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Nate Florence Wins Red Bull Cape Fear (Paddling!) At Shipstern Bluff

Red Bull Cape Fear.

We hyped it. You typed it. The waves went splat.

Despite the diminished swell, the 2019 rendition of the world’s most radical surf event provided ample entertainment for viewers around our orb.  

Surfers had to take a 3-hour boat ride from Hobart to Shipstern Bluff, which provided six-to-occasionally-ten-foot sets for the event’s 20 competitors. Nate Florence was in his wetsuit at 3:30 am – which his peers giggled at – before having to remove it shortly after to go pee.

This event was the first of its kind in several ways, including the location and the fact that surfers could choose whether they wanted to paddle or tow, with paddle waves being scored some unknown percentage higher than tow waves, due to their increased difficulty. My guess: a tow 6 equaled a paddle 8.

The first heat included 3x World Champion Mick Fanning, who was the primary draw (and betting favorite) of the event. Fanning opted to tow for his full 40 minutes, getting a few cute pocket rides and one deep, albeit smallish, tube. Meanwhile, local boy Marti Paradisis started with the rope but quickly abandoned it to paddle the ledge. Surprisingly, after 40 minutes, he was unable to score above a one.

Nate Florence took all the mojo with his signature power-mullet, which he used to scrape under several gurgling mutants and slide into the lead.

The format for Red Bull Cape Fear included five 4-man heats with the winner of each match qualifying for the final. After crossing swords with Pedro Scooby, who towed past the paddling Nate, the middle Florence bro had a brief meeting with the rocks.

“My board got demoed,” he laughed in the post-heat interview.

It didn’t matter. Surfing’s fittest freakazoid had already made the final.

In heat 2, Tassie’s resident tree trunk Tyler Hollmer-Cross took unique lines into the tube, often throwing carves or snaps before hopping the ledge and standing (legitimately) tall. That’s local knowledge at its finest.

Then came Justen ‘Jughead’ Allport, the people’s champ of the 2016 event who was wearing a wetty cap for cold and/or protection. Who can blame the guy for not wanting to bust his skull open again? It turned out the brain gear was warranted, with Jughead getting washed into and over the rocks before, just minutes later, hitting the step mid-tube and cartwheeling into oblivion. Finally he wrangled a few paddle bombs before taking a tow wave for the lead.

THC tried to fight back in the dying minutes, scooping under the hood for another stand-tall tube that came up short. Jughead to the final.

In heat 3, Mikey Brennan got a nine that we never saw. On a later wave, he did a snap to a purposeful side-slip in the foam. The judges gave it a four despite a distinct lack of tube. Like THC, Mikey displayed supreme wave knowledge and ability.

Speaking of, the Tassie boys should be revered for not just their surfing approach but also their negotiating skills. Ten of the 20 Cape Fear competitors were Tasmanian locals, which was one of their demands of the Red Bull team. Half of those ten (Marty, Mikey, the Hollmer-Cross bros, etc.) would have earned spots based on skill alone, but I’m convinced a few of those boys were plucked from the local pub and thrown a wetty and a tow rope.

This was a worthwhile concession on Red Bull’s part, but it also would have been cool to see more big names in the event. Dorian, Kai Lenny, Matt Bromley, etc.

Unrelated, here’s a list of job titles from Cape Fear competitors:

  • nurse
  • teacher
  • firefighter (x2)
  • tiler
  • masseuse

Gotta respect anyone who’s working the weekly grind just to earn a few tubes in their spare time.

Speaking of respect, Mark Mathews surfed today. The same Mark Mathews who ripped his arm out of his socket at Jaws then turned his knee backwards a year later, resulting in four years (mostly) out of the water, a foot with no hinge, and a leg that looks like it’s been scooped out by a big, warm spoon.  

"YES! let’s do this @redbullau!" Mark said on his Instagram when he found out he would be surfing in the event. "Not sure there could be a better way to make a return to surfing big slabs again! Get to share the moment with all my favourite lunatics from around the world!"

Sadly, Mark injured himself yet again in his heat, potentially breaking his “good” foot when it got caught in his tow strap on an awkward tumble (you can read all about that here).

Mikey Brennan advanced.

James Hollmer-Cross, being towed by his brother Ty, handled two big rock-hops into a massive pit, which he escaped with incredible speed. Rather than turning off the back, James opted for an enormous leap into the channel that nearly ended in disaster. Directly in Jim’s path was a jetski being operated by Mick Fanning and a friend. James landed on the side of the ski, but low enough that he bounced back into the water rather than slamming all of his weight directly into the vessel. He had a quick laugh and paddled back to the lineup. It’s tough to hurt a Tassie.  

The judges gave Jim a 9.17 and nobody else came close.

Heat five was the most competitive of Round 1. Laurie Towner started with two strong paddle waves for a seven and a five. He then grabbed the rope and headed out the back for a bomb.

Nate Florence, winner of heat 1, came onto the webcast, explaining his sole hope for the final.

“I just think it would be sick if everyone paddled,” Florence explained to Red Bull’s on-the-boat commentator, Chris Binns.

Albee Layer, an offsite commentator alongside Chris Cote and Dave Wassell, agreed.

“It’s totally doable,” said Albee. “I get why some guys might want to tow, but paddling is way sicker in my opinion.”

The Red Bull Cape Fear defending champ, Russell Bierke, must have heard that chatter, as he refused to abandon the ledge despite his competitors’ rope-bound efforts. Russ paddled into seven or eight tubes across his 40-minute heat, in what commentators called the most fun-loving performance of the day. But when push came to shove, Russ’ double-sixes couldn’t match Laurie’s 7+5, so Mr. Towner advanced (despite never catching a tow wave).

After convincing three out of his four competitors to paddle the ledge, Nate took the same approach in the final as he did in his morning victory. Securing a 9.33 on his opening ride and another 6 before the clock hit double digits, Nate’s job became protecting his lead for the next 50 minutes.

“That was the longest hour of my life,” Florence would later say.

Screen Shot 2019 05 12 at 11.01.35 PM

While Nate, Laurie, Mikey, and Jughead traded paddle-in wedges, James Hollmer-Cross sat calmly out the back, waiting a respectable 35-minutes to get his first tow wave, which, if you’re counting the tube ride alone, was the best of the day. The judges gave him a 10, which, to me, seemed a little unreasonable. How can you get a 10 for a tow wave that was likely paddle-able? If that’s the case, there’s no real benefit to paddling.

I was also disappointed that James decided to grab the rope again, rather than trying to get a back-up wave under his own volition. If he were to win this event, it would have been with a notable asterisk.

James’ 10 also caused Mikey Brennan to grab the rope, giving me the sense that the locals didn’t want to lose this comp to an outsider. There's something noble in that, but I get the feeling that if the script was flipped and Laurie, Nate, and Jughead were the ones getting towed while James and Mikey paddled, there’d be some bitter Tasmanians on the cliff.

The clock continued to tick and, despite notable efforts from Laurie and Jughead, Nate’s lead was never usurped. After 60 minutes and many successful rides, the middle Florence bro was crowned as the 2019 Red Bull Cape Fear champion and the first-ever competition winner at Shipstern Bluff.

“James got that 10 and I was like, ‘Oh no!’” Nate said in his post-win speech. “All he needed was a five. Thankfully it never came. I’m just so baffled. I’ve never won a contest in my life.”

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