Tracks - - Unchained Melody - Words: Phil Jar­ratt

Driv­ing across the Span­ish high plains en route to Por­tu­gal, I de­cided on a whim to pull into the old walled city of Sala­manca, to grab a cheap ho­tel room near the Plaza Mayor and spend the last cou­ple of hours of a hot af­ter­noon sip­ping the good lo­cal wine and nib­bling from trays of tapas.

A glass in hand and some ja­mon on the way, I flipped open my phone to check my mes­sages. Im­me­di­ately my eyes fell upon the kind of mes­sage ev­ery free­lance surf hack dreams about. It was from my Por­tuguese col­league Joao Va­lente, and af­ter ram­bling on about catch­ing up for din­ner in Figuera da Foz the fol­low­ing night, he cut to the chase:

“Any­way, I have some­thing to mess up your life plans a bit. Ro­drigo Heré­dia, the or­gan­iser of the Azores Mas­ters World Cham­pi­onships, just gave me carte blanche to in­vite one jour­nal­ist from the US, Aus­tralia and Brazil to be present, all ex­penses cov­ered. I don’t know what your sched­ule is, but if you could man­age to squeeze this sur­prise within your visit, I can guar­an­tee you won’t re­gret it.”

I swirled the con­tents of my glass around a few times to dis­turb the flies nestling on the rim, downed it and sig­naled for an­other. It did screw my plans around a bit, but how can you say no to a jun­ket to a new hori­zon! The only thing I knew about the Azores was a rather dirty lim­er­ick from school days con­cern­ing a young whore. I can’t share it with you, not even in Tracks. Ask your fa­ther. Sit­ting in the shade of the beau­ti­ful Sala­manca cathe­dral, I went to Google maps and found that the Azores was a vol­canic ar­chi­pel­ago out in the midAt­lantic, two hours fly­ing time from Lis­bon, four from Bos­ton, al­legedly very beau­ti­ful and away from the chilly cur­rent that plagues the Por­tuguese coast. Yes, I could prob­a­bly do this. So I knew noth­ing about the

Azores apart from that dirty lim­er­ick, but a lot about the Mas­ters. As event di­rec­tor for the Quik­sil­ver Mas­ters be­tween 1999 and 2003, I’d had Michael Ho threaten to hit me over the head with a base­ball bat if I would be good enough to ac­com­pany him to the car park, I’d been pow­er­less to stop Tom Cur­ren mak­ing off with the replica Black Beauty we’d had made as part of an ex­hi­bi­tion – he rode it through­out the con­test and damn near won the thing. I’d waited im­pa­tiently at the pre­sen­ta­tion dais for Cheyne Horan to pro­pose to his girl Paulina on the cliffs above Biar­ritz be­fore pick­ing up his first world ti­tle tro­phy, and I’d seen Gary Elk­er­ton kiss the sand of Lafite­nia when he fi­nally got the gong that had eluded him through­out his tour ca­reer, and then went on to two more.

I love the idea of keep­ing the flame go­ing with the Mas­ters, and have done since Quik­sil­ver ex­ec­u­tives the late Pierre Agnes and Craig “Pin­head” Steven­son cir­cled me in the pool bar of the De­lano Ho­tel, South Beach Mi­ami, in 2003, cock­tails held aloft like ‘50s Cuban mob­sters, and told me this Mas­ters non­sense had to stop. The regime that tem­po­rar­ily ex­tin­guished the flame be­lieved that the only mar­ket that mat­tered was the 18-year-old Kelly wannabe, but for­tu­nately the World Surf League is more en­light­ened than the pur­vey­ors of $100 tees. They get the her­itage as­pect and they want to give it air­time.

The plane dips a wing and we drop through the cloud cover to catch our first view of the is­land of Sao Miguel, a green and pleas­ant coast of rugged cliffs and lit­tle coves, dot­ted with colour­ful farm­houses that re­minds me of Jersey and Guernsey.

