Gabriel Medina, perfect ten, Teahupoo.
Gabriel Medina was perfect. His scores should have been. His best waves could not have been improved. They were critical, they were technical, and they were stylish. A point I’ve often made but bears repeating is that remaining critics of Medina’s style are made to look like dilettantes on days like today. | Photo: WSL/Ed Sloane

Epic Tahiti Pro “as pure a surf competition as can be imagined at this elite level”

“It’s not about surfing. It’s about yourself. It’s not a combat sport. It’s not just competition, it’s joy.”

They’re rare birds, these. Surf contests where there can be no complaints.

I’ll shock you here, surely, with opening by leaning into the words of Kaipo Guerrero.

“It’s not about surfing,” he said. “It’s about yourself. It’s not a combat sport. It’s not just competition, it’s joy.”

And for once – and I do mean once – he was absolutely spot on.

Teahupoo provided the canvas for peak surf contest experience. Competition as art.

And it struck me that this is what we, myself very much included, always get wrong about professional surfing. We feel conflicted by competition. Hundreds of thousands of wave riders see surf competition as the antithesis to their experience.

Endlessly, we grapple with the question: is surfing a sport or an art?

Here, that question was answered. In its best iteration, like we saw on finals day at Teahupoo, it can be a perfect symphony of both.

It was as pure a surf competition as can be imagined at this elite level. Relentless perfect waves testing the limits of the combatants skill and commitment. Each man standing at the threshold of a life’s dedication to surfing, their love laid bare in front of the world.

The competition format adds an extra edge, just another layer of consequence. I would have scant interest in watching a freesurf here. And if it seems a little arbitrary that someone wins or loses, remember human beings are killers at heart. Competition is evolutionary necessity.

(Spare a thought for Filipe Toledo, watching somewhere, but through a veil of dark torment too awful to comprehend.)

The Teahupoo amphitheatre is unmatched. The proximity of the channel must make for one of the most compelling experiences in all of sport. Gladiatorial combat laced with love. Each man wants to win, but equally celebrates the wins of their rivals.

The fans, so close they feel the ferocity of spit in their mouths and hearts, are rapt by performances that will echo throughout the rest of their lives.

I wondered how many of the local kids, floating on boards in the channel, might cite this in years to come.

To be hyper-critical, splitting waves of surfer’s lives by a point in the range between nine and ten at times did seem a little trite. How can you value experience like this? Are any of the multiple nine point plus rides we saw at Teahupoo objectively better than the others? Fuck, give them all tens.

Except they didn’t.

Are they short of YETI coolers? Some judges seemed conscious of this. Only one ten point ride was awarded in men’s competition, to Gabriel Medina, despite several judges including tens in scores where their compatriots saw high nines. Split hairs and little consequence, perhaps, but it would’ve been nice to see a couple more for waves that I’d struggle to imagine bettered.

There were too many superb moments to distil into one comp report. In many ways, a report diminishes it. So how to parse it? It seems wrong to pit one man against another when all were great, so let’s deal with those who stood out to me individually.

First, as appropriate, Kelly Slater.

Honestly, I was pulling for a Slater win. If he was to get the Hollywood ending he deserves, it might have been here. For a moment, it looked like it could be.

In his round of 16 match-up with Ethan Ewing he was ageless. Kaipo wondered if he was a sorcerer. I found myself raising an eyebrow and nodding my head. Somehow, it didn’t sound beyond reason.

He held a 9.73 for a wave that remains one of the best of the entire competition, and holds a worthy place in the canon of his Teahupo’o mastery. But lacking a back up, he was behind Ethan Ewing.

With two minutes on the clock both men had lost their boards and were being plucked from the maelstrom by the Tahitian Water patrol.

There were just 59 seconds on the clock when Kelly retrieved a new board from his caddy, Glen Micro Hall, and began to sprint paddle back to the line-up.

At 22 seconds the volume in the channel started to swell as a wave reared. The kind of wave that Kelly has seemed to conjure for decades in crucial moments.

At 15 seconds he stood up, threaded a small but technical tube and kicked out as the horn blew.

He’d only needed a 4.44, and there was no question it was enough.

The fairytale shimmered before our eyes and his.

But in the end, it was just a shimmer. Kelly would lose to Ramzi Boukhiam in the quarter final in a heat where no-one had cause for complaint. Slater held the lead for most of it, but Boukhiam’s 9.80 late in the match-up was deserved and decisive.

Boukhiam was a clear stand out yet again.

“Ramzi legit. Already a vet. Favourite rookie in some time,” I noted early in the comp. I think I’ve written more or less that exact note at nearly every comp so far.

