In A World Of Flounders, Italo Is A Flying Fish
Portugal day 1 was…interesting.
Plenty of swell throughout the waiting period was the verdict of the Supertubos forecast last night, but there was a significant caveat: “wind/conditions a wildcard”.
Another wildcard… that’s the last thing the WSL needs. With one distinctly windswept day of the MEO Pro Portugal now completed, and bearing in mind how things went at Pipe and Sunset, the northerly gales could be odds-on to win the event. Will it keep its slot into the Australian leg? Make the mid-year cut?
“Interesting conditions out there,” was how the impressive (and very likable) Isabella Nichols put it in her post-heat interview today. Her Round 1 win over Brisa Hennessy and Bronte Macaulay contained one beautiful, full-bodied turn on a right that faded disappointingly to nothing. In junky 2-3ft surf, the wind somewhere in the cross-shore quadrant, she looked both smooth and critical, unhurried yet kinetic.
Interesting: that’s exactly the word the editor used in his WhatsApp message this morning. A common example of a word being used to mean its exact opposite.
But language is funny like that. “It’s on!” read the Wozzle’s homepage shortly after first light, which was strange given that no heats were in the water and no decision to run had been made yet. Stepping inside from the driving rain, Renato Hickel eventually appeared for the call like a bedraggled and sodden captain, cheerily stoic in the face of rough seas and near-certain peril. He gave the impression of being prepared to go down with his ship, which was reassuring.
On hold til 10:50, he said. “Sounds like it’s on guys,” said Luiza Florence, one of several new members of the broadcast team, in response. Gaslighting is what it felt like.
It was not on. A slow-jazz piano rendition of “Purple Rain” played through the contest-site speakers, bleeding into the broadcast as, back in the booth, rankings and swell and bathymetry were discussed. They cut to the new WSL’s new ad and its latest unfortunate strapline: “Once it’s on there’s no stopping.”
It looked at one point like there might be no starting, either. But after another hour’s delay it was at last deemed contestable. It’s International Women’s Day next week, in case you hadn’t heard, and the WSL decided to mark the occasion by sending the women out.
Supertubos today was neither super nor tubular. Just ask Tia Blanco, winner of last year’s Ultimate Surfer tv show. I have no real idea what that last sentence means, except that it entitles her to three wildcard spots this season, on account of her ultimateness. This particular wildcard slot has proven controversial because it might have been given to Moana Jones Wong, still third in the rankings despite a poor (and perhaps unlucky) result at Sunset.
Blanco’s Round 1 heat contained a combined twelve world titles. Carissa Moore and Steph Gilmore had between them knocked out Wong at Sunset, in Rounds 1 and 2 respectively, each benefitting from a gentle push up the scale from the judges. Here was a narrative thread worth pulling on.
Gilmore was sharp and fluent, playful even. Strider at one point described her as “pecking away at that chip that she needs to take the lead,” making her sound like a seagull at the English seaside.
Moore won the heat thanks to her superior backhand. Meanwhile, Blanco didn’t register a competitive score. A difficult first-ever CT heat, to be sure, but she fared no better in the elimination round, falling on one of the day’s better waves. Ultimate: from the Latin ultimus, meaning last.
Speaking of English seasides, and of performative veganism (“plant-based narcissism” is his own preferred term), there is another new voice in the WSL commentary booth, or new at least to those who’ve not been avidly tuning into European ‘QS events these last ten years. It belongs to Paul Evans, whose work you may have read in these pixels. He’s done the Portugal CT before, in fact, back in the more permissive ASP days, but was sentenced to years of hard labour for insubordination. Possibly he shared a cell with Spencer Hargreaves and, more recently, Martin Potter, fellow Brits and purge victims. Now he’s come in from the cold, been recalled to the big leagues.
A full day watching professional surfing will frazzle the brain some, never mind having to describe it in real time, on a live broadcast. One problem is the shortage of good surf words.
Verbs in particular are at a premium. Thus Luana Silva was, as Joe Turpel put it, “able to solidify a solid end-section hack” en route to her comfortable Round 1 win. Evans came up with a good one: “speculate.” You had to speculate out there, on a day when waves were plentiful but hard to read, often improving or deteriorating on the inside in unexpected ways.
Molly Picklum, another rookie (and based purely on today’s evidence, the most promising one), produced the day’s best ride with two fiercely committed, seamlessly linked forehand thwacks. But amid all the inevitable talk of a changing of the guard, the women’s first round was bookended by strong performances from two sometime world-title contenders, both of whose seasons got off to awful starts.
“Did you have to bring a lot of your own surfing?” Strider asked Courtney Conlogue shortly after she won the day’s first heat.
“Well, yes, I did have to bring my own surfing,” was her amused and amusing reply.
At this point of the day, dressed in stern sunglasses and camo jacket (later swapped for beige), Strider looked like he could be a member of a SWAT team. It suited him, really, not that you’d necessarily want Strider in your SWAT team. Comms would be a major problem, possibly fatal.
Later, Sally Fitzgibbons recorded her first heat win of the season, along with the highest points total of the round. (An aside: why is it that the last-placed surfer in the last heat of Round 1, in this case India Robinson, is forced to surf the first heat of Round 2, thus surfing two heats back-to-back?)
Four men’s heats were completed. In the second, against two limber and accomplished aerialists, Kelly flailed. The surf had solidified, overhead on the sets, but there were still no tubes, and the numerous air sections offered Sammy Pupo and Imaikalani deVault an easy springboard into Round 3.
Slater’s one attempt at a backside rotation was traumatic, “terrifying” as one friend put it, and possibly painful too. I wonder when he last stomped a good one. I wonder when he last stomped a bad one. He has now lost three of his last four heats – all four of them according to many surf fans’ personal scorecards.
Elsewhere, Jackson Baker seems like a nice chap, Owen Wright impressed, opting for straight rather than spinny airs, and Italo Ferreira was imperious: three full rotations by my count, each of them unique, and each strongly suggesting that a third straight win at this venue is imminent. “Everybody’s live to the alive,” rhapsodised Strider after one of them, suddenly turning New Age guru.
Jadson was good value, too, stringing together a few useful combinations but not before getting hole-punched into the sand by a very chunky end-section, an outrider perhaps of tomorrow’s promised swell. “It converged on him and just BABOOM!” said Strider, back in SWAT team mode.
Tomorrow could be tasty. Or wild, anyway.
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