CORONA OPEN J-BAY: COMPETITIVE SURFING RULES!

I ran into Derek Hynd in the tinned fish aisle of the supermarket the other day, perusing cans of sardines. We talked J-Bay, a subject close to his heart. The last time we’d seen Derek there was two years ago, in the minutes after Mick Fanning was attacked by a great white. In the background, as Mick was interviewed back on terra firma, if you looked carefully enough, you could see a small black dot surfing down the point, making the most of a suddenly empty lineup. It was Hynd, on the other end of the food chain. 

In the supermarket, instead of the trademark jeremiad about some corrupted corner of surfing, he was terrifically upbeat. The forecast for the contest looked good. “It’s a full-moon wave, usually, and the full moon’s just gone…but I think they’re going to get lucky on the new moon.” He looked down at a cheap home-brand can of sardines in his hand and an awkward few seconds played out. The silence was broken when he said, deadpan for comedic effect, “You know they’re for the cat, right?” 

I drove out of the car park and there was Mick Campbell, the Ginger Ninja, holding up traffic in the main street of Byron Bay, straight out front of Danny Wills’ surf shop, while Mick’s girlfriend reversed the car out. A non sequitur in terms of J-Bay, maybe, but seeing this pair was some kind of harbinger for a world title about to be won or lost. Jeffreys Bay is the median stop of the tour, six of 11, and with a traffic jam at the top of the ratings, it’s an event that will break things open as they turn for home. It might have the same points as, say, Brazil, but a performance at perfect J-Bay holds weight beyond mere points. 

“To see laarns like this is a welcome saart.”

Mick Fanning fired an early warning shot in his round one matchup against Sebastian Zietz and Joan Duru. (Cestari)

South Africa’s own Rosie Hodge liked what she saw yesterday morning at J-Bay: lines marching down the point were indeed a welcome sight. It was a stronger pulse than yesterday when Rosy had been ruling the freesurf. Many have her leading the J-Bay Pest Rankings™, although there has been strong competition amongst the bloated field of commentators, coaches, judges, and assorted hangers-on who have all been running on three surfs a day, clogging the point. Just as it was in Fiji, a memo from the surfers has again been sent to the Tour Manager. 

And wasn’t it great to see Joe Turpel back in the aloha shirt. The verbal equivalent of a warm cup of cocoa, Joe’s return has seemingly lifted his pals in the commentary booth. Pottz sprung to life, Strider delivered beat poetry from the bricks, and Shaun Tomson channeled Wyatt, his character from In God’s Hands. Joe’s return, however, wasn’t great news for Gigs, the South African kneeboarder, who got booted back to beach commentary for his home event. If you listened hard, you could hear him calling scores in the background, teeth gnashing between heavily pronounced consonants. Ronnie Blakey, meanwhile, has brought his old man along for the trip. The last time Alf Blakey was in J-Bay, he camped out on the point, not a house in sight, smoking ragged bush weed and surfing his carefree days away. When Alf ran out of money, he took a job as an extra in a South African spaghetti western, playing the villainous Afrikaans cowboy, Oigel Shoogey. 

Jeremy Flores threw down a 9.17 to post one of the single highest scores of the day. (Cestari)

Starting the contest with Parko in the water immediately set the tone. High line runs, twenty-yard bottom turns, golden-ratio top turns. Unbroken curves. No superfluous movement. Everything in harmony with the wave. It demands a reverent approach. Wiggolly Dantas had the gall to claim a tube and was promptly sat on his ass. Italo Ferreira, however, had better luck later with his Salt Bae claim. 

Concomitant with a wave as perfect as Jeffreys is a pressure not to screw it up, and that weighed heavily on a few guys yesterday. 

The third heat of the day featured Tour leader Matt Wilkinson and Tour rookie Ethan Ewing, who has yet to win a heat this year. I don’t know who felt the pressure more. Wilko had said that in Fiji, where he’d won the contest, he felt so confident in his surfing that if the wave lined up right as he paddled for it, he knew the score was already in the bag. Wilko might be the favorite to break a 33-year goofy J-Bay hoodoo, but that trust – in his surfing, in the wave – wasn’t quite there yesterday. 

But Wilko’s predicament paled compared to the kid’s. Halfway through the heat, Ethan Ewing had a chance to paddle to the top of the point and wait for a bomb, but instead caught a half-tracker, scored a five, and put him at the end of the line for the next set. It was almost like he preferred not to have priority and the pressure to do something with it. Later in the heat, he found himself with priority, and sure enough, the biggest set of the heat approached. The crowd whistled. You could hear the gears whirring. Was he too deep? First one? Second one? He took the first one and promptly fell on his first turn. 

There was some good surfing out there yesterday. Rosie has let enough waves go during the three laydays to allow the guys to find the point’s resonant frequency, and collectively, yesterday was the best we’d seen the group surf this year. There’s something transcendental about this wave when it’s on, where the contest seems to melt away into the background, and the act of surfing itself comes into sharp focus. When it’s on, J-Bay is as good as pro surfing will ever get, and the forecast they’re sitting on might just give us a glimpse of it. 

Conner Coffin on a mad tear against South Africa’s Jordy Smith and Michael February. (Cestari)

On the strength of one good J-Bay edit a couple of years ago, Connor Coffin was immediately recast as the Savior of Rail, although we’ve struggled to see it in other parts of the world. Yesterday, against Jordy, it was all there. His opening score, while throwing sparks, looked a little skippy off the bottom, double and triple pumping. By the time he logged his second score, however, his nine, the edges had been smoothed off and the flair was there and you suddenly didn’t have to stretch your imagination too far to imagine Conner winning this thing. 

JJF took a convincing win with the days highest heat total of 19.37. (Cestari)

But yesterday was John’s. Paddling out at the top of the pulse, John Florence announced his return to the Tour after going MIA since winning Margaret River. Most of it was done on pure positioning, most of his scores ticking over in the tube, and you sensed this still might only be third gear. Kelly paddled out next, intent, it seemed, on matching John. If anything, Kelly almost oversurfed the waves he got, which has been his trademark and his downfall this year. Yesterday, he was showy, even crotch-claiming his nine-point barrel. But on the whole, he looked great. His board looked to have a little extra tweak in the rocker while being nicely weighted and not having that corkiness about it. 

In the closing heats, Fanning and Medina both looked sharp, although later in the week, after the judges have seen better surfing in better surf, they will start to look at that skippy bottom turn of Medina’s and question it. They’ll mark harder on everything, because we only got a taste yesterday of what’s coming. 

Sean Doherty