It’s 4.50am and Occ is staring out to sea.
Occ can’t see a thing of course, there’s no daylight for another hour, but he’s listening to the new swell break and hiss as it runs up the beach. The Oahu buoy broke its anchor a few days ago and the numbers were a little scrambled there for a while, but Occ doesn’t work on numbers. He’s a creature of instinct. He works in colour and song. He won Pipe as a teenager without knowing anything about it.
Today was initially thought to be a write off. Too big. Too north. Too much sand. Wait and surf on the downside of the swell. Some crew stayed in town last night after the Barca fight. Their boy won – too much reach, too righteous, big take downs. The car park later was no place for a haole boy so the haole boys stayed on the North Shore.
Occ stared wordlessly into the dark for an hour before saying, “It’s pretty straight, but ya know… it could be all-tiiiiiiiiiiiiime!”
Once the light broke Ryan Callinan sat there cramming for his heat. For the first time in a week the conditions were clean, but the building swell had no order. Ryanno was surfing a heat in his head. “You could get a two on the inside, or take a closeout set and get a two on the outside.” He laughed at his own joke. The period was stretched out, lines down to Rockpile, each set became stronger as it started to moved off First Reef. It slowly got more surfable but no one was sure when the swell would top out. They were surely going to run. Kelly split a peak and went Backdoor, ran the length of the reef and there was no doubt. Kelly was in the round and Kelly makes the calls. Ryanno watched the biggest set of the morning roll through. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
It kept building.
Shane Dorian was on the loungeroom floor, using a bottle of sav blanc as a weight for a series of shoulder exercises. “I usually use cabernet.” Filipe Toledo was about to paddle out for the first heat. He joked, “First Pipe surf of the trip.” Shane wasn’t being unfair. In the wake of Toledo’s first round heat where he looked like he’d never surfed the place before, most everyone gave him no chance out there today against South African import, Benji Brand. Toledo needed to make the final to win the world title, but no one expected him to even get out of his heat this morning. Brand is a Pipe guy, but as a blow-in he minds his manners out there and might have been too nice against Toledo. Brand let Toledo slide to the inside and gifted him the opening wave, a good one, which Toledo threaded nicely. Dollar Bill Phil was suddenly back in the game. The clean conditions and the fact it was all Pipe at that point took much of the decision making out of it, which helped Toledo, but he still trailed in the dying minutes. Phil got his wave and Phil got the score. Shane Dorian was impressed. “Man, he surfed a really good heat. Hat’s off to him.”
In the yard Seth Moniz was getting ready for the next heat. Seth had two boards. His mum, Tammy was waxing one, his sister, Sis was waxing the other. It’s a family affair with the Monizes. Seth ran off and Tammy picked up the ukulele and started strumming. She is the matriarch of the house here, also finding time this morning to bake a chicken pot pie.
Seth Moniz won’t die from a chronic lack of confidence. Not cocky… confident. Having already qualified for the tour next year, he got a start at Pipe after John John pulled out and strutted off down the beach. Owen Wright, however, has been a long, pale-riding presence in the Pipe lineup this year. He’s dominated and is just about back to where he was before Pipe rang his bell a few years ago. Seth slid into a clean Pipe wave, too clean and a little too easy, so he threw a huge backhand rotor and stuck it cold. Pipe to Waco, just like that. Parko saw it and said, “Thank fuck I’m retiring.”
By the time Kelly paddled out next Third Reef was starting to cap. Everything started washing. With the sandbar clamping, Pipe was just hanging in there. Backdoor couldn’t be contemplated. This is Kelly’s first Pipe Masters in two years and drawn against Panda Cardoso he could have surfed safe and strolled through. Instead Kelly went medieval. He paddled out and pulled straight into Backdoor and got blasted. Then he paddled out and pulled into a bigger one at Backdoor and got even more blasted. The Panda was never going to challenge him, but it seemed the only person who would beat Kelly would be Kelly. This was round two. He had to surf again this afternoon, and yet here was the GOAT, 46 and held together by tape, sending it. Once the period thinned out later in the day Backdoor would be waiting. So would his next opponent… Toledo.
Ryan Callinan, who’d won the trials with just a handful of legitimate Pipe days to his credit, suddenly looked a boss out there. He thought he was back at Dixon Park on a huge east, picking the eyes out of it. He’s had plenty to worry about the past few years, but nothing for the past month. He qualified at Sunset, won the Pipe Trials, and after Italo he’s been the busiest on the reef out front. At dinner last night he drank a couple of Big Wave Lagers. He didn’t seem concerned at all.
It’s amazing how 12-foot Pipe and having to surf a heat to save your career can make pro surfing so much more interesting. The WSL house is four lots up from ours – they stare squarely at Pipe – and let’s hope they were watching on and taking notes today. Under their original plan this would have been the very last time the Pipe Masters ended the season. Whatever thought bubble they’d dreamed up for a world title finish – the Mentawai boat trip – would contain a thousandth of the primal drama that was happening 50 yards from their back porch. To move from here would be a colossal balls-up.
The normally sad and somnambulant parade of round two suddenly grew a little more interesting as the swell topped out and guys had to surf for their skins. Consequence greases the wheels. By the back of the round with guys like Pat Gudang, Joan Duru, Connor O’Leary and the Portuguese Prince all needing to win, the ocean clobbered the place. The whole lineup turned into a turgid mess as all that north swell tried to escape back out through Pipe. Pat and Seabass fell from the sky for two pointers. Joan Duru went on a heater. The Portuguese Prince could hardly walk, let alone surf. It was spirited.
