Only four heats of the Jaws Challenge were held yesterday, and a total of four waves completed, by my count. Nevertheless it was one of the more compelling and momentous days in the history of competitive surfing.
A champion was crowned, though unusually she was responsible for none of the completed rides. Keala Kennelly, surfing on her backhand, won the women’s division through sheer willpower, taking off on more waves, in more critical positions, than any other member of the 12-strong field.
She fell on every one of them, but without seeming to make any obvious mistakes, and each time coming back for more. You’d watch the replay and wonder what she could have done differently, then wonder how she could withstand so much punishment. Towards the end of the heat she was surfing with no leash and no canisters left. It was heroic.
“I’ve never seen women take this kind of relentless beating,” said Dave Kalama, who was a welcome and entertaining presence in the commentary booth, mercifully breaking up the homoerotic awkwardness of the Kaipo Guerrero-Pete Mel dynamic.
The swell pulsed and the wind picked up as the men got in. That first heat was one of the most fucked-up things I’ve ever seen. I won’t even try and describe.
“Surely the human body cannot withstand this,” I wrote down at some point near the end of the heat, just after Russell Bierke did a cartwheel down a face that Kalama reckoned was in the 60-foot range.
The commissioner Mike Parsons was thinking the same thing. A time-out was called at the end of Heat 1; all of a sudden you felt a bit like an adult actress screaming “Don’t stop! Please don’t stop” in nasal Californian tones. The discussions lasted about half an hour.
I was waiting, absent-mindedly, when out of nowhere came a faint but identifiable Cornish accent, gloriously incongruous against the apocalyptic warm-water backdrop. It was Tom Lowe, due to surf in Heat 3, on a boat in the channel. “I’m good mate, how are you?” he said to somebody out of the frame, as though he’d just bumped into an old friend on his way down the street to buy a pasty.
Meanwhile Albee Layer, due to surf in Heat 2, was out in the line-up, just as he would have been had the contest not been on, just as he would be after it was called off for the day.
“Out of nowhere came a faint but identifiable Cornish accent, gloriously incongruous against the apocalyptic warm-water backdrop”
Billy Kemper’s post-heat interview was one of the best I can remember. “You guys want a big-wave world tour, this is it,” he said, and, “I’m just grateful to be out there and try and pack the biggest barrel of my life,” and, “When you start a round you finish the round.”
He lost consciousness on one of his wipeouts, and got bumped by the ski on his way up. “Underwater it was really peaceful, I’ll tell you that much.” Still he wanted the show to go on.
Then Parsons came on and announced that we were off for the day. However sensible or inevitable the decision may have been, I felt like I’d just been punched in the guts. Within half an hour a defiant Albee Layer was standing tall inside the first successfully ridden barrel of the day, his arms spread wide as if to say, “Too big? What, this?”
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I think they should of kept running the contest today. I understand why they didn’t but if you can quiet the ego a bit there’s a way to surf on a day like today and be relatively careful. But who knows maybe we woulda all got really fucked up and maybe tomorrow will be good, but I kinda doubt it. Surfing’s never a sure thing especially out there. 🎥 @takeshelterprod
But the scarcity of paddle surfers in the line-up after the call (I counted four or five, but they didn’t last long), and the scarcity of paddle waves ridden (only a couple), suggested it was probably the right one. Competition will resume tomorrow.