A fairytale Fanning farewell is only three heat wins away at the Rip Curl Pro

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The Geelong Cats lost by a point yesterday afternoon in their traditional Easter Monday footy game with Hawthorn. Juc pub fell silent. The loss cut deep. The Easter Monday game has become bigger than the resurrection around these parts.

The other one-point loser yesterday meanwhile quietly drove out of town. As reported yesterday Jordy Smith went down somewhat controversially in the first heat of round three. South African supporters say he “got sandpapered” – reference to the recent cheating scandal where Aussie cricketers got caught sandpapering the ball in the test match over in South Africa. The reality is that Jordy was a victim of himself as much as anyone else. He’s got the chops; he just didn’t use them. A friend summed it up succinctly. “Jordy is so bad at being one of the best surfers in the world.”

Jordy’s loss was symptomatic of the whole event. It’s been flat. Bum notes all round, tepid performances, and not even the emotional high tide of Mick Fanning’s last event has been able to float this thing off the reef. The new crushed judging scale has seen barely a wave over eight ridden and we’ve been tripping out wondering if it’s the waves, the scores, or the surfing itself that have been on the nose here this week.

Me thinks the latter.

When we pulled in this morning it looked like everything was set to recorrect. The first view from the car park saw Bells roping. It was six foot, clean as a whistle, and on a negative low tide breaking from back Rincon all the way through to the beach. “It looks like J-Bay!” giggled Parko. No shit, it actually did. He began to levitate as he watched. Surely – surely – the switch would get flicked and we’d see something better than the bloodless spectacle we’d been served up so far. We might have been in the gutter, brother, but we were looking up at the stars.

How wrong we were. It would get worse before it got better.

Last week I was on a surf trip down on King Island working on a campaign against the industrial fish farm they want to plonk off the island’s best surfing beach. Two-and-a-half million caged salmon shitting in the water. Well, John John just happened to be there. And so was Zeke Lau. I don’t know if they even see each other at home on their island of Oahu, and yet here they were in a slight of cosmic convergence. Both were there on separate missions, but they met up on the final night at the King Island Club where they served roast wallaby and cheap pints. When I say “met up” I didn’t really see them talk. As a haole each winter you kind of expect all the Hawaiians to be unified, unified against you, but as I watched that night it struck me they didn’t actually seem that close.

Well they were certainly close this morning. As their heat started Zeke muscled for the inside then proceeded to aggressively herd John like a sheep dog, keeping him from the inside. It was heavy, a full blue on green attack. These two guys were both Hawaiian, right?

The gambit worked sublimely.

John was totally off-axis from the start. Zeke took the first wave and imposed himself on it for a seven. John sat and waited 15 minutes, then fell on his first turn. He was never in the heat. That’s two events in a row he’s fallen early, and there’s a common thread. On the Gold Coast it was Mad Mike Wright who crawled out of a post-apocalyptic wasteland and almost intimidated John out the contest, and here at Bells Zeke Lau just did the same. The only weakness John might possess is that he’s a genuinely warm soul, and it seems that in their desperation to find a way to beat him, people are now willing to exploit it.

Parko was out next and he could not have dreamed of Bells being better than this.

The problem was it looked far better than it surfed, and Parko drowned in honey out there. It seemed like there were waves everywhere, but Joel just couldn’t buy a decent one. Even the Parko cutback wasn’t winning any friends. Then Joel started falling. His opponent Fred Morais started falling. Shit, the whole field started falling. Joel fell on a winning wave. He came in and was talking to Fred’s coach, Dog Marsh. “I sucked, hey?” Dog, gloriously blunt, replied, “Mate, you all sucked.”

Adriano hasn’t fallen in three years, but fell three times in his heat. The previous round, which had been full of rookies and backmarkers stunk it up because they just didn’t know Bells. They haven’t invested the time to work it out. These guys today had no excuses. Shit, Adriano sat there alone for four hours the other afternoon when they called it off and just watched. Guys were paralysed out there and it seemed it was contagious. Surfers got eggy, complaining about scores and skis and each other.

Nick Carroll and I sat there in the Bells car park and tried to make sense of it. What was at the core of this collective psychosis? Nick offered the shifting sands of the tour landscape where a place as totemic as Pipe can be allowed to disappear. I offered the imminent departure of the Fanning, Slater and Parkinson axis, and the lack of a subsequent power structure on tour that would hold everything together.

In the short term we both wondered aloud where this contest would find a pulse.

God bless Italo Ferreira.

Borrowing from Monty Python’s Oscar Wilde sketch, just when your contest is turning into a stream of bat piss, Italo paddles out and turns it into a shaft of gold when all around is dark. Drawn against Electric Phil Toledo, the pair sent it. Finally! They fizzed up a turgid lineup. Hope at last! Then Medina won the last heat of the round by duckdiving a wash-through Bowl set and actually gaining 10 yards in the process while Big Bill Cardoso was washed half to shore.

The contest then picked up and moved over to Winki for round four.

Yesterday morning I’d sat with Mick Fanning and we were discussing the new round four format, where the last placed surfer is eliminated instead of given a second chance. “I hate it,” grumbled Mick. And he would hate it. At Snapper he was the first surfer to lose under the new system. But then we talked about the tour format in general, and how a man-on-man contest suddenly turns into a man-on-man-on-man contest. The reason that round first appeared was that in 2010 they cut the tour from 48 surfers back to 36. They could have cut it to 32 surfers and had a perfect man-on-man format, start to finish, but instead went with 36 and created the turkey of a format we now have. Mick agreed then offered, “Whose idea was that?” I’m not sure if he was joking or not, because it was the surfers’ idea, and he was the surfers’ rep.

For a while there this afternoon Mick looked like he’d again be the victim of his own round again. He trailed against Wilko and Pat Gudauskas for the most part, before clicking into gear late and taking the heat. For the first time in a heat this year he looked like Mick. He rode out of one turn down in the Winkipop Valley this afternoon with a relaxed profile, low-shouldered, hands at his haunches, a snowy white rifle bullet. It made me think.

Before the contest I gave Mick little chance of winning the whole thing. He’s exhausted with the tour, and in recent years he’s exhausted all possible fairy tale tour narratives. The other night after his retirement soiree he stayed up till 3am, cocooned in a doona with a hole for his face just big enough to fit a beer can in. I gave him no hope at this point but shit, someone’s got to win this, and it sure as shit won’t be Jordy, John John, Julian, Joel or Adriano. It’s been a strange event that nobody seems to want to win, but tomorrow at some point someone has to win it. Someone’s got to win Bells tomorrow, so why not Mick? Why not him?

And if he does, prepare for the seventh circle of hell to open up and swallow Bells Beach, because there’ll never be another party like it.

Sean Doherty