24 Jul 2012 0 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

How pro surfing turned its back on 20-foot perfection

By Sean Doherty

Ten minutes before the gnarliest clutch heat of his young life, Adam Melling walked past me on the luxury catamaran Bel’Mare drinking a coconut through a straw, Irie-shuffling with ear buds in place, looking a little too relaxed... current circumstances considered. Cloudbreak had been getting bigger since dawn and there were now 15-foot sets and it was flirting with the Second Ledge. Melling was the guinea pig. He was about to paddle out in the first heat of the day against Bede Durbidge, jousting the beasties with his 6’8” toothpick. A baying and bloodthirsty broadcast audience watched on, as did a legion of the world’s most fearless big-wave riders who were all in the channel. It was a day to be seized. No pressure, son.

Volcom’s Richard Woolcott, the architect of the Tour’s return to Fiji, was sitting on the nose of the marshalling boat as Bede paddled past. The boat erupted and Wooly yelled out, “We’re with you Bede!” before returning to his seat and whispering, “from right here on the boat.” The big-wave specialists who’ve been surfing it all morning paddle in one by one, and suddenly Bede and Mello find themselves alone out there. Very alone. Bede has Abe – the tour chaplain – caddying for him, more so for his qualification to administer Last Rites than his knowledge of Second Ledge Cloudbreak. “It was a pretty wild experience,” said Bede after the heat. “I had butterflies and everyone cleared out and me and Mel just looked at each other and we’re like, ‘Is this happening? Are we even in the right spot here?’ Having guys out there before us on 10’0”s was kind of heavy. There were a lot of factors that had you shitting yourself out there. And then Mel got cleaned up. I was right beside him and I started stroking as fast as I could and he was next to me stroking as fast as he could.” Matt Wilkinson was watching on from the channel as Melling paddled for his life. “He’s either going to be sweet... or not.” The wave passed and Melling had disappeared. “Not sweet is my guess.” Both guys gave the heat a real dig though and get a rousing reception when they made it back to the boat. Bede wins, but on a day like today you’ll be judged on more than the numbers. Kai Otton and Raoni Monteiro are next. Both are on borrowed boards – Otto is on Dean Bowen’s 7’2”, Raoni on Kala Alexander’s 8’0” – and apart from Kelly who’s had three nine-footers shipped to Fiji, everyone else in the contest will be forced to borrow boards. No one was ready for this. In the past whenever Cloudbreak got to this size you simply moved to the best back-up venue on tour, Restaurants. But all morning the best big-wave surfers demonstrated in real time just how much the paradigm has changed out here. Cloudbreak is now regarded as the most sublime big-wave paddle reef in the world, and it can be surfed at real size. Otto and Raoni plummed up. It cost Raoni his left knee and Otto a hold-down so deep he contends he suffered the bends, but both are carted away by the meat wagon with their heads held high. This was the last heat of the second round, and with the northerly devil wind the strongest it had been all day, the contest went on hold. At this stage, everyone in the first six heats of the next round assumed they were going to surf. “I got there just as Kai got his last wave and it was big,” recalls Mick Fanning. “I was thinking, okay, time to man up.”

And that’s when it happened. At 12.56pm the horizon lurched and at the top of the point suddenly there it was; a top-to-bottom rogue 20-footer that looked nothing like anything that had broken before it. “Nathan [Fletcher] didn’t even get close to paddling into it on a 10’10”,” recalls Mick who was watching on. “I just went, whoa. The whole vibe changed then and there. Everyone was like, ‘Oh shit.’ Everyone suddenly knew it was serious.” Thecallwastobemadeat2pmanditwasa nervous hour for the eight guys who were due to surf. The rogue 20-footers soon became regular 20-footers. The swell was clearly still building and there was a big decision to be made.

