Sean Doherty: The Festivus of John Florence
COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY
Finals Day at the Margarer River Pro 2019
Finals day… or “Happy Finals Day!” as the commentary team celebrate it in a happy-joy broadcast environment. I’d like it, just for once, to be celebrated Seinfeld “Festivus” style with Pottz playing the role of Frank Costanza, and for one day of the year tells it like it is, offering free character assessments of both the surfers and his fellow commentators.
I don’t know how seriously they were considering running the women across at The Box this morning. It wouldn’t have been happy-joy. But this is why Margaret River is such a beautiful anomaly on tour. A wild old event that makes pretty much everyone in the field decidedly uncomfortable in some way. It always has. If you get a chance, watch Pauline Menczer’s 1990 Margaret River wipeout. She said she woke up that morning, walked into the bathroom, and the water in the toilet bowl was rippling through a subterranean vibration. She thought it was an earthquake but was informed by her local host that it was in fact the ocean… and the ocean was big. Pauline borrowed a 7’8” and headed off with no idea what to do with it. She paddled out and ran into Pam Burridge, who said, “Be careful Pauline, I almost fucking drowned in there!” Next minute Pauline was stuck in the lip of a 15-footer.
The first women’s semi was close. Sally Fitzgibbons can’t match the top end for fireworks these days, but she can win on pragmatism and wave smarts, and that’s what she’s been doing well lately. Tatiana Weston-Webb snapped harder but was struggling to join the dots. The judges had them tied in the dying minutes… kind of hard to fathom when they were only trading fives. That’s like putting a phone box on a football field and cramming five people into it. The regimented scale that’s been the hallmark of Pritamo Ahrendt running the show has oscillated pretty wildly this event. Luckily Tatiana saved them by lighting one up a minute out from the end.
The jump in swell was always going to help Carissa Moore. Smooth in size and better on the open face, the peak had moved further out by this stage, giving her more room to move. Carissa opened with a seven and looked a winner. Lakey, meanwhile, was jinky between turns on the open face, but sparky when she had a section to hit. Carissa surfed better on the outside, Lakey better inside. Lakey, however, is on an unholy roll right now. No one – man or woman – has made the inside section of the Margarets Right look more rippable this week.
You can set your watch by the customary shark scare these days, and here it was, second heat of the day. Something black chasing a herring ball down over at Southside. Local Perry Hatchett was on the ski scooping up Carissa and Lakey, wishing instead he had fishing gear with him. The WA Fisheries boat performed its ritual hot lap through the lineup, unable to do much more than symbolically let people know it was there. Five minutes later the girls were back in the water and the heat was back on. A shark buzz used to clear the lineup for half a day. Now it’s five minutes. Bronzey or megalodon, it didn’t matter, they really needed to get today finished before the wind set in, because if they weren’t finished by lunchtime they’d finish in October when the wind dropped. Once the semi restarted the judges again had all four scores jammed within a single point spread, and it was Lakey who surfed into the final.
Caio Ibelli making the semis was hardly a promoter’s dream for the WSL, considering they’d binned his injury wildcard application despite it being the most legitimate. He’s been taking perverse joy this week in making heat after heat, drawn against the guys who’d taken his spot. Taking Kelly down on Sunday was one thing; Johnny Florence in the semis on a rising swell would be another matter. Both surfers went out undergunned and it showed. With the wind picking up, both boards were trying hard to get out from under the feet of their owners. The rail length might have been okay, but some extra weight wouldn’t have hurt. We kept waiting for some kind of final day paradigm shift from John, instead it turned into a low-scoring dogfight. Against the golden boy, however, Ibelli was going to need to win by two clear points to win at all, and his final wave, as clean as it was, was never going there.
Ronnie had his Festivus moment after Kolohe declared he had power turns nobody on tour had seen yet. Ronnie replied, “Well it might be time to bust ‘em out mate, you’ve been on tour for eight years!” Kolohe and Julian hadn’t even got going when they were hauled aboard after another shark was spotted and the WSL Shark Liaison Officer, Renato Hickel, ran through the safety protocol for what felt like the 20th time this week. So much for March being shark season.
BL took the opportunity in the break to add sobering perspective for the two guys in the water, Julian and Kolohe. He talked about life priorities and how these guys have both been on tour a while now, and how – unless you’re Kelly – the tour can only stay a life priority for so long. Julian is 30, married with a kid. Kolohe is married and has been on tour eight years. Without saying it, BL hinted their respective title windows have a shelf life and they needed to get busy.
Their respective career desperation became 10 minutes of heat desperation when mainbreak stopped breaking during their semi. Suddenly they were duking on threes and fives. Brother is an intense cat though this year. He sat coolly and with 90 seconds on the clock left a wave for Julian; Julian needing only a five. After losing the final at D-Bah doing the same thing it took some stones, but the universe owed him one and Julian fell short. Kolohe was through to the final… unless of course Julian – who launched an air with 10 seconds to go and flew out of screen and was blown away out of sight – managed to land the air somewhere down near Cape Leeuwin.
The Indian Ocean won the women’s final, followed by Lakey Peterson. By this stage the wind was fairly up, sets were building, and Tatiana’s board was chattering badly. It needed tow weights added to it. As Tatiana faded, the commentary was bold enough to wander into the topic of the Brazilian Storm being exclusively a male domain. Tatiana, remember, was officially Hawaiian two years ago. The commentators said it will only be a matter of time before the Brazilian women mirror the dominance of the Brazilian men, despite there being absolutely no proof of that.
Lakey meanwhile had shown the way to deal with Margarets is to push back. Margarets is a battle of the elements, and you need to beat the elements before you beat anyone else. Lakey’s now back in the frame to challenge Steph, and while Steph can win pretty, Lakey proved over the past two days that she can win when it gets wild.
The spike in the wind was going to work in Kolohe’s favour. The final was a repeat of the 2017 final here, and Kolohe needed a lot to go in his favour if he was going to avoid a repeat of the same result – John tearing through time and Kolohe becoming a historical footnote as the guy who was in the water, watching on, the Washington Generals to John’s Globetrotters.
Kolohe got straight down to work. Two waves for an 11-point lead. John yet to get out of the gate. Things were looking up.
Five minutes later Kolohe was chasing a nine. Then it was a nine-five.
John had chased sets in his semi that broke off the reef and rolled through, but finally got hold of a mid-tracker that hugged the reef and he eviscerated it. This time around his surfing didn’t have the same effect on the central nervous system as it had two years ago, but it was still thunderous. He won the final going away, and the commentary was quick on the draw with the title talk.
I’m not so sure. Not yet anyway. Margarets has clearly become John’s spayed pet event, and he leaves here a full half-win ahead of the field, but the tour heads to Brazil next and it’ll be a different set of elements he’ll have to deal with over there.
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