For all the talk of million dollar handshakes in faraway hemispheres, deals inked in great cities destined to usher pro surfing into a new era of global ubiquity, there are still moments that remind you that whatever this sport may or may not become, it remains delightfully “backyard” out here on the fringes where the real surfing happens. One such moment occurred at 6:38 this morning.
Walking down to point at dawn we saw one of the local dogs swimming out in the lagoon. We recognized this buffoon instantly. It was The Rock Eater. In the absence of sticks this black staffordshire-cross-Christ-knows-what has developed a taste for the baseball-sized volcanic rocks that line the beach, dropping them at your feet while goofily staring at you, wanting nothing more than the pointless euphoria of you picking it up and throwing it out to sea.
This morning The Rock Eater had been enjoying his morning constitutional, chasing rocks on the lagoon floor, but instead of fetching a rock from the bottom of the lagoon had snagged a thin black cable. The cable that runs from the broadcast house to the tower. The cable that all the vision, scores, and computer signals are transmitted through. The cable. Initially comical, it slowly dawned on those present that this canine bonehead, possessing the combined IQ of the rocks he chases, was currently holding a million dollar broadcast in his big dumb slobbering mouth. The tech heads immediately freaked, but softened by 22 hours a day spent indoors, and without an app or some form of software that could solve this crisis, they had no answers. Panic ensued until a simple solution presented itself: throw another rock for the bastard to chase. The rock was thrown, the cable was dropped, and fortunately for the global viewing audience three years of chewing rocks had reduced The Rock Eater’s fangs to gummy stumps that couldn’t make a mark on the thin piece of licorice that took the Billabong Pro Tahiti out to the world.
If he’d bitten through the cable, the only people who would have watched the Billabong Pro today would have been the local Tahitians, who were enjoying a public holiday. Initially this public holiday was pretty much indistinguishable from every other day here—life here in many ways is 365 of these things strung together annually—but after an early mass the congregation of St. Benoit’s made its way out into the channel to enjoy the surfing and watch a couple of the Tahitian boys try their luck. They came in bathtubs with outboards and they came in motor yachts. They came in tire tubes and they came in poto maris. One guy even drove his tinny straight up onto the reef and enjoyed the best seat in the house.
My friend Manu and his infant son, Teavanui, sat under a tree draped with fishing nets, escaping the midday sun while watching the commotion out on the point where maybe two dozen Tahitian families lazed and frolicked and barbecued and drank under the palms. Manu nodded out toward the point. “Busy, huh?” I concurred that indeed it was, all the time thinking about the Huntington contest a few weeks back, all the while struggling to see a similar breakdown of civil order occurring here today. Miss Tahiti was also here, a vision splendid in a modest hibiscus dress, disarming with a shy laugh, and without any suggestive comment written on her body in Sharpie.
Over the past week the tropical torpor we’ve become accustomed to here in Tahiti has been replaced by an icy blast from the south that brought with it grey skies, but no swell. Today we awoke to a different world. The wind and the clouds were gone. The eastern flanks of the mountains behind the village were lit up majestically in the morning sun, while out beyond the reefs a small pulse had filled in adequately overnight. The trades whispered gently and the decision to start the contest on the first day of the waiting period was an easy one for Luke Egan. It might be his only easy call on a threadbare forecast. Today’s swell may have been weak, but it was at least out of the west, so it was at least able to focus and magnify itself on the right parts of the reef and present some moments. And with the sun overhead and the water gin clear, the place became an open-air aquarium and we were reminded that there is no such thing as a bad day in paradise.
The first round threw up no alarms and no surprises, with the exception of Mick Fanning and Taj Burrow both being bumped into Round 2. Taj fell to Matt Wilkinson, who’d employed the novel strategy of catching the two best waves of the heat instead of the 14 most mediocre ones, while Mick drew Fred Patacchia for the third year running here in Tahiti. These two have history. They’d last met in Bali a few weeks ago, where Fred lost to Mick in a close call and returned to the surfers’ area to ventilate the plywood lockers with short rights and lefts. The pressure of having to surf two tours and win heats to feed a young family he was seeing less of was finally catching up with him. Today when I met up with Fred after his heat the world was a better place. He’d just disembarked the Femme Nu—his local boat christened after the reputable Honolulu gentleman’s club (a friend of mine went once)—and Fred was basking in a convincing heat win over his old mate. We reminisced about the history of the pair, dating back to when Fred almost derailed Mick’s world title in
2007 2009 when he handed him a loss in Mundaka. The latest installment had gone Fred’s way and it was thoroughly earned. Few people compress and cannonball inside the Teahupoo barrel like Freddy P, and don’t be surprised if he’s playing a pivotal role in the outcome of this event.
The best heat of the first round—unsurprisingly featuring the best waves—was Parko’s heat with Brother Andino and Anthony Walsh. The latter, for those who’ve not encountered him in his several million Instagram posts shot from inside tube with his trusty GoPro, hails from Lennox Head but lives with his girl and young son on Oahu these days—and he can barrel ride like a mofo. If the swell was 8 foot, he’d be almost unbeatable out here, but few gave him a hope against Joel at 3 foot, even fewer when Walshy allowed his two opponents to take waves on the hooter and chalk big scores. But Walshy knew something. A piggyback set rolled in soon after and he had the pick of ‘em, the one he took draining most of the water off the reef before folding over him. He may have surfed over one, two, three foamballs to come out (check his Instagram feed for clarification), but come out he did. It was the most cut and dried 10 this year. But just as Parko discovered earlier this year at Bells when he lost to Raoni, a perfect 10 can be both the blessing and the curse. Walshy was unable to back it up and was consigned to one of the four sudden death Round 2 heats that were surfed under a blazing sun this afternoon.
If the first round went to script, the handful of Round 2 heats that ran this afternoon deviated wildly. Walsh & Walsh sound more like lawyers or undertakers than mercenary surfers, and when Ian and Anthony Walsh paddled out for their sudden death heats this afternoon against their respective high-seed opponents—Taj Burrow and Nat Young—few gave them a sniff. If it was 40-foot Jaws or 12-foot Pipe the shoe would be on the other foot, but neither had surfed Tour heats outside of Hawaii in the better part of a decade and the tubes of the morning were long lost memories, replaced by a wobbly, devil wind crumble. The top seeds were all keen to surf, the idea being to take these big-wave tube guys to school in waves that looked more Huntington. That was the theory at least. Instead Walsh & Walsh surfed smart, methodical heats. They mightn’t have had the small wave chops of their opponents, but some old lessons learned in previous lives during obscure WQS events in Newcastle and Florianoplis and Newquay came flooding back to both of them. When Taj went up for the winning turn against Ian Walsh in the dying seconds of his heat only for his board to snap under his feet like cracker bread, it was a sign from above. The barrels then returned for Anthony Walsh in the next heat and Nat Young’s fate was also sealed. Nothing was going to surprise anyone by this stage, and local boy Alain Riou’s victory over Adriano de Souza in the final heat of the day seemed almost fated. He then got in his dad’s boat and drove home. It’s going to be a big night up in Viarao.
Symbolically, the warning sign from the Code Red swell two years ago—warning that all craft were prohibited from taking to sea on August 27, 2011—now forms part of the cladding on the broadcast house. There will be no Code Red swell this year, nothing more than Code Magenta. But as today proved, Teahupoo doesn’t need to be 20 feet and tearing people limb from limb to provide some real sport. Tomorrow is also apparently a public holiday, so if the dog gets hold of the cable in the morning at least we’ll still have a crowd.