Plop! I’m in the tin shed air­port where there’s no one to meet me, so I let a cab driver rip me off for a 10-minute run into the city of Ponta Del­gado, whose ar­chi­tec­tural epi­cen­tre is not the Ho­tel VIP Ex­ec­u­tive, a steel and glass palace on a round­about above the old town. My name is not on the rooms list. We’re not off to a good start, me and the Azores Is­lands.

Then sud­denly I’m grabbed in a bear hug from be­hind. First thought: I’m about to be dragged into an al­ley and have my body parts stolen. But no, it’s Kirk Pengilly with a smile beam­ing be­low his pen­cil thin mous­tache, and we ad­journ to the bar while the re­cep­tion staff sort it out. From this point for­ward, this lit­tle­known dot in the mid-At­lantic be­gins to look a whole lot bet­ter.

When I’m fi­nally con­nected with the rest of our lit­tle me­dia mafia – Julio Adler from Brazil, Joao Va­lente from Por­tu­gal, and old mate Jamie Brisick from Mal­ibu – we are whisked out to the con­test site above the town of Santa Bar­bara for a sun­set press con­fer­ence, at which the ir­re­press­ible for­mer Mas­ters champ Cheyne Horan, who was once mar­ried to a Brazil­ian (weren’t they all?), de­liv­ers a hi­lar­i­ous wel­come speech in pid­gin Por­tuguese. At the din­ner that fol­lows, all the good old boys seem to be re­laxed and happy, although I de­tect some ner­vous­ness from un­ex­pected places. Layne Beach­ley, who has noth­ing left to prove, wants to make his­tory as the first women’s mas­ters world cham­pion and seems un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally jumpy, while Gary “Kong” Elk­er­ton, who’s al­ready got three mas­ter’s ti­tles, tells me he’s lost 20 ki­los in train­ing for the event and des­per­ately wants to win again. Glen Winton tells me he went on the dole for three months to train for this. Even dry-wit­ted Si­mon An­der­son is deadly se­ri­ous, re­strict­ing him­self to a mea­gre half dozen glasses of the ex­cel­lent lo­cal vinho branca, while declar­ing the event for­mat a “she­moz­zle”.

The WSL World Mas­ters Surf­ing Cham­pi­onships is stag­ing a come­back af­ter a seven-year gap, thanks to the en­thu­si­asm of Ro­drigo Heré­dia, who owns the eco-re­sort which is Mas­ters HQ, and the spon­sor­ship of Azores Air­lines. When I ran the event nearly 20 years ago the Mas­ters were aged 35 to 44, the Grand Mas­ters 45 to 55, and there were no women. Now there is a women’s di­vi­sion, the Mas­ters are 45 to 54, and the Grand Mas­ters are 55 plus, with Aus­tralia’s Si­mon An­der­son and Terry Richard­son the codgers of the comp at 64 and 63 re­spec­tively. It’s a great move to bring the girls in, and even at 45 plus, sev­eral of the Mas­ters look like they could still be on tour, like Kelly is, sort of. The big ques­tion is, can the old farts still cut it? In 2003 at big Makaha, Nat Young (the real one) was the codger of the pack at 55 and he smashed it. Si­mon’s giv­ing him nearly a decade. It’s a big ask.

The sight that greets us for the con­test start the next morn­ing is a bit of a shock. A cou­ple of A-frame beachies ribbed by clumps of reef, the Santa Bar­bara lineup turns from do-able to wash­ing ma­chine ev­ery 15 min­utes or so, as

ri­val swells push around the point and head side­ways down the beach. Com­bined with the high tide back­wash, con­di­tions are, um, in­ter­est­ing. The gen­eral rum­ble is along the lines of, you brought the best se­nior surfers in the world all this way to surf this?