Obviously he’s not strictly a rookie, having been injured before Pipe on what would’ve been his rookie season. But he’s nothing if not an anomaly. At thirty years old and surfing his first full year on Tour, by logic he should be a prototypical journeyman, but that couldn’t seem further from the truth. There’s a composure about him, a panache. Not to mention the deep aura of a man who has made love to a thousand beautiful women and broken the hearts of a thousand more.

Another man with the capacity to catch the heart of guard and blow it open was and always will be Gabriel Medina. His performances at Teahupoo were once again transcendent. He did not win the competition, but for me he was the standout on a day when everyone stood out.

Two near-perfect heat totals of 19.83 and 18.96 perhaps evidence this claim, but really you need to witness the intangible power of Medina in waves like this.

He was perfect. His scores should have been. His best waves could not have been improved. They were critical, they were technical, and they were stylish. A point I’ve often made but bears repeating is that remaining critics of Medina’s style are made to look like dilettantes on days like today.

The one shadow of disappointment was that his semi match-up with Florence was not the iconic heat it perhaps should have been. But that notion should be evaporated in the context of the day. And it was nearly very different.

After a slight lull and a start where both men paddled each other a little too deep, the heat was restarted. Medina’s eventual first wave was a whisper away from perfection. Just losing his balance on the exit, he was dragged over the reef and lost in the melee of whitewater as the next wave broke. The Tahitian Water Patrol seized him, seemingly from underwater. Clearly dazed but smiling still, his vest was round his shoulders and his back bloodied.

Florence won and justly so. His eighteen point total, including a near-perfect 9.77, exhibited the sort of mastery we expect from John in conditions like this, but in a way that almost demeans his skill.

Everyone is impressed when John performs, but no-one is surprised. As a competition surfer, this has often been an Achilles Heel not of his own making. When you’ve long been anointed the Messiah, no-one is shocked when you perform god-like acts, but only when you don’t.

However, sometimes the weight of expectation is enough. It would be remiss of me not to mention wildcard Mihimana Braye, whom I believe deserved the score in the final seconds of his match-up with Florence that would’ve turned it in his favour. But John squeaked through by just 0.14pts. Perhaps it was too close to call, or perhaps people just wanted to see more of John surfing.

But in the end he lost the final to Ferreira by less than a point, even though that differential doesn’t reflect the authority Italo stomped on the heat from the beginning.

An 8.93 and an 8.77 on his first two waves left Florence chasing throughout. John very nearly got it with a 9.33 near the end, but it would’ve been theft.

Italo Ferreira was in a rhythm that we haven’t seen since the heady days of 2019. The days when he never looked like falling, just as today. He was perhaps not anyone’s pick to win here, but perhaps his credentials in heavy waves have been forgotten in the past few years of tweaked out interviews, roid rages and airs into the abyss.

Today he was calm. All that speed and stray voltage was contained and unleashed at exactly the right moments to give him command over the most beautiful terrifying wave in the world, and it was gratifying to see him back on top, happy again.

John Florence heads to El Salvador as the number one, Italo jumps eleven places to number five. Suddenly, both look like they could take another world title, even at Trestles.

Teahupoo 2024 was a salivating prelude to the Olympics as well as a contest for the ages, and that’s felt like a long time coming.

And although the vagaries of weather and the universe are such that these days are seldom seen, that seems appropriate to the surf experience at large.

Is it worth pursuing something even if the moments of beauty are so rare they might as well be dreams?

Today, I think yes. Tomorrow this may fade.

But today. Today it’s enough.


Tatiana-Weston Webb, ten point ride at Teahupoo, Tahiti.
And somehow, seemingly out of nowhere, she got it. I have no idea where that ride came from. This is the girl who just three years ago went straight on every wave. Look at her now, throwing down on one of the bigger waves of the heat. Stalling perfectly off the take-off, Tati took a highline, disappeared entirely, and came out celebrating. That was a wave to claim, if there ever was one. It was a 10 across the board.

Tatiana Weston-Webb surprise hit of Tahiti Pro as gals go nuclear, “Three years ago she went went straight on every wave”

In just three years, look how far the women have come at Pipeline and Teahupoo, the world’s most frightening and difficult waves.

Are you changing your mind? Should I put my pants back on?

We were standing on the beach staring at the uninspiring sea. My partner in bad decisions was having second thoughts about paddling out. It was small and onshore. So, a typical California afternoon. No? Yes? No? And they say girls are indecisive. We did paddle out, because that’s what we do. If we stop paddling out every time it’s bad, what’s left?

