So such has happened since we last broke bread. And at the same time, so very little.
Fred Patacchia got run over and dinged his board. A great white swam up to Kelly but smelt chia, not blood, and kept on swimming. And Jimmy Buffett dropped by out of the blue. I passed him in the street the day before he played his gig, shuffling around Coolangatta in white deck shoes and hidden beneath a floppy sailing cap, looking like any other leathery Gold Coast senior citizen in search of a cheap schooner and a slow and sun-drenched running down of the clock. While Jimmy might be a musical deity in the States, he can happily walk up and down Marine Parade without being recognized by a soul. There might be a lot of parrots here in Coolangatta, but few Parrotheads.
Jimmy’s cameo on one level made sense. He’s been friends with Kelly for years, the pair hanging out together at Miami Heat games, and Jimmy’s now also on the board of the ASP. You can connect the dots there as you will, but a few years ago on a beach in France I sat down with Jimmy and shot the breeze while watching Kelly surf a heat. We talked ocean for much of it, naturally, but while Jimmy’s love of sailing has been reasonably well documented over the years I also discovered he rides longboards, had just started SUPing, takes regular surf trips, and can fly his Gulfstream jet from Hawaii to Florida without refueling if he gets a favorable tailwind. As you’d imagine, he was tremendous company and a wildly interesting cat, and upon discovering last year that the Jimmy Buffett was on the board of the new ASP I gauged it as something a little more than a mere celebrity appointment. Few people on earth have built a more successful business from a love of the ocean than Jimmy Buffett, and if one thing has been made clear so far this week it’s that pro surfing in its new incarnation is as much about business as it is about sport.
When Jimmy played his secret gig on the beach at Rainbow Bay, there were a few murmurings that maybe they could have looked for someone a little more, err, contemporary than this salty 67-year-old guitar-slinging pirate. Surfing is for the kids, right? And hell, Mickey Avalon was in town the same night. But the ASP, just like the entire surf industry, is still coming to grips with who its demographic really is these days. Young? Old? Guys? Girls? American? Other countries that aren’t American? It’s a broad church and all up in the air at the moment. If you possessed surfing’s Rosetta Stone to unlock the puzzle it would currently be worth a fortune, because while everyone involved in the surf industry cries poor, I don’t see any less people surfing. There’s an answer in there somewhere.
But while Jimmy might not have exactly been age-appropriate for this gig, he was vibe-appropriate. The afternoon was blissfully relaxed, the Caribbean meets the Pacific, and surely any Friday afternoon where Steph Gilmore serenades you in a summer dress is a good one, right? [I had mentally erased the crowd and the rest of the band from the scene by this stage, leaving just Steph and me]. Then at 4:55 p.m. Jimmy broke into Five O’clock Somewhere, although this is Coolangatta, a town with a powerful thirst, and there were several in the crowd whose 5 p.m. had started at 9 a.m. that morning.
I’ve lost count of how many lay days we’ve just had and it feels like the ASP’s slogan of “It’s on!” hasn’t exactly lived up to its billing. But with just three days of the waiting period left and 27 heats to run, contest organizers had painted themselves into a corner and continued painting furiously this morning when they held off until 11 a.m. to start despite the swell having bucked. Dane flew past me on a set wave early this morning and sliced a rail so hot the wave literally squealed. It did. It squealed like Ned Beatty on the banks of the Cahulawassee River. Dane’s heat with world champ Mick Fanning today had the potential to create the same paradigm shift his heat with Parko created here four years ago. Would Dane’s surfing today become the gold standard that the rest of the Tour would be judged by? And more importantly, would a Dane win be the symbolic storming of the gates, the beginning of the end of the Mick, Kelly, and Joel era? Figuratively, today was like Mickey Avalon opening for Jimmy Buffett on the same bill, with the real Mickey and the real Jimmy both in the house.
Well, within the first six heats the Old World Order had been maintained. Dane losing to Mick Fanning meant that Jordy, John John, Julian, and Dane were now all kicking cans down Marine Parade and the whole season began to take on a familiar feel once again. Dane didn’t lose in traditional Dane style, and was as much a victim of the high tide as he was a victim of Mick’s assuredness. The late start this morning meant the whole round was on a collision course with the 4:18 p.m. high tide, and by the time Mick and Dane paddled out the zippy green slingshots of the early heats had become turgid and tough to pick.
Mick, so accustomed to a monastic preparation before a heat, instead watched the early heats from the balcony of the Rainbow Surf Club, a man among his peeps surrounded by hundreds of rambunctious day-drinkers, using the extra elevation of the surf club balcony to try and pick a line through the break. Mick took a nervous piss, walked out of the club and straight past Jimmy Buffet who was halfway through the burger special with a pre-five-o’clock beer, and down to surf a heat as crucial as any he’ll surf this year. A loss here on home sand would signal a recurring pattern of underwhelming world title defenses.
Both Mick and Dane looked lost out there. Dane’s first couple of waves were more burgery than Jimmy Buffett’s lunch, but then Mick started catching the wrong waves as well. By this stage however there weren’t too many right waves. Historically this event favors the local surfers more than any other event on Tour bar Pipe, but that favoritism only kicks in behind the rock at Snapper. Once it moves away from the rock Mick might as well be Brazilian. Eventually Mick found some rhythm down the end of the line, while Dane struggled riding a board of Jordy’s that just looked too bladey and too long to be a Dane board. His forehand fin throw never got going as a result, and it was the one turn that could have dispatched Mick.
There’s a blueprint in this for the young guys if they’re going to end the epoch of Mick, Joel and Kelly—not only do they have to match them on rail, they have to produce turns that Mick, Joel, and Kelly can’t do. Accentuate the differences. Sounds easy, but it ain’t. Dane drew the blueprint originally against Joel here four years ago, and four years later nobody has been able to pull it off, and now we enter the pointy end of the year’s first event and the same young guys we talk about every year are packing boards into cars as we speak. I just walked past Dane returning four brand new Channel Islands to Trav Lee’s unit, one of which he probably should have surfed today.
Another long-held dominance however, might fall here at Snapper. With the final two days of waves forecast to resemble today—steep walls and few barrels—there’s a real chance of a goofy win here at Snapper. Stranger shit has happened, people. Five of the last 12 are goofies, and the best heat today featured two of ‘em—Miguel Pupo and Owen Wright. Miguel has been on the receiving end of some radical orthodontics during the off-season and is missing both front fangs with a mouth wired shut. Watching his interview after his first heat last week you could see him almost praying for the sand at Snapper to just swallow him up. You had to feel for the kid—he was barbecued on social media—and you almost felt he might throw his next heat to avoid having to front the camera again. The opposite went down. Miguel flared, Owen flared, Miguel won…and somewhere a tear rolled down the cheek of Mick Lowe.