Eight days of waiting for something to happen ended today in Tahiti, when something finally did.
Eights days of hour-long sun-showers and rainbows as swollen clouds were torn open by sawtooth mountains and illuminated by a potent sinking sun. Eight days of watching the school boat drive past (when you live past the end of the road the school bus is no good to you), its wake creating tiny but impossibly perfect waves inside the lagoon. Eight days of sleepiness broken only by a car actually moving! A coconut, falling! Or two dogs doing what two dogs do (not much in the way of neutering going on down this way). They were eight days of lazing about in green pastures, being fattened on the finest Tahitian produce, living the good life. And after eight days of it the surfers in the contest had become human wagyu, and like their bovine counterparts they sensed that it was all too good and had to end on a killing floor somewhere nearby.
But after waiting till the end of the waiting period, today we were forced to wait again before something happened. With a day-and-a-half of surfing left in the contest and just over a day-and-a-half of new swell filling in, the event was painted into a corner and the margins were thin. But when this morning dawned and the forecast swell remained tantalizingly just over the horizon, contest director Luke Egan waited till he saw the whites of its eyes, the first heat not getting underway until nine o’clock local time. The swell, super-south and shooting straight up the longitudinal tram lines, was always going to be a slow build, and so the 12 heats of round three were thrown out in occasionally piping but sometimes “pretty horrendous” surf (Kelly’s assessment). But after eight days in a tropical coma the surfers were suddenly giddy surf pigs, and they threw themselves into it with gusto.
In terms of importance to the contest, the World Title and the price of tea in China, there was only one result in the round that seemed to matter and that was the last minute dispatching of Kelly Slater by Brazilian wildcard, Ricardo Dos Santos. Ever since his win here in 2005, Kelly’s subsequent World Titles (five of them, thanks very much) have been anchored firmly around success in the South Pacific. He’d arrived in Tahiti having already having iced Fiji, and another win here would see the writing on the wall, the hearts of his opponents drop like stones in their chests, and an irreversible chain of events set in place that would make a surreal 12th world title an inevitability. And for 29 minutes and 57 seconds of the heat it appeared nothing was going to prevent this occurring. But this Dos Santos kid—stocky and fun-loving and without trademark Brazilian swarthiness—can sure ride a tube, and found one in the last three seconds of the heat that took the champ to the canvas. They say you don’t beat the champ on points, you have to knock him out, and this was a crisp right hook in the shadows of the 15th Round bell. For Kelly it appeared to be a case of c’est la vie, later confiding to the world on the webcast that it was the waves tomorrow—and not the ratings points—he would miss the most. He may be re-assessing this come October. His departure from the draw in one of his pet events, however, opened the door for a half-dozen other pretenders to his throne.
And so it moved on to the crapshoot of Round Four. This round has rarely delivered on the promise since its inception. A non-elimination round featuring the best 12 guys in the event, it was designed to give them the freedom to go for broke, push their surfing by incentivising winning. Instead, more often than not, (especially on points and reefs and anywhere on a slow swell) they’ve descended into unruly bar-room scraps, the collective will for turning the heat into a hi-fi movie part lasting as long as it takes the first guy to paddle inside the other two and drag them 40 yards up the point and out of position. For the first two heats of Round Four it appeared this might be the case.
But at 4:14 p.m. local time something truly magnifique happened. Something that restored the faith in not only in this whole silly Round Four charade, but in pro surfing itself. Jeremy Flores, Damien Hobgood, and Joel Parkinson paddled out for their heat just as the first serious juice from the new swell filled in, and in commune with the elements put on show so rapturous they fell under their own spell. Joel opened with an 8.9 backside tube. Jeremy Flores, paddling back out, watched the wave and marveled and told Joel just as much. “Jeremy came up to me and goes, ‘Parko, man, I saw your wave and the water was so blue and I could see the reef and there were two rainbows in the background and it was…beautiful, man.’” The former enfant terrible of the Tour has grown up, and Flores has given everyone no choice but to like him after displays of bravado and nuance at Pipe and Teahupoo, combined with a respectful and matured demeanor. And so he was duly rewarded by the cosmos when a throaty ol’ beast, girthsome and true was handed to him soon after. He claimed it before he drove inside it, hands-free and standing tall, and the 10s lit up the judges screen within seconds, the wave having happily passed the chicken skin test. [Jeremy’s 10 would not, however, be enough, falling to the aforementioned curse of the perfect 10]. Damo Hobgood meanwhile had set up camp—as all Hobgoods ritually do—on the western Hob-Bowl, where the sweetest but most deadly waves present themselves. He caught dozens for the highlight reel, but few of them made indentations on the scoreboard, much to Kelly’s bemusement on the webcast. Watching the heat, the placings almost seemed secondary to the show and it was a grand advertisement for pro surfing. Instead it was Parko, whose freewheeling, happy-go-lucky season (which included a cackling boogieboard barrel earlier in the day) found a good home in this heat. He would take the win and a quarterfinal spot riding a 6’2” rounded-square quad which he’d been flirting with all week but only committed to surfing minutes before the heat when the waves glassed off. If the waves stay clean Joel plans to ride it again tomorrow. After treading on a stonefish in his flip-flops yesterday and surviving without a flush of boiling poison in his foot, he feels his luck his in.