I think a lot about the vast yawning chasm of difference between every day surfing in California and surfing as it appears on Instagram and in video clips. On Instagram, it’s never cold or onshore. There’s no marine layer clinging to the bluffs and drenching the parking lot. It’s always sunny, warm, and epic. That difference feels all the more intense after watching contest surfing in excellent waves.

For that is exactly what we got to do this week when the Championship Tour went to Teahupoo. On one of the best days yet of women’s contest surfing — and I do wonder how many more times I will type that phrase before we’re through here — Vahine Fierro won the Shiseido Tahiti Pro in beautiful, monstrous Teahupo’o. It was a day of fear and glory both, as the women pushed themselves and their sport to new levels. Tahiti est pour les femmes.

Let’s not linger overly long on the opening rounds here, though I feel I should not ignore them entirely. I did love Sawyer Lindblad’s 9.43 and her grommishly exuberant claim on the exit. This was Sawyer’s first trip to Teahupo’o, and to make a wave like that is one hell of an accomplishment. Her inexperience caught up with her in the quarterfinals, but Sawyer will surely be back.

Notably, former world number one Caity Simmers lost in the elimination round, after facing Vahine in the opener. Often the wildcard is a walk-through for the top seed, but not this time. Vahine won the heat with a 9.33 and a 6.80. No slouch, Caity went 7.67 and 6.50, but it wasn’t enough to slide straight through to the quarters. The loss sent her to the elimination round where she drew Sawyer.

It was a winnable heat for Caity and she took an early lead. After falling on two scoring waves, though, she lost. She said on Instagram later that she wanted to break a plate after losing that heat. It’s not surprising. Caity’s very self-aware and she knows she beat herself there. In her second year on Tour, she’s still learning how to thrive as a contest surfer. Expecting her to carry the entire weight of women’s surfing on her shoulders is hardly fair.

The quarterfinals opened inauspiciously as five-time world champion Carissa Moore blew a take-off and took a solid slam. It spooked her and she never recovered her poise. Carissa doesn’t love these big, hollow lefts, though she’s traveled a fair distance toward learning how to surf them. The consequences of it all going wrong seem to haunt her. Fear is the companion of everyone out there. The trick is figuring out how to do it anyway. Carissa lost with a pair of 4’s, while Brisa went through with a 7 and a 5.

For her part, Brisa has figured it out. In the past, she struggled to make sense of Teahupoo, despite spending time at Cloudbreak. That’s behind her now. On Wednesday, Brisa showed a massive leap in performance that took her all the way to the final.

It’s true that Brisa had an easy draw. In their semifinal, Caroline wanted nothing to do with the growing swell and safety-surfed to a mid-3. Caroline’s now into the top five in the rankings and can win Trestles. No reason to risk it. Brisa, meanwhile, didn’t take it easy and pulled into a deep one for a 7.90.

On the other side of the draw, Vahine readily dispatched Molly Picklum. Unlike her stellar performance at Pipe in February, Molly never really got started at Teahupo’o this time around. The lineup looked like a foreign country to her, and in five waves, she had five non-makes. Tyler Wright, meanwhile, had better luck, but couldn’t get past a hard-charging Tati West.

Surely, Tati was the surprise of this finals day. Three years ago when the women first competed at Teahupoo, I’m pretty sure Tati went straight on every wave she attempted. I remember being surprised by how lost she was out there after growing up in Kaua’i and surfing frontside. Since then, she’s done the work. In a close heat, she thew down an 8.50 to beat Tyler.

That victory set up one of the best ever heats in women’s surfing. In their semifinal, Vahine and Tati went all in. If you have any love at all for women’s sports — or for surfing — watch this heat. Together, they rode 12 waves. There’s a perfect ten and a wave that likely should have been a ten. This heat had it all.

The wind was on it, and the swell was filling in. The heat opened with a solid set and both Tati and Vahine got the worst of it. Tati pulled in to the first wave of the set, but didn’t make it out. Then the second one gave her a beating. In the meantime, Vahine got lipped trying to duck dive and monster outside. Both women got hammered. It wasn’t the beginning either one wanted.

Unfazed by the drilling, Vahine slotted into her first barrel of the heat for an 8. She took a beautiful high line off the take-off, slipped under the lip, and rode it out. Vahine brings a rare grace to this place. Watching her surf that first wave, it seemed impossible that anyone left in the draw could beat her.

In fact, Tati trailed for much of the heat. With around 20 minutes to go, Vahine bobbled a take-off, got smashed, and broke her board. But Tati only had a 2 and a 3, and it still felt like Vahine’s heat to lose. Inside 15 minutes to go, Vahine scored another 8, while Tati’s best score was only a mid-5. It looked all over.

