Settle in, folks. We may be here awhile.
A challenging day, personally. There’s always the chance that this sort of gig, moonlight flitting, of uncertain start and end times but certain unsociable hours, would butt up against other plans and life events. So it is today.
When competition was called on at 2330 GMT I’d just finished packing the van to drive to a ferry in just over five hours time.
A planned family holiday was now going to be a solo surf trip. The reasons why are not worth recounting here.
And I was getting sick. Sore throat, tiredness and aches. It’s been doing the rounds.
Fine, I thought. I’ll manage. I’ll watch the first couple of heats to take the temperature of the day, forgo sleep if I need to. Otherwise I’ll put the YouTube stream on for the drive to catch what I’ve missed (Highland roads are quiet at that time of the morning), catch up with the rest on the ferry, make a start on the writing, then crack out the rest in the back of the van when I get there.
My writing conditions today are best described in the same manner as the surf conditions at Winkipop, sufficient but inglorious.
Let me paint you a little picture of my current setting. I’m on the ferry. At my back the Atlantic shimmers and thrums with the promise of swell and favourable winds for the next few days. But I can’t see any of that, because I am sitting on a backless stool, facing a mini-cubicle lacquered in some pale appropriation of wood grain. And I am sitting here because I need to write about professional surfing, and because soon I will have no way of charging my laptop in the van, nor assurances that I will have enough phone signal to do anything with it.
The man next to me, not thirteen inches to my right and separated only by a ten-inch-high privacy screen on the desk, is not writing about professional surfing. Whatever he is doing, it involves lots of talking to himself, twitching wildly and swearing. “Come on to fuck, man”, he is saying. Then “Ya fuckin dancer”, in a seemingly dramatic change of tone and fortune. “Get tae fuck!”
But that’s fine. The twitching is disconcerting, but I’ll soldier on and hope he doesn’t glance over and see I’m writing about him. And the swearing is not the worst thing. The worst thing is that he’s ginger. Not red-haired, not auburn, not strawberry blonde, just plain, minging ginger. He’s likely in his twenties, has a skin fade haircut that shows off ginger freckles on his scalp, and has the kind of translucent skin that would turn pink as a pomegranate with just the glance of a UV ray. An unfortunate example of a human. He’s dressed in worky trousers, the ones with loops hanging off for tools with reinforced knees. “Fucking dickhead”, he’s saying now. “You fucking dickhead”, he says, then hums tuneless hums.
If you’re reading this he didn’t kill me.
On the other side of the world, competition commenced at Winki in mediocre, often wind affected conditions, which lent themselves to two or three turns in non-critical sections and the potential for mostly-forced airs on the end section for those with that in their locker.
Griffin Colapinto has that bag. Extending the form he showed in Portugal, Colapinto looked smooth and composed in his opener, but with enough technicality to wow the judges. He seems to get more relaxed by the day. He’s onto something this year, Colapinto, and I’m buying it.
By contrast, Zeke Lau will face yet another elimination round. Unless it runs in quality Bells Bowl, I’d guess, once again, he’s not long for this world of pro surfing. Neither the hapless Maxime Huscenot, Barron Mamiya, Jake Marshall, Kelly Slater or Carlos Munoz. For a variety of reasons, all of these surfers will take up their regular slots in the elimination round, and likely all will be cut after Margaret River.
Leaving of his own accord is Owen Wright, opting for retirement after falling off Tour last year and competing here as the sponsor’s wildcard. Wright’s career doesn’t feel like it panned out the way most of us might have imagined, given how memorable some of his performances were, but he made headway towards a fitting retirement party today by winning his opening heat over Ian Gentil and Filipe Toledo.
I can see Wright at the business end of this competition, carried by a tide of well-wishing and vigorous backhand turns that seem to spray carefree recklessness into the air. I’d love to see it, especially if we go to the Bowl.
Alongside Wright, an assorted collection of has-beens, never-quite-weres and never-will-bes advanced.
Michael Rodrigues and Jordy Smith sent Callum Robson to the elimination round, despite Robson leading for most of the heat. For my money, the wave that turned it for Smith was horrendously overscored.
Future journeymen Ryan Callinan and Jackson Baker made their way to the Round of 32. The former did it with some snappy backhand surfing, the latter like a raging flamingo.
I’m sure that seems like a slight, calling them future journeymen, and I suppose it is. I happen to enjoy the surfing of both men immensely, but as always with this game, and especially in the current format, there are two tiers, and neither are in the tier marked Potential World Champion.
Once, though it’s hard to believe now, Kolohe Andino was in this tier. He topped the list of renaissance men today by winning his heat against stiff opposition in O’Leary and Ferreira.
How long since Kolohe won a heat? In his post heat interview Andino indicated his desire to requalify through the CS, should he fall off Tour. “It feels like I’ve been on Tour forever”, he said. “But I’m not even thirty yet.” Staggering but true.
Two men on the cusp of the top tier are Yago Dora and Sammy Pupo, who surfed superbly, given the ordinary conditions. Both men are dynamic, solid on their feet, and retain the potential to thrill. But of course, they’re from the finest surfing nation on earth.
Robinson, Medina and Florence all looked good today, as they should. And Kanoa finally surfed the heat he’s been looking for.
Post heat interviews with our current top five surfers, all of whom advanced, were adorned with the worst WSL graphic in some time, informing us they’d Made The Cut.
I know some people still don’t want to hear it, but The Cut works. These opening round heats seem meaningful, and that has both improved the entertainment value of pro surfing, and gone some way to improving the major issues of comps and heats being slow or inconsequential.
What a point of difference, too, between the commentary teams today. It was particularly apparent since I was driving and more reliant on audio than usual. Bugs might be a lovable vet, but he offers little in the way of insight. Turpel’s major problem, as is well documented, is that his tone never changes. I’m sure in his head he’s the smoothest cat in the booth, skipping from segue to segue without pausing for breath. But the problem is it just becomes noise. Half-stories and poorly executed anecdotes, all in the same, flat tone.
Heartbreak, humour, joy, pity…it’s all the same to Joe.
Thankfully, Ronnie and Richie were refreshingly competent.
The ferry has docked, the disgusting ginger man has gone, and the sun shines. I’ll be camped out in my van, hoping for a few lay days, but dedicated to the cause all the same.