Pragmatic and cool-headed, Matt Wilson has been running surf contests for 15 years but has never had to face a day like this. His phone ran white hot. He spoke with head judge Richie Porta on the tower in the lagoon. Richie is leaning towards pushing on. He says his boys are happy to keep judging heats, but concedes the decision ultimately needs to be made on the boat, and more crucially by the guys who have to surf it. Matt spoke to Volcom’s Richard Woolcott, who is happy to go with whatever call is made. Volcom are on a win/win; contest or not they will have a kick-arse broadcast, as the cameras will keep rolling if the big-wave guys take over the line- up. Matt called Tavarua’s Jon Roseman, the guy who knows Cloudbreak better than anyone. He’s worried about the devil wind and doesn’t know if it will back off. Matt saw clearly in his mind the most compelling reason why this shouldn’t run – he doesn’t want to lose someone on his watch. No one has a board over seven-foot. No one has lifevests. The swell isn’t close to peaking and it could (and will) be anything by dark. Plus there are five days of solid swell still predicted for the waiting period, and he knows he has the cream of the world’s best big-wave surfers locked and loaded, sitting in the channel itching to surf the place like it should be surfed. Mark Healey is one of them, and is using the Jedi mind trick to get this thing called off. “I was really hoping that mid-size Cloudbreak would take the wind out of their sails, plus the wind was being a little bit funny. The transition from the First Ledge at Cloudbreak to the Second Ledge, it has to be a lot bigger, and when it’s breaking between ledges there are a lot of clean-up sets and it’s not as hollow and more difficult to surf. I was hoping that would be enough to get it called off, ’cause I knew it’d get bigger later in the afternoon.”

And so it came down to the surfers. On the back deck of the Bel’Mare are Bede and Taj Burrow who’ll surf the first heat, along with Ace Buchan and Mick Fanning who would both surf if the contest ran. Just as the surfers weren’t ready for the eventuality of surfing Cloudbreak at this size, they seem caught short when it came to making a call on whether to surf it or not. Surfer’s Rep, Kieren Perrow, a guy with few qualms in this kind of surf and the guy who’d been there to call the contest on that morning, was off surfing Tavarua Rights at the time. On the Bel’Mare meanwhile there was only one firm case being offered either way, and that was Matt Wilson’s. At 2pm Matt put it to the four assembled surfers, “I want to call it off for the day, are you happy for me to do it?” They all agreed, and the contest was officially off. The continuing devil wind was cited as the official reason, but the building swell and the chance of someone coming to grief was the real driver. Even though the wind is yet to swing offshore and the swell yet to really kick, Matt knows immediately he will be remembered as the guy who walked away from this day, but privately is happier to accept that instead of having a badly injured or lost surfer on his conscience. And so Plan B swings into action; 30 of the world’s best big-wave surfers paddle out and the world gets one hell of a show for three hours.

“I think in hindsight it was the right call,” states Mick Fanning, who paddled out to freesurf soon after the contest was called off. “It wasn’t a matter of people sitting there and being pussies, it was a matter of life and death. I felt like an idiot being out in the line-up paddling around out there not quite sure of where I should be. And in competition you push it that much harder because you’re so psyched. Someone could have got seriously hurt once you add a clock and a scoreboard. If everyone had lifevests and the right boards I’d say let’s do it, but no one fathomed it was going to be that big, you know. If it was the same size as Bede and Mello and Kai and Raoni surfed, then cool, let’s do it, but it just kept growing, and I think the people who made the decision, I think Matt Wilson was looking more from a safety and liability view and I think it was the smart decision. And you could have been wasting the best big-wave day anywhere in ten years on guys getting caught inside. It’s like plucking Shaun White from a half pipe and dropping him on top of a mountain in Alaska with no avalanche beacon and the wrong board and saying, ‘Off you go.’”

“I was in touch with them all day on the call,” recalls Jon Roseman. “It was super controversial when they called it off, but it was the right decision at the time, no doubt. It had ten knots of north wind blowing straight into it, and surfing into that bump when it’s big out there is almost impossible. No one was to know it was going to get glassy an hour later. Plus I don’t know how many waves they would have got out there.” The big-wave guys were relieved. “It was one of those days we dream and fantasise about,” says Greg Long, “so having to sit and watch from the channel would have been a tough one for us to swallow. But we have the utmost respect for those guys so if they’d run the contest we would have sat there and cheered them on. But I think if you look across the whole event and the waves everyone got, in the bigger picture surfing was the winner that day.”

