“Watch how sad Julian is about to become,” says Matt Wilkinson, watching on from the boat. “Giving Kelly Slater a 10-point wave is the shittiest feeling in the world.” The wave Julian gave Kelly isn’t a 10, but Julian won’t be feeling any better. It’s a 9.90 and the quarterfinal is as good as over. Inside the barrel on that wave Kelly actually rides the foamball on his belly, managing to right himself just in time for the thing to open up into a glorious spinning blue chamber. Kelly comes in and says, “Someone’s going to get a 10 out here today.” He will. It’s going to be one of those days for Kelly.
Kelly is soon back on the boat watching on as good friend CJ Hobgood—Cloudbreak specialist and all—is finding ways to lose against Adriano de Souza. Kelly is unimpressed. Two days ago at Restaurants, Adriano had broken gentleman’s rules and snaked CJ and tried to paddle him up the reef. It ruined the heat as a spectacle, but won it for Adriano. Kelly’s been on the receiving end of the same treatment before, most famously in Puerto Rico in 2010, and does not want Adriano to win. “CJ just needs to sit and wait and hope he finds a bomb,” says Kelly as the heat winds down in the dying minutes. CJ sits and waits and hopes and finds a bomb with just a few minutes on the clock. He comes flying out of a gaping pit with a claim that was strangely reminiscent of Adriano’s famous power claims.
The channel has come alive on the final day. The Fijian crew from the neighbouring islands of Namotu and Tavarua are doing burnouts in their longboats, waving flags and cheering raucously as guys from their respective islands catch waves. The top half of the draw is all Namotu while the bottom half is all Tavvy, so the final will feature one of each. The Namotu finalist was decided when Mick Fanning couldn’t find a wave against Brazilian teenager, Gab Medina, who, like he has at pretty well every other stop on Tour, proved himself a quick learner out here at Cloudbreak. The kid’s had quite the week. I shared a boat out with him on the morning of the big day and his eyes—usually dark, emotionless slits—were suddenly the size of dinner plates when confronted with 12-foot sets. It’s the first time he’s surfed this event, only the second time he’s ever been to Fiji, but the kid suddenly finds himself in the final.
Kelly’s performance against CJ in the second semi was frightening. Surfing a 5’9” quad, he combined 23 years of surfing knowledge on this reef with a performance level that is showing dangerous signs of still not having peaked—even at 40 years of age. His tube riding was instinctive, while the drive and torque of his backhand turns, well, no one came close to matching it. Kelly surfed Cloudbreak today as well as it’s ever been surfed. “I felt today I really came into form and I don’t feel I could have surfed much better to be honest,” he said afterwards. He chalks a 10, then backs it up with a 9.5. “That’s as probably about as good as I could do out here. It ticked all the boxes,” he said of the 10. “I got the barrel, did some turns and it spit at me when I freefell out of it.” He is quick to default and credit the wave though as the star of the show. “I’ve said it before; it’s the perfect canvas, that wave, and I’m just along for the ride. I was just enjoying it out there. I had a great time surfing against CJ. I was really looking forward to having as heat with him. I think he had some good karma on his hands after Adriano hassled the shit out of him the other day. But that wave got thrown at him in the last second and so we got a heat together. I was so happy to have a heat with CJ because it’s just fun being in the water together, its fun having heats with friends.”
Kelly only catches two waves in the final but that’s all he needs. Gab gets a gem, but a rookie win isn’t in the script. Not today. The Tavarua longboat waving the Stars and Stripes escorts him out of the lineup as the hooter blows, just as it did four years ago, the last time the Tour was in Fiji. Mick Fanning greets Kelly as he makes it back to the main boat. Kelly tells Mick he wished he’d made the final so he could pay him back for Bells. Kelly is now number three in the world with Tahiti next. This is how it used to happen when Fiji and Tahiti were back-to-back on Tour. This is where Kelly would make his title run. I later see someone online has already beaten the Quiksilver marketing department to nonsensical slogan, “Sla12er”.
But for now, Kelly knows it’s been a historic week that will be remembered as much for what didn’t happen as for what actually did when the contest stared down perfect 20-foot waves and walked away. “Man, it was a great week, but it seemed like everyone focused on the downside. They could have run four, maybe five heats that big day, and even the big-wave guys all said it was the right thing [for the contest not to run]. Without having the equipment and without the flotation, and then only having two guys in the lineup it would have been really confronting for those two guys. But hey, everyone would have gone out there and done their best and got a few waves, just that somebody might have drowned, that’s all.” Kelly is whisked off back to Tavarua where Kelly’s bar tab, notoriously frugal, will get a workout. The island’s favorite son has won again. “I’ve spent so much time on that island. Tavarua is a second home to me. Druku told me a while ago, ‘You’re welcome on the island anytime you want and can stay here as long as you want.’ One day I might visit and just not leave.”
Meanwhile the new world No. 1, Mick Fanning, is clambering aboard the longboat back to Namotu. It’s comically overloaded with bodies and boards. Mick stands at the bow and addresses everyone in the boat. “If I could just have your attention, I’ll run you through the safety procedure. In the unlikely event of this boat sinking, Karissa [Mick’s wife], as the only lady aboard you grab the biggest surfboard. Everyone else; it’s every man for himself. Ulai [our Fijian driver and the funniest man on the island], I’m sorry, you’re the skipper, you have to go down with the ship.” Back on Namotu, Mick seeks out young Gabby Medina and hands him a beer. The kid is not quite sure what to do with it. “Drink,” suggests Mick.