Parko made it back from fishing at 11p.m. the night before last. He trudged up the beach on Namotu, glad to be on terra firma, but knowing the repercussions were waiting with the dawn. They’d been out at sea for 22 hours. They’d caught one fish. He crawled straight into bed, and lying there next to him was his surfboard, an unridden 6’3” that had been pulled from his boardbag by Mick Fanning earlier in the night and covered in all sorts of unprintable graffiti and unflattering caricatures—Joel with a fishing rod, Joel in a boat, a disembodied nose just floating there. His stickers had been covered over with the logos of companies that sell fishing reels, fishing rods, fishing line. He should have slept like a baby that night, but he didn’t. Missing a heat for a spot of recreational fishing had the potential to make him a cult hero in bass and barramundi circles…but he was gonna look real silly amongst his surfing constituency if he lost his next heat and kissed his world title goodbye only halfway through the season.
Parko paddled the graffiti board out at Restaurants early this morning. The swell that had been chugging up the Tasman tramlines for the past three days filled in overnight and was wrapping geometrically around the corner of the island, albeit a little raw. “You never get the best Restaurants on the first day of a swell,” contended Mick Fanning. Regardless, the contest would run today and the pack scrambled for a wave before it did. Joel found himself on the boil as the set of the morning motored up the reef. Kelly was on his inside. Absent friends. Kelly paddled for the first wave only to miss it, then swung around and eyeballed the second, only for Joel to suggest that maybe he should wait for the next one. Joel took the wave, pulled in, and was barreled the length of the reef until the ribs created by the wind rounding the lee side of the island started rattling his back teeth. He bounced and bounced and bounced and was eventually driven through the board. Parko’s nose—drawn on the nose of his board—is now floating free somewhere in the Pacific.
Kelly was in good spirits today. Sitting around the table on Tavarua, overlooking Restaurants, he was holding court. Beneath his Bedouin headscarf he talked animatedly about his surf that morning, including a “Ssssaaaaaa” to describe one top turn. He talked about why he thinks ZoSea should hire celebrity commentators at events (he’s pitching for Bill Murray). He talked about a Hollywood mockumentary that’s been on the boil for a while—a big-wave Zoolander (Laird as Mugatu, anyone?). The champ is in great form and doesn’t seem too discombobulated by missing his first round heat. He’s in Fiji for Chrissakes, and short of sprouting hair you can literally see the years fall off him when he gets here.
For the second year running, Kelly finds himself drawn against the Fijian wildcard in this round. Last year it was Isei Tokovo, this year it’s Aca Lalabalavu. Aca is the son of Chief Druku—The Guy on Tavarua—and Aca tuberides the island’s premier wave accordingly. Take away Kelly Slater, the million-strong global audience, and the entire island waving Fijian flags and singing Melanesian paeans in his honour, and it was an average Thursday morning out here for Aca in this sleepy corner of the Mamanucas.
If Kelly hadn’t hung around in Florida for the birth of his brother Skippy’s kid, someone else would be surfing today against Aca, and Aca would have had more than half a chance against whoever it was. A Fijian win—something better than an honorable loss—is getting closer here every year for the locals. But the Fijians surf in much the same style as they play their rugby. The 15-man rugby game—the domain of the Old World powers—is all about structures and form and imposing physical will on the opposition, and the Fijians struggle with it. Seven-a-side rugby however, the national sport of Fiji, is different. It’s pure flow and instinct and devil-may-care attitude, and the Fijians are the undisputed masters. Kelly gets the lead, holds onto priority, and closes it out.
Before today, Yadin Nicol’s crowning moment at Restaurants was on the finals day of the 2006 event. The West Australian—who calls Santa Barbara, California home these days—wasn’t actually in the event, mind you, having been knocked out days earlier. But before the final, he paddled out on a cheap plastic kayak, took off on a six-footer, and rode it the length of the reef…straight into the dry, chicken bone coral of the end section. Today he’s an alternate in this event and was drawn against current world number one, Adriano de Souza. The Brazilian’s form has been irresistible this year, but his credentials as a world title kinda guy were always going to be tested by the Fiji and Bali leg of the tour—the leg of tubes ‘n’ turns and sweaty sleeps and rolling Rs—and today he came up short. Adriano’s heat, like several today, would be scrappy. It was illusory perfection out there. Restaurants is a wave that barrels from way up there to way down there, but that doesn’t make it easy to surf. Adriano’s fate would be tethered to those of his countrymen today, with Gabriel Medina, Alejo Muniz, and Filipe Toledo all saying tchau to Fiji in Round 2.
Parko’s gone-fishin’ no-show looked a real chance of coming back to bite him on the ass at the 28-minute mark of his 30-minute heat against Dusty Payne. Of all the top eight seeds in this event who surfed in today’s loser’s round (it’s the first time in pro surfing history anyone can remember this happening), Joel Parkinson had arguably the toughest assignment in Dusty Payne. Parko and Dusty were traveling partners on tour for most of last year and share a trainer in Wes Berg. When Dusty was at his lowest last year with injuries and career malaise, Joel was there to pump up his tires. Today it dawned on him that maybe he’d done too good a job. Dusty should have boated the win, but Parko did not want to be remembered as the guy who lost his world title by going fishing. It came down to an exchange late in the heat. Most watching on from the island thought Dusty got it, but Joel got the nod. In the end it counted for nought as Joel got a screamer as the horn sounded to ice it.
Dusty came in with a look of perplexed horror on his face. It’s a look we’ve seen frequently on both Namotu and Tavarua over the past week. A pirated copy of the latest Game of Thrones episode has been passed amongst the surfers (spoiler alert: if you have yet to see the aforementioned Game of Thrones episode and plan on watching it, please avert your eyes from this screen immediately). It was the episode with the “Red Wedding” scene, where central characters, kings, queens, pets, pregnant women, and unborn children—are all put to the knife in the middle of a wedding. Surfers have been emerging from the medieval dark of their burés into the touristy tropical light with looks of pure grey ashen horror on their faces. It’s the same look of horror we saw on Namotu last night when the first two waves of John John’s new movie were screened to the assemblage of Australian pro surfers staying here. They saw the horror again this afternoon, in real time, during John John’s heat with Bede Durbidge, which included a perfect 10, a 9.8, and the kind of tuberiding that we shouldn’t be seeing until some time in early 2015. They weren’t sure whether to cheer or cry.
And so it goes. Anyone with a swell chart in front of them will see weather systems queued up below Australia like 405 traffic. It’s gonna be Fiji for days. We’ll see you tomorrow.