Sean Doherty: The Black Pearl
2019 Tahiti Pro Teahupo'o, Round of 16 and Round of 32
The days in Tahiti just melt away even when you’re not there.
I missed the first round the other day entirely, didn’t realise it was even running until I walked into the toilet block at Broken Head before a dawn. From behind a locked cubicle door came a familiar voice… the Velvet Fog of Joe Turpel. Either Joe himself was in there ghost calling heats (as he does in his spare time) or Tahiti was running and an early morning surf fan was tuning in, the Tahiti broadcast having a laxative effect despite it only being three foot.
There was no danger of missing the round today, however. A fusillade of sizzle emails for the WSL announced a big swell on the way, a rare west bird pulsing across from the high latitudes above the Kermadecs.
For a while there in the early naughts, west swells were a fixture of this event although we haven’t seen one for a long while. Maybe the last time we did – a day that looked eerily similar to today – they sent the women out. Detonating on dry reef, I recall Lynette McKenzie and Megan Abubo surfing two heats without getting a wave, organisers sending them back out until someone took off.
Today was a day for getting up the reef and getting under it… get under the West Peak and get out of there before the thing closes out on dry reef. It was all on the inside corner and sketched. It was overcast and sideshore which only made it spookier. Jadson Andre in the first heat had no problems getting under it. Flash back to 2011 and Jadson was straight out there the day after Code Red throwing his skinny bones over the ledge. Up against Igarashi this morning few gave him a chance. The reality? He was a smoky favourite. Kanoa’s had a breakout year, but there are still questions for him when it gets serious… Pipe last year, this morning in Tahiti.
Owen Wright was out there in a white brain bucket. No risks today for the man who got his bell rung at Pipe a few years back. The swell was still building and crew were still feeling it out. Kaipo pointed out in the broadcast that Owen wears the number three on his coral-coloured jersey to signify three Wright siblings being on tour together. I don’t even know if that’s correct, but an awkward pause follows as he realises the other two Wrights aren’t currently on tour and he doesn’t really want to talk about why. Kaipo digresses. “Anyway… did you guys know coral turns fluorescent pink and yellow before it dies?”
They’ve been filling a lot of air time on the whole coral rehab program here in Tahiti, which is admirable but has come across a bit Nemo-level. Planting some coral is a nice optic, but not explaining at any point why the coral is dying in the first place makes the whole exercise feel a bit shallow. We’re adult enough to have that conversation but you can feel the conflict within the Wozzle and their big ol’ carbon footprint. Instead we get the optic of dying pink and yellow coral and the optic of pink and yellow smoke-belching jet skis and we join the dots ourselves. If you don’t have the whole hypocrisy conversation and bring yourself into it then the cynics and the deniers will have that conversation for you.
The Italo-Adriano heat got the day moving in spirit. There was a long period in the swell but sets rolled in consistently. They overlapped heats and guys went wave-for-wave. Italo has looked at home out here since his first day on Tahitian soil and headed straight up the reef as deep as he could go. Italo – like Gabby – is a force of nature. You’ve no doubt seen him surfing his home break of Baia Formosa, a brown water, onshore wedge in the middle of town. It’s as far from Teahupo'o as you can get but he short circuited the whole learning process in Tahiti and just started doing it. He looked to be cruising until Adriano channelled the spirit of the late great Ricky Santos and drained a bomb for the win.
It’s been five years since the mongo-sized bluebird year of 2014 and while today wasn’t 2014 it was clear guys would fall into three categories: guys who’d comfortably huck, guys who’d reluctantly huck, and guys who didn’t really want to huck at all. There were plenty of reluctant huckers today who got a good one, surprised themselves by not only surviving but getting tubed, and suddenly became comfortable with it. Jordy was in this group.
Kolohe was a comfortable hucker but couldn’t get away from Tahitian grom Kauli Vaast. As Rossco correctly stated, the foamball and pigdogging out on the face was about six feet on take-off. Kolohe had the sets but in the end the grommet snuck up the reef and took a deep insider that took Kolohe out of the game and out of the yellow jersey.
