“Kelly only needs a four,” Damien Hardman offers, almost in hope of him finding it. I remind Dooma that last year in the corresponding heat Kelly only needed a three…a three he never found.
Hardman is the contest director here in Portugal and lives up to his name when push comes to shove and his contests start running out of both days and waves. The same clinical, no bullshit manner that won him two world titles has also served him well in pro surfing’s second-most thankless job (after judging and just before commentating). Last year here at Supertubes he’d sent Kelly’s heat against Raoni Monteiro out in chaotic, goopy conditions, and Kelly dually lost both the heat and momentum in his world title race with Joel Parkinson. Impressed, Kelly was not.
This morning, history repeated with Kelly drawn against local Portuguese wildcard Frederico Morais. Supertubes was neither super nor tubular this morning, but in Dooma’s defense, he had to pull the trigger. While the rest of the waiting period offers swell it’s being accompanied by southerly devil winds, which will turn the place into fish soup by the end of the week. This fact however didn’t make Dooma any less uncomfortable this morning as both Kelly and Mick Fanning—the two guys jousting for the world title—were the first to paddle out into the cheesy sea.
Dooma spent most of Kelly’s heat ghosted away at the far end of the contest site, almost unable to bring himself to watch as Kelly’s chances against the wildcard slowly and inexorably bled out. But Dooma—like everyone else watching on—could see it wasn’t so much the waves that were hobbling Kelly…Kelly just looked lost. Trailing, he started mining the tailings of the break looking for the small wave he needed to take the lead, rather than sitting and waiting for a diamond. Morais, meanwhile, did just that, sitting stoically still looking out to sea like an Easter Island statue waiting for the best wave of the heat.
Morais hadn’t been quite so composed this morning back at the Hotel Atlantico. For the past four days he’s known this heat has been coming, the biggest moment of his young life, but when his coach Dog Marsh informed him the comp was on and today was the day, the revelation had an immediate laxative effect and forced him to drop everything and run back to his room. Walking down the beach carrying a yellowing, three-year-old Channel Islands thruster he looked like a member of the Portuguese crowd here to get Kelly’s autograph. But while Morais—who goes by the nickname “Kikas”—didn’t do exactly that this morning, he surfed smart and when his chance came to him, a rare clean right, he surfed the house down.
As the final minutes ticked down Kelly’s entourage of girlfriend Kalani, manager Terry Hardy, and board wranglers Belly and Trav Lee could scarcely believe that, for the second year running in Portugal, the wheels were coming off the truck. And when Kelly fell on a Hail Mary frontside spinner in the dying seconds there was a gulp of coffee, a scratch of the head, a look down at the floor for answers, and some pacing to nowhere. Somewhere nearby, Mick Fanning stared flintily out to sea and allowed himself a tiny clench of the fist. It’s not the world title yet but it’s a huge step toward it. The loss for Kelly was a crucial one, but in many ways it was not the upset it appeared to be. When Kelly came in there were no sharp words. There was no panel beating of surfboards. There was no looking for Dooma for some freelance venting. There were a few words of congratulations to Frederico and a quiet air of resignation that this moment had probably been brewing for a few weeks now.
Up until Trestles the world title battle had been a false war. There’d been no battle at all and the title was there for whoever wanted it most. The wildcard in all this was always going to be the waves. Through France and now into Portugal the surf has been underwhelming to say the least, and while Kelly hasn’t engaged, Mick, as he did in similar conditions in ’07 and ’09, has stormed the continent.
This pattern for Kelly was set earlier in the year. At Kirra, Cloudbreak, and Teahupoo we saw his best. All had great surf. In the case of Cloudbreak, Kelly’s surfing was just about the greatest damn thing we’ve ever seen, purely breathtaking. But it’s all about what gets you out of bed in the morning and what brings you to the contest, and for Kelly it’s clear at this stage of his career that silverware alone doesn’t cut it. The silverware he’s got at home is full of fruit or residing in friend’s houses, and turning up to these things is clearly no longer simply about trophy collecting. It hasn’t been for a while now. For more than 20 years he’s shown up year after year, surfed a million shitty waves in a thousand shitty events that have all sped past in a blurry montage. He needs something to engage him on several levels, and that’s just not there at the moment. He needs a fresh challenge, and that will most likely come next year with the dawn of the ZoSea era—an era Kelly has helped usher in—where he will have one hand on the tiller and one hand on the trophy.
In the vacuum of interest after Kelly’s heat there was a poignant minute that was largely missed. The last heat that ran before the contest was placed on hold was between Brazilians Adriano de Souza and Raoni Monteiro, the world number 9 versus the world number 33. The significance of the heat only became clear once the dust had settled and Adriano had clearly taken the win over his countryman and friend. Raoni, one of Brazilian surfing’s favorite sons, has had a wild old year. He’s had moments of joy (beating Parko at Bells, the birth of his daughter Valentina), he’s had low moments (surfing without a sponsor and missing events as a result), and he’s had some predictably crazy Raoni moments. But his loss today almost certainly confirmed that he won’t make the Tour next year. Raoni may not have the tag-along filmer or the hipster haircut or the bank balance of some of his more celebrated peers, but Raoni has the heart of a lion and today it’s broken. He’s going to have to find another way to put bread on the table for his family next year. He broke down in tears and was comforted by Gabriel Medina’s mother, Simone, alongside Adriano, who was almost as distraught at having been the one who delivered the friendly fire.