Dawn broke on Easter Monday and big Willian Cardoso aka, the gentle Panda, wore a concerned look on his face as he glanced over the Winki Pop lineup. The contest had been green-lit for Winki and all the Panda could see was closeouts – a bamboo forest he couldn’t quite chew through. He also had the other minor issue that he was matched against a rejuvenated John John Florence.

While Willian complained of closeouts John John saw a racy playground where he could unleash his elastic-limbed attack.

John John was surfing exceptionally well without taking the degree of difficulty to the upper limits of his ability. He held the rail like a well-sung note through the carves, his timing was sublime and the final moves were punctuated by delicately ditched fins. Maybe it was Winki’s demand for speed but there seemed to be a little more zip to his surfing than we saw on the Gold Coast. The rounded square-tail and stiff carbon fins, which Pete Mel had so much fun playing with, delivered all the drive and flow he required to lacerate the Winki lineup.

The ability to consistently surf at seventy to eight five percent of your full ability is the hall-mark of a world title contender and John John seems able to easily slot into that mode. Of course you have to be able to call on the upper gear when it’s required. John John flourished and big Will found his way through the forest, leaving an underwhelming Jesse Mendes to make the loser’s lonely ascent of the Winki Pop stairs.

There is much hype about the big three of the Brazilian camp - Gabriel, Italo and Filipe - but the truth is all the ‘Stormriders’ are proving threatening. Rookie Deivid Silva is a diminutive dynamo who explodes out of moves after uncoiling his spring-loaded bottom turn. Silva is one of those surfers with the ability to generate speed out of moves. At Winki Pop, where so much energy is expended chasing down sections, this is a massive advantage. Silva’s explosive lip antics saw him blast past the owner of the WCT’s power lord mantel , Michel Bourez.

In a heat where all three surfers had heat totals between ten and eleven the judges were splitting hairs. Reef Heazlewood had no reason to feel disheartened by his failure to progress. His hyper-critical backside surfing saw him post the highest single wave score of the heat. Post heat poor Deivid looked bamboozled when Rosy asked him about the advantage of winning in round one and moving to the top of your seeding bracket. Even if you do have a good command of English it’s not an easy thing to articulate, but if you do want to understand more about the incentive to finish first in the ‘seeding round’ read here.

Mikey Wright was probably the major disappointment of the final three heats, particularly for Oz fans desperate to have an anti-hero upon whom to pin their hopes. He is the Yin to Julian Wilson’s Yan. Certain surfers have trademark turns that they resort to when they need a score. For Mikey the double-handed layback slash has become the moneymaker. It is a joy to watch and delivers a distinct point of difference to a rail carve, however he needs to be careful he doesn’t overuse the ace of spades carve lest it lose its luster for the judges.

Meanwhile, Peterson Crisanto was crisp and committed in his approach. Not easy for a Winki Pop novice. Peterson with his youthful energy and surprisingly well-rounded attack again proved that he will be hard to beat for any surfer. Kanoa Igarashi tried to compensate for poor execution on the crucial opening move of his first wave with a double frontside reverse. However, the judges didn’t buy it. With his dome freshly dipped in a blonde rinse, Kanoa brought a hint of Japanese punk to his aesthetic but he will need more of the samurai’s accuracy with the blade if he wants to win heats. at least his double reverse act did enough to earn him second and a ticket to round three.

After Steph Gilmore recovered from early heat jitters to go on a seven minute rampage and Brisa Hennesy proved that Caroline Marks can be beaten on her backhand, it was on to the elimination round for the mens.

Steph Gilmore slashing her way to victory in round one. Photo: Ryan

Making a cameo in the booth, Matt Wilkinson summed it up best as Jack Freestone employed the universal sign for shark to suspend the heat. “Is that someone singing walk like an Egyptian or there might have been a shark.”

Ronnie had earlier seen a seal lurking in the lineup while KP and Owen later confirmed it was a clump of killer weed. That said Winki does have a little bit of form of the finned kind. A surfer was nipped on the ankle out there last March, while back in 2006 Peter Galvin was badly mauled by a large shark at Winki. Hopefully there will be no more clumps of weed to stall the action if the waves turn on later in the week.

Killer weed infiltrates the Winki lineup prompting a hiatus. Photo: Steve Ryan

Back in the water, a technicoluor clad Owen Wright found the rhythm on his backhand. “Do you think he’s wearing that suit because he misses me?” jibed a nostalgic Wilko, who pined for the days when he was the one with the crazy WCT wetsuit wardrobe. The pace of the wave seemed to suit Owen’s approach and there was a distinct absence of pumps or check turns between his symphony of flowing moves. Owen mark 2019 seems to lack a radically progressive dimension to his act but in the bigger swells forecast his lanky backside extensions will become increasingly effective and he’s used it to make it to the pointy end of Bells events in the past.