God bless the Hobgoods. Sensing the need for a storyline the WSL flew the Hobgood twins over to Tahiti and they were hard to miss this morning. CJ walked onto the broadcast set and left no dead air with classic stories from the days of ankle-length Globe shorts, a yard-by-yard breakdown of how the reef works, and some inner monologues that escaped out into public. “Bro… you do not want to take the first wave and turn around and see the Black Pearl!” I interviewed the Hobgoods together a few years back in Papa Teva’s backyard and within a minute I wasn’t even there. They argued moments of shared history, they worked through issues from their childhood, they wrote each other off and sung each other’s praises. CJ and Damo personalise the Teahupo'o experience better than anyone and this contest is better for having them there.
Back-to-back waves to Jeremy Flores and Ryan Callinan saw the whole thing go up a gear. Jeremy came out with his hands behind his back, Ryanno got washed across the reef and gooned. By now guys were starting to venture up the reef and trust it a little more… taking off too deep and hoping it wasn’t. I don’t know if Griff Colapinto was trusting much at all when he took off on what was the biggest wave of the day at that point, but he went regardless. To his own amazement he came out.
Gabby was commanding without even looking like Gabby. It was funny watching footage of him winning back here in 2014, the big year, and what a grom he was. Through tears he could scarcely believe he’d just beaten Kelly in what might have been the heaviest contest ever surfed. In five years his countenance has changed entirely. He looked carved from stone as he surveyed the lineup this morning. Gabby cruised without cruising, you just didn’t see the subtleties in it. The nose of his board pointed at the valley as he took off. The lip tickling his neck before he jammed under it. Charlie Medina meanwhile wasn’t quite in command, paddling in panic to get under a set.
No aura of command for Filipe Toledo today. He opened surfing like a cat walking with plastic bags on its feet. Tahiti is not his game. He’s got to find ways to win and at the back-end of his heat that’s what he did. No hands, big pump into the West Peak and out clean. Problem was he had no backup, and Jesse Mendes was left needing only a high five. In the final minute Jesse looked to have got it. The score was critical. With Kolohe and Italo out of the draw, and with Gabby imperious, Filipe saying au revoir here would have fated another Medina title run. The scores dropped in the broadcast booth and from the reactions of Ace Buchan it sounded like two judges had given Jesse the score… before Joe told him to cool his jets. Something was going down. The scores stalled, and after a confusing two minutes of dead air it was barely announced that Mendes had in fact lost by almost a full point.
By this stage crew had worked it out and scores were falling from the sky. Caio Ibelli dropped a 9.5, but few gave Jack Freestone any chance against Kelly in the final heat of the round. Jack has no real formline out here at all. Kelly is the formline. The field however had equalised in terms of their ability to deal with this wave. If this was 2002 there would have been a cadre of six, maybe eight guys who could impose some kind of will on a day like today. Suddenly those guys were everywhere.
Kelly immediately seemed out of phase. Jack scored early. Kelly then pin dropped symphonically from the heaviest wave of the day, straight to the tombs. The judges compounded his pain by handing Jack priority. Kelly blew up. The priority call kept him out of phase till the end. Kelly had a wave to win it in the final minute only to turn around and see Jack on an even better one. Kelly delivered the last rites to any thought of a world title campaign but made no mention of his Olympic bid. That’s the one that really hurts.
The round of 16 rolled on and so did Jadson Andre. Has the pro tour ever had a less celebrated battler? In 10 years on tour I can’t remember him being a favourite in any heat he’s surfed and yet he paddled out here today and smoked both heats. Owen Wright meanwhile, wearing what appeared to be a kid’s skateboard stackhat, was toying with it. Every two minutes Owen was being spat out of something. Michael Bourez wasn’t toying. The Tahitian got lit up badly, before throwing himself into a black void, surfing uphill and out of the thickest wave of the day. It still wasn’t enough.
The maddogs were suddenly off the leash, although with varying degrees of success. Bourez went hard and went down. Julian Wilson went even harder and also went down, losing to Jordy. Griff Colapinto came out cockroach spinning and was crushed by the boot of the inside section. The meat wagon ski scooped up Griff, then Kauli Vast from the inside reef. The kids were walking through the fire. Barton made the brave call that nobody had been hurt yet. Jeremy Flores stood tall and dismissively calm through the wave of the day. A masochistic paradigm ruled the afternoon. Meanwhile Gabby, seemingly without breaking a sweat, just kept getting spat out and launched like a bowlegged cowboy, palms supine into the channel. We saw it five years ago when he won here as a kid, and we very well might see it again tomorrow.
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