Then just outside five minutes to go, it all went insane. Vahine got clipped by the lip on an exit and took a beating. Tati swung into a bigger, steeper wave. It wasn’t a long barrel, but she made it. Still behind, she now had a six on the board. You could see Tati’s confidence grow. But she needed a 10.

And somehow, seemingly out of nowhere, she got it. I have no idea where that ride came from. This is the girl who just three years ago went straight on every wave. Look at her now, throwing down on one of the bigger waves of the heat. Stalling perfectly off the take-off, Tati took a highline, disappeared entirely, and came out celebrating. That was a wave to claim, if there ever was one. It was a 10 across the board.

The clock showed three minutes and counting. To win, Vahine needed an 8.01. The ocean delivered. On a wave that matched Tati’s in size, Vahine went from deep, pumped hard in the barrel, and made it out clean. It was a technical and brilliant ride, and it’s hard to see how she could have surfed it better. With next to nothing left on the clock, the scores dropped, a 9.63. Vahine won it.

As is sometimes the case, the final felt like an anticlimax. And that’s no shade on Brisa. Surfing backside, she threw down a 5.00 and a 7.00. But it wasn’t enough to beat the local girl. With her friends and family celebrating in the channel, Vahine became the first Tahitian to win at Teahupo’o. Brisa now sits at the top of the rankings, just 40 points ahead of Caity.

Let’s return here at the end to Caity. A month or so ago, I was writing a profile story about her. I had used the obvious comparison to Dane Reynolds a few too many times, I felt. I wondered if there was anyone in women’s surfing who might serve as a good analogy. I was thinking of someone like Margo Oberg who charged heavy Sunset in the 1970’s.

So, I messaged Matt Warshaw.

There was no one, Matt said. At least, there wasn’t anyone in pro surfing. If there was a Caity in the the past eras of women’s surfing, she was hanging around her local scene, getting barreled and ripping. Outsiders never knew her name and they never saw her surf.

“Caity gets to be who she is in a way that women surfers couldn’t in the past,” Matt said.

Though Caity Simmers wasn’t a player on this finals day, Matt’s comment neatly captures the reality of women’s surfing. All this time, there might have been women getting barreled and we never had the chance to see them. There was never space for them to surf big waves and to explore new places and to push their boundaries.

There wasn’t space for them to thrive.

Now, the opportunity is there and surfing is infinitely better for it. In just three years, look how far the women have come at Pipeline and Teahupoo, some of the world’s most frightening and difficult waves. Somewhere, a girl saw Tati’s barrel and she knows for sure that she wants to surf exactly like that when she grows up. Tahiti is for the girls now, and there’s no going back.


Keala Kennelly and Nadia Caldarella, married in Santorini, Greece.
Keala Kennelly and bride Nadia Caldarella, barefoot wedding, Santorini. | Photo: @Facebook

Big-wave world champ Keala Kennelly marries Nadia Caldarella in barefoot Greek island wedding!

“I waited a long time to get married. I wanted to make sure I had truly found my person."

In one of the sweeter stories on a day where the explosive thuds are still being heard from the Trump show trial in New York, the big-wave world champ Keala Kennelly has wedded long-time girlfriend Nadia Caldarella in a ceremony in Santorini, Greece. 

Keala Kennelly, the forty-five-year-old big-waver who showed Pipe and Teahupoo could be surfed by gals married graphic designer and editor Nadia Caldarella who is also “a professional and compassionate pet sitter…who… specializes in animals with anxiety and seniors who need patience and care” . The pair shared photos of the barefoot, all-white wedding overlooking the deep blue Aegean Sea. 

“I waited a long time to get married,” wrote Keala Kennelly. “I wanted to make sure I had truly found my person. With you @nadiaclicks there is no doubt.”

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Keala Kennelly (@kealakennelly)

Many good wishes followed including from Blue Crush star Kate Bosworth whose character in the film, Annmarie, eyes Keala, who plays herself, enviously as she fills up the gas in her jet skis and signs autographs for fans.

Last year, Kauai-born Keala revealed to People magazine that playing straight on tour nearly killed her and that she was riddled with self-hate for being gay.

“I had just all this internalized homophobia and self-hatred for being gay,” Kennelly said.

“I was living this double life because on tour, I was pretending to be straight. I’m just a really honest person, I’m a really genuine, authentic person. So, to feel like I was living this lie was just crushing my soul and after so many years of that, it was just, ‘I can’t do this anymore, this is actually going to kill me if I can’t live my truth.’ It got to a point where I didn’t care what the cost was, I couldn’t live like this.”

