REMEMBER TITANS THE
PHIL JARRATT SCORES THE ULTIMATE JUNKET TO THE WORLD MASTERS EVENT, IN THE AZORES ISLANDS.
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.
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
Inset: Cheyne Horan riding his own fin system as he carves his way to a second place finish in the Grand Masters.
Above: Master of re-invention, Tom Curren, conjuring a turn on his modified skim board.
Inset: The winners: Left to Right – Rob Bain (Grand Masters), Dave Macauley (Masters), Layne Beachley (Womens)