Defending Bali Pro Champ Joel Parko gets the comp running with a solid win in Round 1. (WSL/Cestari)

The Upcycled Bali Pro


Welcome to Bali. “From where you’d rather be” according to your naming rights sponsor. Unless of course you happened to be in Fiji this morning. I’m sure you’ve seen what’s happening there right now. Christ on a 10’0”. This Fiji swell seems totemic.

When the WSL dropped Fiji from this year’s Tour schedule, deeming it too expensive and replacing it with a cheaper Bali knock-off, it was always tempting fate. The Fijian contest more than any other carried the flame for the old Dream Tour ideal, where eight-foot days with trades trumped all matters of economic viability. You just did it. Dropping Fiji from the schedule while at the same time adding a wavepool contest signalled a shift in the tour paradigm.

It also mocked the Gods, and today in Fiji we saw their wrath.

This is the traditional window for the Fijian event, the last week of May, and while Keramas was four foot today, Cloudbreak was 24 foot. While contest crew were drinking sponsor beers in the pool at Komune resort this afternoon, fire-eyed men were taking turns lying in Uri Kropp’s ice bath after a day surfing beyond the Third Ledge at Cloudbreak. They’ve seen things today.

If the Fijian contest were running, we’d have faced the delicious prospect of 2012 repeating itself all over again, with the tour guys facing a day beyond the Ledge, nervously holding their step-up 6’4” in their hands while watching a 15-footer thunder down the reef and suddenly feeling like a cosmic crumb.

But we won’t see that because we’re in Bali, not Fiji. Obviously forecasting this kind of once-a-decade swell a year in advance and scheduling an event around it is kinda tough, but you get the feeling the ocean is speaking here. As Tutu Pele swallows up housing estates and geothermal plants on Hawaii’s Big Island, Cloudbreak today swallowed up any thoughts of a purely mechanised surfing future.

The symbolism of Kelly blowing off the Bali event to fly over and surf Cloudbreak is strong. It’s his pool that has opened up this fissure in the surfing landscape with lava spewing out of it and maybe he’s felt a calling. Maybe he’s in Fiji on a peacekeeping mission. Maybe he feels he needs to reunite the two surfing tribes by ritualistically paddling out into giant boiling Cloudbreak, in the process proving a harmonious surfing future lies before us. Maybe he’s telling us that the pool is great for filling in dead air, but on a day like this you answer the call of the ocean.

A few weeks back now I talked with Rizal Tanjung. In English so eloquent it’d be the envy of many Australians he explained the change in Bali over his surfing lifetime. As a grom between surfs he’d knock mangoes out of trees at Kuta. He and Switra would trade barrels on their own at Padang, and Keramas back then was just rice paddies.

A bit has changed since then. The world has come to Bali, from Jetstar flights vacuum-sealed full of Aussie bogans to Russian oligarchs, to rice paddies being drained and turned into boutique surf resorts it’s almost unrecognisable. In recent days the road to Serangan has been closed as another resort goes in at Turtle Island while there’s work going on at the airport, extending out toward Airport Rights. Cranes litter the island. Riz describes looking down over Kuta as like looking down over LA.

But it’s Bali’s plastic problem that has been the flashpoint. We see photos of Padma in the wet season knee-deep in plastic. We look condescendingly from our white sand home and shake our heads as we hear stories of the plastic being bulldozed into piles, melted down into a toxic blob and carted off. We see the plastic cloud floating in the ocean off adjacent Nusa Penida and we start pointing fingers.

The reality is that Bali has become a fall guy for the world’s lazy use of plastic. Ten rivers contribute 90 per cent of the world’s ocean plastic. Eight of them are in Asia and none of them are in Bali. There’s undeniably a local problem, as anyone who’s duckdived at Canggu and come up with a diaper on their face will attest to, but most of the plastic in Bali comes from elsewhere. Riz add’s perspective. “Everywhere in the world has these problems, but the media like to put spotlight on Bali. Even Australia has it. Sure Australia is beautiful, but plastic is a global problem.”

We raise the subject of course because in a marketing masterstroke the event at the 11th hour has been rebranded the Corona Protected to highlight the global plastic crisis. Plastic is the environmental cause du jour with plastic straw use fast becoming the new smoking in terms of being socially pariahed for using one in public. It’s a bold move in cause marketing, but Bali has more than a plastic problem. Like other places all over the world it also has a people problem. As cause marketing evolves, who will be brave enough to deal with the root cause? Who will sponsor the inaugural Population Control Pro with a reduced 16-man field?

The composition of the Tour shouldn’t be end-sum. We don’t need to lose one good wave to get another, and today we saw glimpses of why Keramas should be there alongside Fiji. It’s not 20-foot Cloudbreak but it’s an Indonesian event that we’ve been crying out for and we should be grateful for that. We got teased with it five years ago when it appeared on tour for one year before disappearing. Let’s hope Keramas is not a single-use World Tour event this time around.

This morning started where it left off five years ago. Back then it was heralded as the best performance wave on tour, but was won by Parko getting tubed. Joel got drawn in the first heat this morning and won the same way. “Surf the wave in front of you,” was his advice later. “Good surfing will always win.” It’s a truism that Joel’s reminding both himself and the judges of.

Joel had beaten John John to get to that first Keramas crown. Beat him with a pair of 10-point tubes back in a time when such a thing was even possible. You might remember Florence had dropped the giant alley oop early in that event, and we rushed to claim both Keramas and Florence as the standard bearers for progressive surfing. And then, well, yeah, Parko got tubed and that was that for a while.

John surfed before the comp was called on this morning, under floodlights with the whole field out there. It was by all reports brutal. John has grown to hate these sessions. Pissing contests that have little to do with pure surfing or even tuning up, and you could almost sense the emancipation in his surfing when he got to paddle out with just two other guys. Keramas despite the occasionally perfect veneer is a shifty lineup, which suits John perfectly. He lazily ghosts into with no discernable effort. He’s just there. He got barrelled twice this morning by doing just that, but as the waves went onshore and the Lombok Strait drained later in the round we got a better picture of the surfing that will win here. In quick succession we saw Julian, Jordy, and Griff Colapinto mix tubes and turns and take some chances on the inside.

Griff has been blazing, day and night. He’s doing Bali like it’s 1999, when guys won their heats straight from The Bounty, via ten Jam Jars, an accidental banchong encounter and a bike stack on the way to the beach. Strider however put Griff’s success down to the “bags of supplements” he’d brought with him to Bali that were forcing him to dance involuntarily before his heat.

The more I see of Griff the more I believe he will save pro surfing.

The last heats of the round were pretty chummy. The wind was onshore and the rug had been pulled from the swell. Strider, taking a sabbatical from providing Malibu beat poetry from the water moved into the commentary box and was immediately a breath of fresh air. “Let’s not not talk about it,” he offered of the shitty conditions with a double negative. It’s exactly what will win the true fans back, a little honesty. Unfortunately, Strider followed that straight up by calling Owen Wright, Owen Wilson, a slip of the tongue that was terminal to the career of a previous commentary anchor. Expect to see him back in the Lombok Strait tomorrow morning.

Sean Doherty