The swell, predicted to peak at lunchtime, hadn’t, but when it did there was the prospect of this thing becoming epic. The low tide was at 2.30, and Parko started talking about a north swell behaving like a west swell on a low, low tide. Whatever it was doing, it was fucking compelling. Whatever you were seeing through a screen did no justice. The stretch was bombing, the biggest day they’ve run here for a decade at least. Geez, was early round ’98 the last time it was this big? But for a north swell of this size and direction it was way better than it should have been, but still…
Round three paddled out and the two freesurf form guys of the Pipe stretch duked it, but Italo Ferreira was never getting near Ryan Callinan. After a few tough years, the universe is finally smiling on him and suddenly Ryanno couldn’t lose out there. It was more than divine luck however; his positioning was off tap. He hasn’t stopped smiling in months. He still can’t believe it. Mick Fanning came up to him in the backyard and congratulated him. Mick Fanning walked off and Ryan tapped me on the arm grinning and said, “Mick Fanning.”
The biggest set of the day washed in.
It lined up from Third Reef across to… “What the fuck even is that?!” barked Dog Marsh, as the same set capped half a mile to sea out beyond Rocky Point. The two wash throughs met at Pipe… just as Conner Coffin paddled out. Connor paddled into a mongo-sized Pacific dunny flush that first took him down to Beach Park. He got blasted before a reverse inside rip got hold of him and took him onto the bricks inside Backdoor. He was then flushed back to Beach Park where he wore a dozen waves on the head. I pointed out to Maurice Cole, who’d just turned up, that Connor had just had 30 serious waves on the head. Maurice replied, “31” as Conner was buried alive under another one on the Ehukai sandbar.
This all took place over 20 minutes, in which time Connor’s heat had already started. He then wore two big sets on the head. He was rinsed. Wilko meanwhile had only scraps, and Conner then turned around, pulled in, and won the heat, washing up on shore like a shipwreck victim. The loss took Wilko off tour… not much fun for the funnest guy on tour, who now heads home to launch a guesthouse at the old Possum Creek school behind Byron Bay with his dad Neil the courtesy bus driver, all of which sounds a lot more fun than surfing a QS3000 at Saquarema with jet lag and food poisoning.
When interviewed the other day about who the dominant surfers of the year have been he thought for a minute before replying, “What’s that Colin kid? Colin Peligrino? Yeah, him.” Well, Griff Colapinto ran down the beach throwing shakas the crowd, foppish fringe bouncing, laughing like the grom he still kinda is. He then paddled out and surfed like a complete hardened psychopath. He was the first guy to even contemplate Backdoor at the top of the swell. He then fell out of a Pipe wave and got smoked, almost losing his smiling head in the process. Seabass also sent it, and it was the best heat of ones and twos you’ll ever see. This was Pipe. Not classic Pipe, but this was a brutal pantomime.
Medina had a danger heat in Seth Moniz, and the grommet took Griff’s lead and charged straight at Backdoor. At that point a six was a heat winner, and for just the briefest second the unthinkable – Medina losing – was a real possibility. It was literally about 30 seconds. Just as Julian Wilson – Medina’s title nemesis – ran down from the house next door to the beach to a cheering crowd, Medina rolled into Pipe, jammed the board into wave, and just stood there. The judges juiced it for a 7.70, but probably compensated for it on his next one. Gabby was in complete control, even when he wasn’t… and it’s an amazing quality. He’s cold blooded out there. With the lead he even tried paddling Seth over to Off The Wall. It’s 12-foot Pipe… in the middle of all that chaos, who even thinks of that?
Julian Wilson’s mum, Nola had been working the crowd before her youngest boy’s heat, handing out “Carn Joycey” flags, carrying her trademark parasol and looking like she’d walked gracefully out of an Agatha Christie novel into the noonday sun. Julian meanwhile was fluro top-to-tail but wasn’t surfing showy. Nah, he went out with a plan to try and manhandle Pipe. He went straight to Backdoor and dropped into the heaviest thing he could find. He then went and did it again, this time getting washed in and around. He was a neon beast. He was out there looking for a moral win, going hardest on the biggest day, but in the process almost lost the heat. He pulled into another Backdoor closeout with his opponent – Miggy Pupes – only needing a two, which thankfully for Jules he couldn’t find.
Parko paddled out in what could have been his last heat on tour and dropped into probably his best Backdoor barrel in 20 years. His board folded on take-off but he negotiated the tube “like I was on two skis” for the best wave of the day. He came in and asked what score he got. He looked kinda gassed and was figuring if the score was a 10 he might just stay on the beach for a while and see how the other guy did. It came in at an 8.77, and with his rashie pulled up over his stomach he turned around and ambled back into the water.
They say that gravity bats last, and at Pipe Kelly Slater is gravity. Of all people for Kelly to draw in the final heat of the day, he drew Phil Toledo, who he’d been dishing out some Pipe pointers to. Can you imagine having Kelly as your coach, and then having to surf against him? At Pipe? Would you trust him? “Sit where? Catch that?” The end of Filipe Toledo’s world title campaign also marked the return of Kelly’s old swagger. It wasn’t quite the showy Globetrotter stuff Kelly produces when he’s really on, but it’s clear he was feeling it. Falling in the tube and recovering might have just some blind luck, but it will feed into wider narratives – Kelly the supernatural – and the saga of Kelly trying to finally get off this tour while still on top. The saga will end next year (or it might not) but the beginning of the end begins tomorrow.