Sean Doherty: Saturday Morning Bloodsport
COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY
The Margaret River Pro, Day 3
Winter is coming. On Wednesday.
Winter might technically already be here – today is June 1 in the Antipodes – but in Margaret River real winter isn’t far away. Anyone who has spent any time in the great southwest over winter knows how bleak an outpost it can be. Months on end of getting punched in the face by the Indian Ocean. Anyone with good sense and the means simply flee to the far north at Gnaraloo, or the far-far north over to Bali. The danger when the they moved the Margaret River window back to late May to avoid the salmon run and the swimming teeth that follow it, was that they were racing the onset of winter. Winter gets here Wednesday, and they’ll need to be out of here by then.
After the poolside event in Bali and the pool toy surf and the afternoon in-losmen massage, this morning was a kick in the teeth. Before the sun was up Leo Fioravanti was getting carted off by the meatwagon, his right arm dangling by cords. The swell was so strong that the traditional entry to The Box – from behind the peak – wasn’t really there. You had to get right under them, paddling blind into a howling offshore, and trust the universe.
This was a spot of Saturday morning bloodsport.
Throwing them into The Box this morning created a unique situation. Few of these guys in the field have clocked any meaningful time here, so they were going to need to learn in real time, on the fly, over reef with teeth.
Italo Ferreira pondered this as he hung in the lip early this morning. Paddling into the stiff offshore, staring at the black reef, no knife, no grab, he scrambled into it but then found himself standing inside the tube, facing the beach, arms winding up the windows, wondering what to do next. “I get in… I get out!” He jammed his board and kind of willed himself out of the thing. And that was it. Italo cracked the code. Made every wave from that point.
Johnny Florence meanwhile had form at The Box. As the original ‘90s slab, The Box has long been a honeypot for travelling Hawaiians, and since John turned the southwest into his personal studio he’s clocked up plenty of hours up there. He got his waves today but could still have lost if Jack Freestone had come out of his last wave. It was Seabass who was the first guy to look truly comfortable out there though. As an old ‘QS warrior, Seabass has posted up in Margies for a decade and has the place dialled. He’s also ever so slightly unhinged, which helps. His time out at The Box dates back to the days when Chris Ward would drive across the Nullarbor – alone for three days – to surf it.
Some guys love it here… Gabe Medina not so much.
Australians have had some fun at his expense since last year when he personally insulted all of Australia by publicly professing, if he had the choice, thanks all the same, but he’d rather not get eaten alive by a giant prehistoric fish. Gabe made the mistake of saying what everyone else was thinking. “Just get out there mate!” Came the chorus from all of Australia. “We surf with them all the time!” (We don’t.) But his southwest trepidation has been as much about The Box as it has the local marine life. He didn’t look comfortable at all against local Jay Davies out there two years ago and didn’t look comfortable for most of the heat today against countryman, Caio Ibelli… who conversely seemed to be having the best day of his life. Gabe looked like he didn’t want to be there at all… until he actually got a sick one, by which stage he was toast.
Your correspondent received an Instagram bollocking from Kelly Slater after his final day report from Keramas last week. Kelly didn’t like the passage that he was “refusing to go out gracefully”. It wasn’t meant to be pejorative. Quite the opposite. He posted that I love my little jabs. I asked him if he’d actually read the whole piece. He hadn’t. He apologised and we moved on. I told him I want to see him do well this year and I meant it. I want him to get to Pipeline with something to surf for. Could you imagine Kelly needing to win Pipe to make the US Olympic team? Woah mama. Ink would be spilled. The point I was making with the whole going out gracefully thing, was that if this is Kelly’s last full year he’s not doing what, say, Parko did last year – simply turning up at each event for a royal wave, a couple of waves, some beers and a goodbye. Kelly is still here to win, and at a couple of points this year it hasn’t been graceful… but increasingly that’s changing.
It changed on finals day in Bali and it changed again yesterday afternoon on the Margies right. Surfing to avoid last place, Kelly kept his Bali groove. Nobody on tour is surfing better, tight in the pocket right now. The pocket today at The Box was the size of a shipping container, over dry reef, but Kelly rolled through in the same fashion. The Margies event is always (with the exception of JJF on a burner) won by an outsider… and with a wholesale cleanout of seeds today it’s setting up that way again. Kelly winning, as strange as it sounds, would be an outside result.
It was during Kelly’s heat when Kelly climbed aboard one of the skis mid-heat that we heard, for the first time in several years, an acknowledgement that former head judge Perry Hatchett was actually out there on the ski working water patrol. He’s done it for years. Perry, you might remember, had his papers stamped by the old ASP. No one was sure why. Perry’s still not sure why today, nine years later.
By the time the electric teeth of Conner Coffin paddled out the offshore wind had dropped and it was turning into a bluebird day. When Conner pulled into a crystal cavern alongside a dolphin pod there was a collective orgasm inside WSL headquarters at Santa Monica. Back at Margaret River it was the cue for a furious spruiking of wineries and dolphins and magical caves to keep the sponsor – WA Tourism – happy before a baby dolphin was bitten in half by something bigger. WA Tourism, of course, is run these days by another familiar face… former ASP CEO Brodie Carr.
Conner has long lost the pretty boy tag. He threw himself into the big day at Pipe last year, and he went hard again today. A bloodthirsty koala bear.
Jack Robinson lives just back on the river, checks the surf by drone, and was special against Toledo. The Box is a set of sequenced moves which, if started in the right spot, should end with you being chundered into the channel two seconds later. Jack has this sequence mastered, and today shucked and jived his way to the best heat of the year so far. The heat was over as a contest after 10 minutes, and if the contest stays at The Box in days ahead he’ll win with embarrassing ease, a famous win for Australian surfing.
Maybe this is the key to restoring Australian surfing dominance… venues where we don’t need to turn. In these dark days for Australian surfing without a living Australian soul in the men’s top 10, Jack Robbo remains a faint ray of hope for Australian exceptionalism. Having traded out dad Trev Robbo for girlfriend Julia, added some muscle and dropped some octaves, he’s looking a lot more comfortable in tour company.
Toledo’s demise meanwhile saw the Brazilian Storm, in this event, be downgraded to a mild high pressure system centred over the Margaret River car park. After three months away, they’re homesick as hell, but in saying that this event is clearly not their schtick. With the exception of Italo they all bit the dust today… all except for Jadson who bit the reef. In what would turn out to be the final heat at The Box for the day, Jadson scorpioned on his last wave and was pinballed around the inside reef, and eventually surfaced next to Leo’s arm. There was serious concerns for his welfare until he came up clutching his ass.
Jadson’s ass prompted a move across to mainbreak to finish the day. The judges hadn’t seen a single turn all day and it showed. They made a mess of the Duru/Crisanto heat, judged the whole heat within a single point range, stopped weighting the first turn, and in the process barbecued the Frenchman. Duru was displeased. Pottz was pissed. We can only hope that as it did with Johnny Florence two years ago, surfing wins this thing.
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