WSL Uluwatu: The Contest With No Name
As a rule, you don’t use terms “soul” and “the WSL” in the same sentence too often, and your correspondent isn’t going anywhere near there right now, but the Uluwatu CT, won by a large Brazilian man resembling a panda bear certainly had a different feel to, say, a contest run in a concrete tank outside Fresno. And while there was something dissonant about countdown clocks and coloured jerseys at the spiritual home of Balinese surfing, and while the whole thing seemed very last minute, the Uluwatu contest left us feeling baik baik.
Maybe the only people not watching on enjoying the two-and-a-bit days of surfing at Uluwatu would have been the crew from the Western Australian government who’d shelled out millions only to have their Margaret River contest cancelled due to the risk of shark attack and have it unceremoniously moved to Indonesia, which is the subject of ongoing travel warnings for Australian tourists. The Australian Government website currently says: “We continue to receive information indicating terrorists may be planning attacks in Indonesia. Attacks could occur anywhere, anytime.” Out on the Bukit yesterday though it seemed just dreamy, the only apparent danger maybe presented by a horny lembu laut in the lineup or a bad satay on the cliff.
The jury is still out on whether cancelling Margarets was the right idea or not, but hosting a contest at Uluwatu – and beyond that the notion of an Indonesian leg of the tour – can’t be faulted, certainly not from a pure surfing vantage point. I hope the WSL were taking notes.
Firstly, Ulus is a great contest wave. What we just saw was 4/10 Uluwatu and yet the surfing was compelling. Yesterday was sick. It wasn’t the hi-fi ramps of Keramas, but it was oceanic and produced a different style of surfing and challenged the surfers in different ways. It was plenty rippable, but imagine it getting an 8/10 Racetrack day, or even better a big day at Outside Corner when they dusted off the 7’2”s. None of the field had in all likelihood paddled out there in a decade, which put them all on the same bus, and while Barton Lynch made note that no one reinvented the surfing of that wave over the past couple of days, the wave still looked like it belonged.
The other point to note is that due to the nature of the event – it was cancelled in Margaret River with just two days left to run – is that we got to see how a two-day, one-swell contest would play out. Jesus, it was refreshing. I hope the WSL saw it as an opportunity and were taking notes. There was no bloated early round repechages, it was just get in and get it done. It had energy and momentum. What they just ran was the perfect format to match a swell – a day on the way up, a day on the peak, a day on the way down, and just as importantly to the core WSL viewership in the badlands of suburbia, it matched the attention span of the audience. No laydays, just dawn till dusk surfing till there’s nothing left to run.
It was good viewing, and most of that can be attributable to one man. Barton Lynch, who’d had commentary cameos at events last year and added enthusiasm, knowledge and heart to the broadcast had somehow become a budget cut in the off-season. BL not only brings a working contest brain to the broadcast, he brings an emotional intelligence that connects with an audience. In between sets he started discussing Gulangan, the Hindu festival celebrating the victory of dharma over adharma. He started riffing about the latent mysticism that floats on the air in Bali. He talked about losing his father at age 11, and how coming here to a place where the dead are still very much here had evoked deep feelings. I remember having a long conversation with Barton before when he was about to become a father again at age 50 and how that was upwelling all these repressed emotions, but to hear it over a usually shallow surf broadcast just elevated it somewhere it badly needs to go. When the news of Bourdain’s passing dropped yesterday it clicked. BL has the same presence. He draws a sense of humanity out of both the audience and his fellow commentators. He even got Joe to put his nuts on the chopping block and commit to an opinion, and for that alone they need to cut BL a check and take him on tour.
The women had never surfed an event at Uluwatu and it showed. It reminded me of when they were taken to Cloudbreak for the first time and it took them a couple of years to feel it out. Some girls got lost out there, particularly on their backhand. Steph Gilmore waited up the reef her whole semifinal for a wave, only to move down the reef in the dying minutes and watch it materialise where she’d just been sitting. In the end it was little surprise that the final was surfed between a goofyfooter and a girl who grew up on the reef at Saint Leu, which didn’t look dissimilar to the Uluwatu Racetrack. But for the second time in three events Tatiana Weston-Webb had to wait on shore after the final for the judges to drop a number that would take the final from her. I would have given her the win after her double-up tube in the semi, but the judges in the final went for Johanne Defay’s ability to finish turns cleanly over dry reef.
