Clean and contestable. Those are the kind of descriptive terms an antsy contest director might have used to put a positive spin on the Bells conditions early this morning. For competitors the slow swell meant mistakes would be costly. With three guys in the water, two bites at the bowl was about all you were going to get and of course both would count.

Photos: WSL Barrip

Rhythm and Blues

For Matt Wilkinson the primary weapon remains the same­ – rhythm. Once the backhand clicks in it’s like watching a drummer who knows how to hit the skins with perfect timing on every strike. Flowing but repetitious backside surfing won the event for Wilko last year. Why wouldn't he stick to the same formula? The big risk for Wilko, who swung the pendulum to victory over Fanning and Jadson Andre in heat one, is that the judges grow weary of the same top to bottom routine. Just adding a slight variation in the angle of the attack could make a huge difference for Matt as the contest evolves.

Wilko swinging the pendulum with perfect timing in the bowl.

For Mick Fanning it was all blues and less rhythm. He surfed one wave well but looked a little catchy the rest of the heat. As mentioned earlier, there was almost no room for error early in the day.

By hinting that he came close to quitting the tour and thus making such a big deal about his return to the WSL, Mick has arguably heaped pressure upon himself. If Mick is on tour both he and the fans expect him to be in world title contention, however the much-heralded return to full-time competition isn't going to plan. He's not surfing badly, he jut hasn't generated the sense of invincibility and intimidation he needs to be a world title contender. By virtue of his intensity Mick could once scare competitors into a loss before they even paddled out. Now he's scratching to make heats.

Meanwhile Owen is winning by projecting an entirely different kind of energy. There's a distinctive born-again- Zen aura about his whole act.

Owen said he felt good riding a board that's half an inch shorter than him.

Chasing a score with minutes to go against Zeke Lau and Miguel Pupo, he handled the pressure easily. Later commenting.  "Maybe I'm thinking more clearly because I've had so much time off... I feel a bit more relaxed when those heats come down to the buzzer. When I was waiting for that wave I was like. Oh well. What will be will be."

There's also a refreshing honesty in his approach. “I was glad to have a couple of days to recover after Margies and when I got here I was stoked the waves weren't ten feet." On a more technical level he attributed his victory to having the right equipment.

"I felt like this board gave me that little bit of extra flare."... I've usually ridden boards a little bigger here and drawn a longer line ...This one is 6'3" and I'm 6'3" and a half. It's got more rocker and a round tail. When I rode it at Winki the other day I said to Micro. 'This is the board that's been missing in my quiver down here for conditions like this'."

It's hard to imagine that Gabriel Medina is only a one-world title surfer. Performance wise he is one of surfing's most gifted and he has a ruthless, competitive streak that rivals Kelly and Fanning. Gabriel is almost always going to get his pair of sevens. To beat him you will have to go big and Stu Kennedy and Leo Fioravanti didn't deliver.

American Dreams

Off the bench wild card Nat Young surfed like someone who wanted to prove they were worthy of a place on tour. Young's thunder thigh backside snaps were even big enough to blow Jordy out of the water. Admittedly Jordy' s power advantage is not as pronounced in the smaller Bells conditions. He has arguably the biggest turns on tour and if the swell beefs up expect last year's runner up to thrive. Meanwhile Young's dream is obviously to pull off a Sebastian Zietz and use wildcard entries to reclaim a position on tour.

Against a disappointing Jack Freestone and Sammy Pupo, Kolohe Andino surfed like someone with visions of winning a world title for the USA. There was a Curren-like quality to some of Kolohe’s carves and he was thoroughly deserving of the highest heat score of the five derbies that went down in the bowl­ – 17.17.  On rail Kolohe has looked foxlike and limber but in recent times perhaps hasn’t pushed the progressive elements of his surfing as much as we might have expected. Certainly not to the dizzying heights of some of his peers. Which brings us to…

John John took things to a different altitude at Winki.

Do You Have Pop?

Of the seven heats that went down at Winki Pop one thing or perhaps I should say two people became glaringly obvious. In contest scenarios John John Florence and Filipe Toledo are in a league of their own when it comes to taking flight.

John John book-ended his heat against Jeremy flores and Glyndn Ringrose with big punts. When he got it right on the face he looked like a ribbon of silk twisting with perfect choreography, but it was in the air that he created a clear point of distinction from the opposition. Admittedly John John did look a little vulnerable mid-way through the heat. He rides a much narrower nose and lower relative volume than his opposition. This means the board whips through turns like a scimitar blade, but on chubbier faces or when his weight shifts too heavily to the front foot, the board sometimes has a tendency to nosedive.  The positives are outweighing the negatives though; so don’t expect JJ to switch.

The only surfer to out-pop John John was of course the human sugar-glider Filipe Toledo who out leapt Conner Coffin and Bede Durbidge. Toledo is at his most dangerous when he can catch a higher volume of waves and build momentum. If you check the crescendo of his seven scores they climb from a 6.17 all the way up to a ten, with the ten and a 9.17 the keepers. Barton Lynch was so impressed with Toledo’s tactics that he went so far as to call it the ‘best heat he’d ever seen surfed’ by a competitor. 

Would it be sacrilege to see John John and Toledo boosting for the Bell? No, it might be just the thing to save a contest there are rumors of ditching from the tour.

Slater relied on text book rail turns to claim victory.

Kelly didn’t have the pop­ – well he tried, but he definitely couldn’t find the landing gear. Fortunately for Slater he didn’t need it. The tail release slash and the front-side carve were in good enough form to construct a victory over Josh Kerr (who we should have seen fly) and Ian Gouveia. Kelly may still be capable of glorious jumps but he doesn’t have the consistency in the air he once did. But does he need them to be a contender? (It is interesting that Kelly only ever gets discussed by commentators and media in terms of world titles). If Kelly can hustle his way to a good finish at Bells it will be his best result in an Australian leg in years. Beyond Brazil the next four contests are Fiji, J-Bay, Tahiti and Trestles. You could almost call this the Kelly leg, given his level of success at these events over the years. This is of course a long term thinking approach, when we are still chiming Bells, but Kelly is well aware that if he can leave Australia as part of the peloton frontrunners then the door to room number 12 is open.  

Julian Wilson is another surfer we might have expected to fly. If you were shooting a freesurfing vid of the world’s best then Jules would be on your speed dial list alongside John John and Filipe. However, in recent times Jules hasn’t been able to reach for his more flamboyant surfing in heats. Fortunately he found the pop in the final seconds of his round one heat and narrowly escaped being taken down by Wiggolly’s meat-cleaver backhand blasts.

Bourez slashing flamboyantly.

Michel Bourez wasn’t going beyond the lip but as per usual deserves mention for his brutal assault upon it. Meanwhile Ethan Ewing was all panache against him. There is undeniably something unique and aesthetically appealing about the lines Ethan is drawing, however he seems to need clean faces and quality sections to get his work done. Bourez was wielding an axe on crumbly lips, Ewing was never going to win doing the same thing with a tomahawk.

It wasn’t classic Bells or Winki and it wasn’t big, onshore enthralling Bells. It was still mostly fun to watch but without doubt the real savior on Easter Saturday was the man with the giant Jesus tat’­– Filipe Toledo.

Meanwhile, the best line of the day went to beach commentator, Chris Binns.  When Jordy Smith was chasing a 7.11 at one point Binnsy quipped. “He’s like a drunk guy when the bar’s closing­­ – he’s looking for a 7-11.”

 

 

Filipe Toledo with Jesus looking over his shoulder.