But the decision – just as it was received by surf fans – also split the surfers themselves. “Seriously, we should have surfed,” said Parko. “I was asking last night why we didn’t take that opportunity. The bottom line for me was that all the surfers would have had a chance to get the two best waves of their lives in a heat in the best conditions you’ve ever seen. I think it’s a huge missed opportunity.” Six of the eight guys who would have surfed heats if the contest had run paddled out and surfed anyway. But it’s what wasn’t said on the boat when the decision was made that was most troubling. There was a way the contest could have run that afternoon, but it needed someone to grab the day by the scruff of the neck. Someone needed to frame the big picture, but no one did. Nobody spoke up for surfing. If someone had just climbed the spiral staircase on the Bel’Mare and delivered a fiery locker-room speech about how much pro surfing needed this day, about how this afternoon was a once-in-a-lifetime gift, about how Tom and MR would have surfed, about how just four heats of guys standing inside flawless 20- foot barrels could have marked the dawn of a new era for pro surfing, silencing a generation of critics and creating a new high-water mark for the game that would be talked about for decades like the ’74 Smirnoff, Bells ’81 and the ’86 Billabong. But no one did. It seemed the waves they were confronted with and the gravity of the situation had everyone looking squarely at the man in the mirror, and no one climbed the mountain and looked down from above. The idea of surfing heats might still very well have been voted down, but the fact nobody broached any of this is a disconcerting affair.

And so while surfing was a winner on the day – how could it not be when guys are being barrelled in perfect 25-foot surf and it’s being broadcast live to the world? – pro surfing comes out of this a loser. No one will give the ASP too much credit for the two heats they did run, but they’ll be tarred and feathered for the four they didn’t. The response online to the call being made was as predictable and splenetic as it was instantaneous, and Monday’s experts were already teeing off early on Friday afternoon. They can be a tough crowd. Run three hours of next-level big-wave surfing live to the world from a remote corner of the Pacific and ask them, “Are you not entertained?” and great swathes of them will say, “Actually, no, we’re not. Send Medina out!” But there was a chance there on that day for pro surfing to turn every one of them into believers, and that chance has now gone.

Maybe the most telling barometer of whether this was the right call or not lies with the greatest surfer of all-time; a guy who has won the Eddie, a guy with more experience on this wave than anyone in the field, a guy with a very short list of things still to prove. Kelly Slater, who last July experienced first-hand just how dangerous Cloudbreak can be at this size, didn’t even paddle out that Friday afternoon. “Man, it [that afternoon] was great,” he said a few days later after winning the contest, “but it seemed like everyone focussed on the downside. They could have run four, maybe five heats that day, and even the big-wave guys all said it was the right thing without having the equipment. And then only having two guys in the line-up it would have been really confronting for those two guys.” But like most everyone involved, it’s clear Kelly is still wrestling with that day and whether the right call was made. “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. But if the heat’s on you’ve got to go.”

What’s become clear out of this is that if they’re faced with that situation again – and my Lord I hope they are – both the surfers and the ASP need to be better equipped to deal with it. But for now it’s done. We’ll never know. For while the day has disappeared on the wind and we may never see the likes of it again, the pang of regret lingers. And as the saying goes, it’s better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven’t. Pro surfing will just have to live with that. “Would everyone have stepped up with the whole world watching?” Asks Parko. “We won’t know.”

This article is featured in the current issue of Surfing World magazine, FIJI: No Story Left Untold which is on sale right now. You can subscribe to that most excellent surfing publication here.

Tags: THE CALL , Sean Doherty , cloudbreak , fiji , melling , durbidge , slater , asp (create Alert from these tags)

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