Eager to get a feel for the fluctuating track, before the event kicks off, several of the world’s best descended upon Snapper for a hot lap in micro perfection conditions.
 
For photogs, fans and shoulder-hopping surf mag hacks it was an opportunity to get a gauge on who is likely to throw down when the first siren sounds.

 

"As one awed onlooker put it succinctly, “It’s amazing how much better these guys surf in real life.”  

Slater made his presence immediately felt. Looking bronzed and lean after a season in Hawaii, he had little difficulty adapting to the cute conditions. On his maiden ride he slayed the lip before drifting seamlessly through a carving 360.

Kelly in conversation with the Tracks ed, Luke Kennedy. Photo : Ben Bugden

‘Very first wave’ on this board he told the pod of fawning photogs, who couldn’t point and shoot fast enough once he paddled out. Kelly, eternally in search of the perfect stick, had already been out experimenting with another board. Whether or not he has found his magic wand yet, he certainly looks like his equipment is more dialed in than in years past at Snapper.

Between waves Kelly joked with old friends like Luke Egan and Pete Mel, had time for a sincere chat with a local Aboriginal surfer and even managed to give yours truly a few tips about better journalism. Kelly does not just surf, he holds court out in the lineup. One pro grommet was sufficiently impressed to suggest that Slater looked the sharpest amongst a pack that included the likes of Michel Bourez, Stu Kennedy, Leo Fioravanti, Ace Buchan and Owen Wright.

Of the goofies, WCT new blood, Connor O’Leary, was the standout, jagging the best waves and cleaving the lip with severe backside fin blasts. Coach and corner-man, Luke Egan, looked on approvingly and suggested that he and Connor had been working hard to get Connor’s boards right for the better quality ‘CT waves. Meanwhile Kelly, in court jester mode, loudly jibed Connor – who was mid-wave – about catching all the good ones.

Connor O'Leary is ready to turn the tour upside-down. Photo: Ben Bugden

Although he wasn’t in the lineup there were still lingering whispers of Toledo’s imperious session earlier that morning. “He was just linking everything,” suggested sideline commentator, Pete King, from aboard his battleship mal. “Who’s going to beat him if it’s three feet?” continuedPete. King, like most astute observers, is aware that if Toledo has the chance to catch ten waves in a heat, chances are he will nail something ludicrous on at least two.

Not surprisingly, Steph Gilmore, procured one of the afternoon’s choicest runners and unleashed an attack that was hardly rivaled by man or woman.

Mikey was leading the charge amongst the Wright clan, utilizing his free-surfing status to simply focus on pulling bigger, gruntier, dirtier and deeper rail turns than anyone else. A more measured Owen hooked his lean frame through smooth lip glides and ‘thwacking’ fin chucks. After his heroic return to competition at Newcastle, everyone is hoping to see Owen back to his best when he pulls on a jersey in the big leagues. Meanwhile, a smiling Tyler suggested she was still coming down from her chart-topping tube-ride in the most recent Coolangatta swell.

Mikey Wright bringing a different mood to a lineup laden with top 34 contenders. Photo: Ben Bugden

The Wrights are all individually brilliant but there is no doubt they have a highly evolved capacity draw on each other to reach new heights and overcome challenges.

Parko, Julian, Kolohe and Jack Freestone eventually all paddled out to join the party. Peer pressure can get the better of you when the first world tour event is about to go down. The mood in the water was playful, with an omnipresent undercurrent of competitive instinct and pre-game nerves. Everyone was striving to refine their own act, while keeping half an eye on the rest of the field, and still shrugging off the serious vibe to make time for banter and small talk. Today’s buddy is always tomorrow’s nemesis in a game where rivals spend so much time in shared space.

Down the line John John was staying out of the rat race. The world champ was content to ride his regular board on the Rainbow Bay super-zippers and hoot the long boarders as they flew past in hang five or coffin ride stance. The world title monkey is off John John’s back and he seems relaxed. Remember the way he free-surfed his final in Portugal after claiming the title. Hopefully that’s what he has in mind come round one.