THE RETURN OF THE TOOTHY PALOOKA

J-Bay, Mick Fanning, shark… again.

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Just think, if it wasn’t for ol’ Chompy the blue shark going all Sharknado out the back of Jeffreys Bay the previous day, then we wouldn’t yesterday morning have seen the wildest half hour of tour surfing we’ve witnessed since, well, since Kelly was a boy. You never thought you’d consider a shark sighting at J-Bay a stroke of good fortune, but that’s exactly what it turned out to be… lucky on two counts.

Firstly, while everyone was freaking out over the shark and everyone was scrambling and the water was being cleared, one of my spies on the point noticed a baby whale breaching further around the front of the point. He grabbed his binoculars for a closer look and he swears on his mother’s grave (she’s alive) that if it was indeed a whale, it was a 15-foot great white whale with a mouth full of teeth.

We were lucky on a second count, of course, because it meant the heat between Jordy, Julian, and Filipe Toledo that had been abandoned the previous afternoon was rescheduled for early yesterday morning and would deliver something seismic.

Devil wind is a relative term. One man’s trash, another man’s hot lunch, and nobody was happier than Filipe Toledo when they sent his heat out yesterday morning with the wind channelling down the Gamtoos and huffing across the lineup at Jeffreys. It was the faintest of cheese breezes, but it was all he’d need.

Phil had already redefined his own game here at J-Bay this week, moving his small-wave, hot-rail game into double overhead surf. But then he paddled out yesterday morning and not only rewrote 50 years of J-Bay surfing, but he flipped the tour on its head by flipping himself into the African sunrise.

Toledo started off playing it cool, racing, throwing sparks, but with the swell straighter and quicker than the previous day and the devil wind making it tough to come off the bottom, Phil did what Phil does. The first alley oop felt came like a lightning bolt from a clear blue sky. After days of heavy rail it was jarring on the judges. But it was his second wave that highlighted how goddamn brilliant the guy is. It wasn’t even so much the alley-oops themselves, both of them totally tweaked, his body movement in the air having a stylised, Tim Burton stop motion quality, it was the fact he could land clean and just keep surfing down the line like nothing ever happened. If Kelly’s air at Bells changed the paradigm on Old World waves, then Toledo’s heat today destroyed the notion of Old World waves entirely.

If Toledo’s 10 was indeed the single greatest thing to ever happen in pro surfing, then it held the title for about three minutes.

As the next heat started a huge set capped wide, and as we watched the three guys scramble underneath them… wait, is that… by the beard of Poseidon himself! My mate yelled, “Is that a boat doing a fucking floater?!” The set had been so big that the shark boat had been caught inside, forcing the skipper to spin around and take off on the first wave of the set. He dropped in late and speared across it with his outboards on the foamball. The whole scene could have gone wrong in several million ways, but as the fractions of seconds ticked over it was suddenly clear… he’s got this!

There wasn’t even a concern that Wilko or Conner Coffin would be turned into hamburger mince by the prop because the skipper was surfing the wave better than Jordy. I swear, if you had the binoculars handy and looked out you would’ve seen the skipper with a beer in one hand and a durry hanging out the corner of his mouth. If the thing had of barrelled he was ready to pull in. The reality of course, as anyone who’s driven a boat would understand, that was some warrior level boat driving. And as it turns out, it was the best wave ridden that heat.

All this in the first half hour. They could have just stuck a fork in it at 7.30am, but a strange ol’ day was just about to get stranger.

Round five was largely uneventful – just nines, tubes, perfect surf – with one notable exception. The judges somehow missed the end of Conner Coffin’s opening ride, a gaping inside tube, turning his nine into a six. It wasn’t picked up until after Jordy had won the heat. Being interviewed, Jordy gave the Commissioner a spray for being made to resurf his round four heat earlier that morning (He’d been leading the heat when they stopped it for the shark). I wish I’d been there five minutes later when he was told he now had to paddle back out and resurf his round five heat as well. The blow up would have been proper-like, I promise you, bru. In the end it wouldn’t matter, as Jordy paddled back out for another 10 and a 9, although the missed wave seemed to have knocked the judges off axis. The scoring in that heat, for the first time all contest, seemed a little off. They’ve simply seen too much this week.

In terms of a pro surfing spectacle today really jumped the shark, and as the first quarterfinal paddled out featuring Mick Fanning, there was only one thing that could really top it off.

Unlike the waters of Australia and California, recent studies have white shark numbers in South Africa dropping. One study has a count as low as 350, although you might reckon there’d be that many swimming around between Magnatubes and the Gamtoos rivermouth. We know for sure there was at least one today because we saw it, right there, swimming in the general direction – of course – of Mick Fanning. Who else?

Is this what we’re dealing with now? Do we just expect these toothy palookahs to just waltz on through contests – at J-Bay, at Margaret River, at Trestles – whenever they goddamn feel like it? The phrase “the new normal” gets thrown around whenever anyone talks about recovering shark populations and surfers having just to deal with it, and it was interesting to note how the today’s shark was dealt with compared to the shark that bumped Mick here two years ago. They spotted the thing for starters, tracked it all the way as it frolicked through the middle of the contest area, and had the surfers on the boat in good time, all laughing. No one reset on the ski. Ronnie and Pete joked about being out there half an hour earlier. Then Mick and Gabby simply got back out there and went surfing like nothing had ever happened.

Have our attitudes changed that much?

When Mick got hit two years ago, it was as if he’d been attacked by the creature from Alien. The shock not only around the contest, but right around the world was borderline hysterical and it plumbed some raw emotion, but here we are today with a 10-foot white swimming through the contest and it might as well have been a dolphin.

To round out a bizarre day, Mick Fanning lost at J-Bay for the first time in three years and John John lost to a Portuguese rookie in pumping six-foot surf.

Before the contest kicked off yesterday morning I dropped around to Dave Rasta’s place for a cup of tea. Now, you can count the number of contest heats he’s watched since he gave up contests 15 years ago on one hand, but Rasta has been glued to every minute of J-Bay. And between Toledo and the surfing boat and the perfect 10s and the shark, I can’t wait to hear what he made of yesterday.

Now if they can just orchestrate the same level of entertainment that we saw today at every event, a dozen of them a year, then maybe the doomsday preppers are wrong and pro surfing is indeed headed into a Golden Age.

Sean Doherty