Was Bede really going to tell the ASP brass exactly where to file their rulebook? In the end he turned up, summoning all the anger his ginger genes could muster (he was still very nice about it) he paddled out and won again. Still pissed, he debated whether to even front for the post heat interview, but walked up the stairs, sucked it up and did it. On the way up he looked at a list of past winners here at Margarets and saw a Star Wars bar assemblage of surfers, guys who had gone to Margarets that year with little hope of jagging a result only to win the whole contest. That's Margies. "You never know who's going to win it, huh?" he offered, smirking knowingly, on the way back to the car.