Bereft of good waves Jack Freestone had to manufacture scores to survive the tradesman-like approach of local wildcard, Harry Mann. Freestone’s freesurfing antics (think Kirra barrels and big airs) have been a major talking point of 2019 but Jack will need to translate all that Jazz to his contest act if he wants to make a dent on the WCT.            

In the second heat the ‘Torquay ‘Tiger’, Xavier Huxtable, was on course to stage an upset when he surfed with precision and composure beyond his years for a flat six on his opener. At least he had dragged the judges out of the land of fives where they spent most of the day languishing. Soli Bailey looked rattled by the redheaded wildcard in the early stages of the heat, repeatedly falling and making poor choices. It required a slickly performed rotation to loft Soli out of trouble. The 6.53 was the highest wave score of the heat and he posted it with a single move.

The inspired moment proved two main things – that Soli has aerial weapons, which can turn heats in a split second and that the judges are still turned on by single, progressive moves.  

While Soli launched into first, Wade ‘Carve’ Michael held on to second against the Tiger. Wade looks like he should be wielding a broad sword in the final season of Game of Thrones but instead he is chopping down lightweight opposition on the WCT. The key to his success is where he does his surfing – right in the pocket and quite often in behind it. It’s being so close to the power source that enables him to project his heavy weight frame into high-speed lip jams. Importantly he doesn’t let the big rig wobble around and holds good form through his turns. Like many, I’m looking forward to seeing Wade in chunkier conditions later in the week. As Ronnie suggested, if the flyers are not finding the landing gear he will punish them on rail.

Earlier this year a sponsorless Reef Heazlewood was staying in a church on the Nth Shore for ten bucks a night so that he could compete in the Volcom Pipe Pro. Now he has a solid Hurley deal and a sniff at back-dooring the WCT qualification with his wildcard results. Will Reef go the way of Mikey Wright? He’s certainly proving that he is capable of rumbling with the world’s best. There’s those big frontside lofts but down here it’s the tail-feather backhand that is doing the damage. Reef has more tail shake than a prized rooster. He can twist it and flick it and throw it to capture the judges’ attention and convince them that there is a whole lot more going on than a regulation backside turn. Against Mikey Wright and Jesse Mendes that’s exactly what he did. Mikey certainly wasn’t at his fire-breathing best but surfing at sixty five percent and by simply catching the best wave of the heat and doing bigger turns he was able to sneak past Jesse Mendes, and overcome any injury woes he may have been burdened by.

Heazlewood shaking a tail-feather. Photo: Steve Ryan

Mikey is not looking like a Bell-ringer on current form but with more canvas to work with his extended carves and maverick lip belts will be more effective – if he’s fit.

In the opening phase of the final sudden death heat we were greeted with the site of Michael Rodriguez dissecting the inside section at Winki with classic form and flow. His curvy Mayhem seemed to fit perfectly in the pocket of the cleaner, steeper-faced inside walls – down towards the section locals refer to as The Valley. One senses that Rodriguez is still psychologically stifled by the off-field altercation with Tanner Hendrickson in Hawaii last year. He’s wary of appearing over-confident or forthright. However, there is no doubting his ability to emerge as another Brazilian contender. However, the jury is out on how he will fare in booming Bells or Winki conditions. Behind him Caio Ibelli crafted a second place finish. As a former Bells finalist he has proven his worth in a wide range of Victorian conditions and will be calling on past knowledge to make his claim amongst his talented posse of countrymen.    

From new commentary recruit Luke Egan we are getting some unfiltered observations. Like Pottz, Egan has the advantage of being a former top competitor. This means you can say something emphatic about tactics or technique without running the risk of the peanut gallery shouting ‘How would you know?’ It was Egan who wasn’t afraid to suggest that Mikey Wright looks a little ‘upright’ and that he may still be hampered by his back injury. It was also forthright Luke pointing out that Steph’s board looks a little skatey and that it’s not necessarily who wins the paddle but who has the juice left to ride the next wave well. Egan has been a competitor, a contest director and played the role of coach for the likes of Joel Parkinson, Caroline Marks and Connor O’Leary. Captain positive, Joe Turpel, will ensure the rainbows and unicorns continue to pour forth, that’s his brief, but hopefully big Luke maintains a refreshingly candid and honest approach to his calls.

Bells is about surviving the hard times and thriving in the good conditions. It will generally require winners to deal with an array of scenarios. So far it’s only dished up wobbly, wind-chopped Winki but the forecast suggests we will see those big southern ocean lines steaming through by the end of the week. It should almost be like watching a different sport - Let’s hope.