But Santa Bar­bara goes from zero to hero in a nanosec­ond, as we are soon wit­ness­ing. And out in the shift­ing peaks there are shocks and sur­prises. Early heats re­veal Shane Beschen as the form surfer of the Mas­ters, Layne’s only likely ri­val ap­pears to be mul­ti­ple world champ Frieda Zamba, and chunky Rob Bain is on fire in the old farts. Last man in­vited, some­what con­tro­ver­sially, the af­fa­ble Bainy might go all the way. But what is this piece of crap Tom Cur­ren is rid­ing and why? And why can’t Kong catch a wave? Two of the great­est surfers of their era are re­ally strug­gling with their equip­ment choices. Af­ter a cou­ple of shock­ers in the wa­ter, I ask Cur­ren if I can take a photo of his foam-clad “skim board”. “Sure,” he says, “be­fore I burn it or chuck it off the cliff.”

The bars at the beach and at our ho­tel in town are full of bon­homie and clink­ing of glasses, but by the sec­ond night there is se­ri­ous fric­tion in the camp. The old boys might be here for the fun but they’re also here for the money (about $US170,000), and a non­sen­si­cal for­mat has re­sulted in a com­peti­tor re­volt.

In the Grand Mas­ters, the Si­mon An­der­son camp wins, at the ex­pense of Hawai­ian Michael Ho’s real shot at tak­ing the ti­tle. The pas­sion’s still there and so is the fire in the belly! Michael is cry­ing on the ter­race while Si­mon is grit­ting his teeth and look­ing un­shake­able on the other side of the com­peti­tor area. Since I’m close to both, I hide in the bar.But the next morn­ing, Michael comes up smil­ing, and takes out Mr X and Hans Hede­mann with a killer last-minute wave in the surf-off for mi­nor plac­ings.

One of the most like­able guys on tour in the ‘90s, and a se­ri­ous con­tender in the Mas­ters

of the early two-thou­sands, was WA’s Dave Ma­caulay, whose daugh­ter Bronte is now on the world tour. I’ve al­ways liked Macca’s easy­go­ing style, and am stoked to see him just make the fi­nal cut in a count­back, along­side Sunny Gar­cia and Derek Ho. But from the bot­tom of the pack, it is Macca who looks like the con­tender.

So fi­nals day ar­rives with mar­ginal surf and it’s an Aussie tri­fecta – Bainy takes Cheyne in the Grand Mas­ters, Layne takes out Rochelle Bal­lard in the WoMasters, and Macca takes out form surfer Beschen in the Mas­ters. For the two Aussie men, it’s the ti­tle they never quite pulled off in their tour years, and the tears are real de­spite the fact that it’s a sideshow event a long way from home. Layne makes his­tory as the first Women’s Mas­ters cham­pion, adding an eighth world ti­tle tro­phy to the cabi­net – nine if you count her ISA gold medal.

My field bets are good and I’ve al­most cov­ered the lost bar money, the restau­rant blowout and the good bot­tles of Pica vin­tage. The take-home? A flawed but fab­u­lous event in a gor­geous set­ting, and a wel­come re­turn to full-blooded sup­port for our pro surf­ing her­itage by the WSL.

Pho­tos: Jar­ratt

Top: Gary Elk­er­ton mak­ing it very clear where he stands with the nick name. Mid­dle: Af­ter bomb­ing in the pre­lims, Ri­cho turned it into a book promo. Sunny Gar­cia on the mar­ket­ing team. Bot­tom: Still smil­ing – the Ho Bros.

Main: Layne Beach­ley shoot­ing flames at the sky as she arcs pur­pose­fully. Photo: WSL/Ma­surel

Photo: WSL/Ma­surel

In­set: Cheyne Horan rid­ing his own fin sys­tem as he carves his way to a sec­ond place fin­ish in the Grand Mas­ters.

Photo: WSL/Ma­surel

Above: Mas­ter of re-in­ven­tion, Tom Cur­ren, con­jur­ing a turn on his mod­i­fied skim board.

Photo: WSL/Ma­surel

In­set: The win­ners: Left to Right – Rob Bain (Grand Mas­ters), Dave Ma­cauley (Mas­ters), Layne Beach­ley (Womens)

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