Corona Open J-Bay: Day One
It almost felt like relief to get a day of more or less insane surf after a Latin American leg that has really seemed to drag.
Something more seismic seemed to have happened today, almost at a subterranean level, after an opening day spent sorting the pack at flawless 4-6 foot J-Bay. This may be a transitory phenomenon, in which case these words will float away in the wind, or it may herald a more solid shift in the tectonic plates.
For the first time, at least since Mick Fanning retired, Australia produced a dominant display against the Brazilian Storm. The best surfing was clearly done by the Aussie top five incumbents Jack Robinson and Ethan Ewing. Their dominance was not displayed on the judges scorecards after an insanely frustrating day of inexplicable judging.
Judges cooked themselves awarding 7's and 8's for the Women's Opening Round which was mostly extremely mediocre - partly because of a lingering devil wind that made it hard to cut against the trim line and partly due to tepid, low information surfing. Only Caroline Marks found the 'slot car' pointbreak line which allowed cornering at speed without wasting valuable real estate doing mid-face wiggles.
By varying the scale so radically when the first Men's heat came on they created more WTF! moments in Round 1 than we've seen all year.
Colapinto should have had two excellent rides - he was locked in the 7 point range. Local boy Matt McGillivray was immense - the cheers and impact on the crowd from every turn clearly fired him up. For huge turns his 8.5 was correctly picked by judges as the (second!) best ride of the day. That puts Griff and Jaddy Andre into a rematch for the Elimination Round and it's very, very hard to see Griff being beaten.
There are easy beats now on this tour and it's incredibly sad to say that Kelly Slater has become one of them. Even at perfect J-Bay where, in theory, his surfing has possibly the most potential upside to improve as a 50-year-old.
In his last six heats: at pumping Margarets, perfect (but slow) G-Land, and now roping J-Bay he has made double figures once. Just. A 10.67 total at Mainbreak.
Kelly's Lost Tapes series, from 2019 (his last full year on tour) is giving us an invaluable, if recent, time capsule and reminder of his slide. His 2019 heats: 10.67, 13.57, 12.20 at pumping J-Bay showed a surfer a long way off his peak performances there. He is unlikely to better those numbers here and even against a rookie J-Bay surfer like Barron Mamiya, who would have been cannon fodder for Slater at J-Bay, a win seems a very remote possibility.
What's going wrong? Boards look terrible: twitchy, catchy, not capable of major turns. Everything about his surfing last night looked inconclusive, weak, nervous.
The time capsule effect also worked in reverse. To showcase stunning improvement. Ethan Ewing admitted in his presser he hadn't been back to J-Bay for five years, presumably since his rookie year. Yet, in that time a kind of mythology has been built up around him as a perfect J-Bay surfer, especially in recent times. That's heavy pressure. The numbers don't do justice to his performance. The turns were magisterial - full redirection every turn. He has a unique top turn, not quite a layback but a backfoot heavy snap, with both arms behind him that no-one else on tour can do. If you are from QLD you were splitting screens with the State of Origin decider, which lent an extra air of joy to watching Ewing slice and sizzle and send rooster tails to the heavens at Supers. Probably a similar effect for the J-Bay crowd watching Matty McGillivray do his thing.
South African wildcards were superb. None more so than Luke Thompson. Heard of him..? No, me neither. I'm sure I slogged through enough dismal slop at Ballito to ID any potential Jordy Smiths in the draw but apparently not.
Turn for turn Thompson out-surfed Jack Robinson in their Heat 3 clash. It took genuine tube-riding wizardry from Robbo to win, a process he drolly described as “getting the job done”. This was another heat where scoring was incomprehensibly low-balled. A 7.77 for Jack's high score was farcical. If they can't identify and reward excellent surfing then what the hell are we doing here?
Seriously, what are we doing here?
That's the whole point of it as a project isn't it?
To progress and advance surfing by giving high numbers to excellent surfing.
My pet theory was judges were giving head room until Toledo showed up. Which was proven after his opening ride, which did go excellent, however it wasn't a great heat for Toledo. He only needs to surf to win. Instead he played silly tactical games. Sitting too deep up the point while multiple waves went unridden.
The clocked ticked down and he had the 8, then he overcooked a floater and fell.
Bad tactics, and he was easily beaten by Nat Young.
To give judges fair due, they also did pick the best ride of the day. In Heat 2, Yago Dora's flawless big hooks on one of the biggest sets of the day relegated Jordy Smith to the Elimination Round against Kolohe Andino. Both of those former contenders look a bit bored and disinterested with the tour now they are not final five aspirants. Going through the motions, making up the numbers.
Steph finally found some groove as the Women came back and finished off the Elimination Round. Knocked were Courtney Conlogue, Lakey Peterson - who did some of the best turns in the Opening Round - Isabella Nichols, and Tia Blanco.
It's not demeaning to ask why Tia Blanco is there. Ronnie Blakey, who I normally respect greatly suggested she had “earned the wildcard” by winning The Ultimate Surfer. No Ronnie, you don't earn wildcards by winning shitty reality TV shows. That's a terrible call.
You earn wildcards by putting on amazing performances.
Adding insult to injury was the talent available to the WSL, who were denied wildcards by Blanco's being gifted one. It's a heavy opportunity cost with so few women in the draw.
Semi-Finalists from Ballito: Bronte Macauley, Macy Callaghan, Molly Picklum, Caitlin Simmers.
Pick one of them!
...but please make it Pickles.
Pumping J-Bay ahead and some interesting match-ups in the Elimination Round. Toledo has the most to lose. A bad result here and he will be having nightmares about Teahupoo and Jack Robinson, twitching wildly, breathing heavily while proclaiming all is calm and bright.
Very much looking forwards to watching that.
// STEVE SHEARER