Kennelly said that it was “not okay to be a lesbian” and that if you did prefer shaved babylike snatches to rock-and-cock Tom Selleck lookalikes it was “career suicide.”

“So when I got on the tour, I was so freaking nervous because I inherently knew I was gay. So, I was absolutely terrified and I spent the majority of my time on the pro circuit in the closet and just completely terrified to come out — completely terrified to get outed, that I was going to lose my sponsors.”

In 2005, when Kennelly, aged twenty-seven,  eventually came out she “faced a wave of homophobia from companies and other surfers that eventually led her to leave the sport… I actually quit the tour shortly after I came out because I couldn’t handle mentally and emotionally what that was like. Then I had a few sponsors drop me and so, that was just more confirmation that it wasn’t okay. I left the tour because, emotionally and mentally, I just couldn’t handle it.”

All’s well that ends well, etc.


Britt Merrick (left) Chas Smith (right, obvs) and David Lee Scales in the center.
Britt Merrick (left) Chas Smith (right, obvs) and David Lee Scales in the center.

Surf world cascades into pitched chaos as Chas Smith and Channel Islands’ Britt Merrick debate cultural value of the Grateful Dead

Do you love the Dead? Prepare to meet your demise.

So a little background for you, here. As you know, David Lee Scales and I get together weekly to discuss surf and its adjacency. Three of them ago, I noticed he was wearing a shirt that had a Grateful Dead-esque lightning bolt on it. Internally loathing that cursed band, I asked, “Is that a Grateful Dead shirt?” He replied, “No, It’s for Channel Islands’ new Happy Everyday surfboard.” Staring harder, I said, “That is a Grateful Dead lightning bolt.” He answered, “Maybe. Britt Merrick’s a Dead Head.”

And that is when I lost it, tearing into my loathe, demanding Britt come and face me in person while I tore down his hippie house.

My hatred for Uncle John’s Band came early. There I was, a young boy on the isolated Oregon coast discovering music on my own for the first time. My elementary school friends would some times bring cassettes to school bearing names like Mötley Crüe and Quiet Riot, Def Leppard and Twisted Sister.

Now, I wasn’t allowed to listen to these forbidden fruits but I imagined the sonic boom they must sound like. And then I stumbled up the Grateful Dead with its lightning bolt and its skull and I was certain they rocked harder than hard.

And so you can imagine my anticipation when I stumbled upon a Grateful Dead mix tape, a Walkman and a set of earphones. I clicked the lid shut, pressed play and….

…. had never been more stunned in my life.

That’s how the Grateful Dead sounded? Like endless hippie folk?

The utter disappointment was baked in that day and I was ready to break Britt Merrick with it. Did I or was I a ringer yet again? You be the judge. If he did beat me like a damned tambourine, though, I’m a perfect 0 – 3 in these debates and consistency is worth something.

Isn’t it?

Debate happens in first 30 mins. Pick a side.


Jerry Seinfeld (pictured) and the best local to ever do it, Fast Eddie Rothman (insert).
Jerry Seinfeld (pictured) and the best local to ever do it, Fast Eddie Rothman (insert).

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld blames chaos in world on death of hardcore surf localism

"We have no sense of hierarchy and as humans we don't really feel comfortable like that.”

Jerry Seinfeld has been making the rounds, these days, sparking headlines at each stop. After letting it slip that Howard Stern is not funny and that pro-Palestinian protestors are “so dumb,” the notable comedian opined on hardcore localism. As the well-informed surfer knows, the era of lineup enforcers is mostly a thing of the past. Ubiquitous cellular telephone cameras, cop calling as preferred form of defense, sue-happiness and the criminalization of hate have put and end to waxed windshields and vals being ordered to kick rocks far away from the beach.

The aforementioned surfers were both surprised but understanding, then, when Seinfeld blamed chaos in the world on localism’s demise. Appearing on the Bari Weiss podcast, the Unfrosted director opened by talking about “real men,” saying, “The other thing is as a man, I’ve always wanted to be a real man. I never made it, but I really thought when I was in that era — again, it was JFK, it was Muhammad Ali, it was Sean Connery, Howard Cosell, you can go all the way down there — that’s a real man. I want to be like that someday,” adding, “I miss a dominant masculinity. Yeah, I get the toxic, I get it, I get it. But still, I like a real man.”

He then opened up about lineup enforcers, sharing, “There’s another element there that I think is the key element [of the ‘60s], and that is an agreed-upon hierarchy, which I think is absolutely vaporized in today’s moment. I think that is why people lean on the horn and drive in the crazy way that they drive — because we have no sense of hierarchy and as humans we don’t really feel comfortable like that.”

Thoughts?

Feel free to share them with the real men, and woman, below.