With my washing machine on the fritz, I was forced at a crucial point yesterday to leave the broadcast and head down to the local Laundromat here in Byron with a dozen or so backpackers exorcising the demons from their unwashed rags. It was right at the start of the Jordy and Julian quarterfinal, and after the ambience and aroma of the Laundromat became too much and I bailed up the street to the local JS board store, where the Floridian guy behind the counter was tuned in.
I arrived just in time to see Jordy get horribly, horribly tubed. It looked more Supersuck than Uluwatu, and when he lit up another wave with a backhand I’d never seen before, Jordy looked an unlikely winner. I say unlikely because Jordy’s track record on reef lefts is almost non-existent, whereas Julian has form in the tropics.
It was an interesting draw. As we’ve known for a long while now, the pair is equal parts brilliant and flakey, but seem to operate totally out of phase. When one’s up the other’s down. Yesterday both were on. As we watched the heat the shop guy pulled out Jordy’s board from Snapper, the one he’d surfed to an early round loss. It looked brand new, unloved, and holding it I immediately wondered about both Jordy and Julian and what kind of unholy alchemy it’d take for one or both of them to just click, not just for an event, but for a whole season. Jordy of course was riding one of Chris Gallagher’s boards at Uluwatu, which looked good, but the pair has changed boards and coaches and tour regimes on a regular cycle for years now. If one of them ever got into a groove it’d be all over for a title, but you felt that for whoever lost this quarter that ship would sail off for yet another season. When Julian got his own double-up at heats end it was Jordy sailing into the Bukit sunset.
I watched much of the first day with Mick Fanning who hasn’t shaved or watched a heat since retiring, but from the start he called Gabby would win this thing in a canter. But there’s been something odd about Medina since he got to Bali. Watching him surf heats he appears to have been possessed by a kecak black magic demon and has surfed all his heats at a frantic chak-chak-chak pace. Despite looking like he’s about to wipe the floor with whoever he’s got ends up with a dozen three-pointers instead. The ocean slowed and took some of the chak-chak out of Medina in his quarter against Mikey Wright. Mikey now surfs like he’s been on tour for 10 years, despite technically not being on tour at all. Mikey won with two fives.
Toledo had lost trying airs at Uluwatu, Italo was low on voltage, and now Gabby was trudging up the steps wondering what just happened. It wasn’t going to be any of the Brazilian Big Three who’ve dominated the year; instead it’d be the least likely Brazilian who was about to step up. It’d prompt a Brazilian friend to say, “It’s not a storm, it’s fucking climate change!”
I don’t think anyone asked Willian Cardoso how often he’s surfed Uluwatu, but I get the feeling he’s been out here for years. While the Brazilian stars might disappear on expensive Indo boat trips or surf exclusively for the cameras at Keramas, I reckon Cardoso has been out Ulus with hundreds of other holidaying Brazilians, just grateful to be there. The waves were dropping by the time he surfed the final with Julian, but Big Bill got the two best ones. He didn’t hurry turns, just put them where they needed to be and kept his Bali rhythm going.
More importantly than his surfing, his marketing team has been at work rebranding the previously unknown and unloved Willian Cardoso as “The Panda”, making him instantly lovable. The birth of his children will now be covered in news bulletins. Julian meanwhile got a sick one right at the end, but he’d been lucky twice already in close heats against Jordy and Kolohe, and the judges weren’t giving him a third.
Maybe the best part of The Panda’s win was him pausing in the Uluwatu cave, keeping his rabid Brazilian crew waiting while he thanked the Big Guy Upstairs and a few dozen other miscellaneous local spirits of various persuasions. He then let out a roar and his crew carried his 200-pound panda ass the cliff.
It was an unlikely win for an unlikely event. It was totally thrown together but totally worked. For an organisation that specialises in marketing (as my colleague Justin Housman pointed out) they weren’t real imaginative when they named it the “Uluwatu CT”, but it felt more underground and a million times more real as a result. We don’t know the WSL’s intentions for next season and beyond, but sadly you get the feeling that this event – and the dream of a Balinese leg – will disappear entirely and its spirit will float on the breeze around here in a divine traffic jam.