Corona Open J-Bay: Day Two
Well, we got our day at solid, maxing J-Bay. Perfect at times, almost too big at others and certainly a major challenge for the top 24 men and remaining 8 women.
Answers to questions about whether Kelly could still hang with the elite in elite-level surf were answered definitively (no). But the old boy - Uncle Goat as Jack Robbo called him in his post-heat presser - was still entertaining as hell to watch.
We've known for a long time that Kelly is ultra-sensitive to online criticism, recently confirmed by the latest episode of Lost Tapes. He bristles and reacts and loves to prove the critics wrong, loves to one-up online trolls. It's an unusual but endearing quality, for mine.
Today he half proved the critics wrong. Lest we be lumped in with these online trolls, the analysis of Kelly is strictly grounded in objective reality: the numbers, heat scores, rankings positions etc etc. Irrefutable facts and matters of the official record. Reality is very hard to accept when we are used to the status quo bias of Slater mastery. But accept it we must.
For example: His first four scoring rides in his Round of 16 clash with Jack Robinson were a 3.67, 3.23, 2.73, and 5.33.
All mediocre or below.
Sometimes the raw facts obscure deeper and more intangible parallel realities. Aside from the obvious: a 50-year-old mixing it up at the elite level with a bloke not even born when Kelly had already won six titles.
Behind the numbers: Kelly's 2.73 had a beautiful top turn, foam climb to deep fade then a signature carving Three-O deep in the bowl of a double-overhead J-Bay screamer that made Rosie go “whoa!”
He didn't stick it, but if he had that would have been a major headache for the judges. How to throw a number at a turn only he has the balls to attempt, let alone pull off?
Kelly was in the heat until the death but the final exchange on the buzzer was conclusive. Kelly's claimed 6.67 against Jack Robinson's 9.10.
Those scores perfectly illustrate the size of the numerical spread now between Kelly and the elite.
We also need to mention Kelly was helped by jet-ski assist, which magically appeared right as his heat began. A first for competition at J-Bay.
Earlier, a low energy Kelly, after a heat win against Barron Mamiya which featured his highest wave score since Portugal in March (7.33) claimed his tiredness was down to a late arrival and that he was still trying to get used to a new board. No doubt he was responding to the barrage of online criticism about his poor equipment choices.
It seemed maddening for someone of his experience to blame poor board choices - surely that is one of the few bankable positives for the aging surfer. Dialing in quivers. But no, the board he rode was “not a perfect board for out here”.
Cue sound of a million foreheads being smacked by surf fans in frustration.
Let's roll the tape back to 2019. Two goofys in the final - Medina vs Italo. The goofyfoot line: continuing, rhythmic, scaleable, increasing amplitude and altitude across high hooks in the bowl, looks to remain the benchmark for pumping J-Bay. Examples: Italo, Yago, Connor O'Leary, Tatiana Weston-Webb. Of those, I continue to favour Italo for the risk and execution on the closing turn. That huge high hit to explosion on the inside ledge is very hard to do and a clear point of difference.
The very long lead time from judges made it hard to keep up with Italo's rides. At one point it seemed judges had awarded a sub-4 to one of those emphatic exclamation points. Only for an 8 to magically appear ten minutes later.
Now that Miggy Pupo is gone, we need to acknowledge that Yago Dora is carrying the torch as the most stylish surfer left in the event. Yes, I do mean over Ethan Ewing. There's just slightly less in between turns, if we had to split hairs.
However, Ewing was amazing against local boy Matty McGillivray. I had deja vu watching their heat. Matty M spent most of the 2020 COVID shutdown in my neck of the woods and I saw him and Ethan go head to head numerous times in perfect 6 foot point surf. From a distance, and up close, Ewing's spray fans were bigger, the redirect a little more solid. Judges paid a deep tube for Matty very handsomely, even though he fell on the end and were, I thought, a tad stingy for Ewing's perfect rail turns. A close victory was well earned.
Pro surfing seems cruel in the way careers fly by, absent Kelly who has made time reverse on numerous ocassions, none moreso than Jordy Smith. 2017, when he last won J-Bay, seems a lifetime ago. His back to back wins were a decade ago! He's a veteran now, looking for a consolation title. But not this year. And maybe not ever. If he doesn't, he'll be the best to not win a World Title, easily eclipsing other contenders like Taj Burrow.
Turn for turn he looks the only one with the repertoire, size of turns, and tube-riding nous to overcome Top Fivers Ewing and Robinson and the goofys left in the draw, then factor in a home crowd he loves to draw energy from. Jordy vs Ethan in 6 foot+ J-Bay with some problematic wind. I give a slight advantage to Jordy in those conditions. It's his contest to lose. Especially with no JJF or Medina.
Doesn't really matter for either Ewing or Robinson. Both sitting pretty with Quarter-Final finishes above Griffin and Toledo. The dark horse now is Igarashi.
Judges dropped the requirement for a finishing turn for the Women's Quarters. To be fair, their hand was forced by events. Sets were booming, even with skis on hand there were nightmares familiar to every pointbreak surfer. Paddle-out fails, equipment snappage, long-lasting punishment and tests of endurance. Carissa copped it worst, snapped board, dragged down the rocks like a drowned rat. She rallied to surf a couple of set waves competently for a high 6 and a high 7. Both generously scored.
Tyler did enough of the same mid-range rail work to get past Johanne Defay. In the post-heat presser, Tyler claimed to be “gaining data” and that her analytic brain was working overtime to parse the particular challenge of DOH J-Bay. Memories of J-Bay are mixed for her. As she reminded us it was here that “four years ago I disappeared for a few years”.
The emotional toolkit she referenced will be fully stretched in her Semi against Gilmore, who has looked the most in sync with J-Bay this comp. I thought her 8.33 opener was a bit over-scored but the final wave with three big full-faced carves back into the hook a bit unders. Either way, Steph is carrying the same aura she had at El Salvador. The problem for her will be dealing with unfavourable winds on finals day. Her frame will not be as physiologically suited to that bump as someone more athletic like Tatiana Weston-Webb.
It's funny how the pros riding large surf with mechanical assistance has removed the sport further from recreational perspectives. Under those conditions locals would be on 6'3”s and 6'6”s. Maybe bigger. Picking off sets. Avoiding mistakes and their session-ending consequences.
We'll see how the more flighty post-modern pro equipment goes on finals day as Mother Nature ups the challenge factor. At the edge of the performance envelope we'll be anticipating more than survival surfing.
Online critic, out.
// STEVE SHEARER