Right now my corner of the earth is blessed with stiff offshores and four foot of groundswell. The sort of conditions I once heard an upbeat Californian Pro call ‘Groomy’, as in groomed but groovier. Maybe a lick of onshore ruffle is the preferred delicacy for modern sky walkers but I still love a clean, offshore day. When the ocean has that seductive velvet texture and the well-defined lines loom from way out I just can’t say no to a session.

So what happens when the WSL fire through their hyperbolic contest alarm email? “It’s on!” Like many of us I’m also a surf contest tragic. However, when good heats coincide with optimal tides and classic conditions at the local my mind goes into a spin. I’m currently a sucker for any heat featuring Morgan Cibilic and a recent clash between Steph Gilmore and Carissa Moore was unmissable.

“Just watch the heat replays!” some surfers say. It’s a viable option and one I’ve exploited, but there’s still no substitute for witnessing the action live. The drama and emotion are more deeply felt, perhaps because you are part of a collective conscience. Watching online you’re not exactly sitting in a grandstand but you know masses of fans are viewing simultaneously and history is unfolding. But is your own two-second barrel worth more than watching a heat where Kelly and John John trade mind-benders at Teahupoo? Remember that semi in 2014?

Sometimes it all comes together. In a pre-Covid era when travel budgets were plump and times were good, the annual Hawaii trip was the best junket in work history. The general brief was, cover the Pipe Masters for the website, surf the lay days and work on a few bigger features for the mag. In between, it was all Mai Tais, house parties, and hustling fabled Hawaiian shapers for the best boards you could get your hands on.

Sometimes the temptation to squeeze a wave in on contest days was too great, particularly when one of the more user-friendly breaks was firing.

Pipe taking an each way bet for a captivated crowd. Photo: WSL/Scholtz

On the finals day of the 2017, Pipe Masters I was determined to jam it all in. The morning was spent hunting silky-smooth five-foot Rocky Point tee pees – rippable lefts and juicy, wrong-way right pits. Rare conditions in Hawaii where winds are frequently cross-shore.  

Post surf I dashed to the contest site where Pipe was eight-foot and enthralling, even without the unfolding world title drama. Midway through the day, John John claimed a world title on home turf, after Medina failed to progress through the quarters against Jeremy Flores. The ebullient local crowd was joined by dozens of school kids from Sunset Elementary (just across the road), who chanted the name of their hometown hero and former student. John John flags and caps were handed out liberally and it was all quite a scene.      

I hustled past heavyweight Hawaiian security and watched the semis and finals from the balcony of the Billabong House, which offers a striking perspective of the Pipe lineup. Once his title hopes were dashed Medina marched down to Off the Wall and started pulling hefty backflips on eight-foot close-outs. The Medina show went down to my left. Over to the right, Jérémy Flores and John John were tunneling through roaring Backdoor pits that spat them out a lobbed tennis ball away from the balcony where I stood. Inside, Shane Dorian was content to watch it all on TV. He’d enjoyed the best view Backdoor offered thousands of times – from the inside looking out. In the end, Flores claimed a famous win and denied John John the glory of winnig The Pipe Masters and the World Title on the same day.

The party was stewing at the Billabong house but I had to race back and write a contest report. I’d cobbled together a few paragraphs when Rocky Point started calling my name again. Australia was a few hours behind so I figured I could dash out on dark and finish the report when I came in, and still file the story before five p.m. Oz time.

The wind had backed off and Rocky Point was a glassy wonderland in the fading light; even cleaner and hollower than the morning session. The pack was keen for their piece of it after a day of contest watching, but one moment beneath the hood of a thick-lipped curl of backlit green made it all worthwhile. Two surfs and a world title win, all in one ten hour shift. Once the story was filed I kicked back with a beer and reflected on the day. Jack Nicholson's line from the similarly titled movie came to mind. “What if this is as good as it gets?”

How do you resolve the surf vs watch WSL dilemma?
Or do you try and fit it all in?