They’re Running Skis Today

October 22

Heat three of round three is winding down. I’ve walked the mile up the beach to where the contest site is today,  where it was yesterday. The dark tent with no view of the beach that they’ve set up for the press is empty. Yesterday they ran heats until dark. As I walked back to my car, a plane buzzed the contest area with a banner that read “Party at Bar do Bruno.” I bumped into Adrian Buchan again last night, drinking with some of his friends. I offered him a shot but he was going to bed early, said he had to chase after his two-and-a-half-year old today. I don’t think the journalists had the same resolve. I didn’t, yet I did. I was hanging out with an Aussie named Sion Yates, a twenty-two year old photographer traveling through Europe in his van for a year or so. We were chatting with a couple of women in their thirties, mechanical engineers who drove down from Porto. When they left to meet nine other friends at one a.m., we went home.


I bumped into Stephen Belly around eight a.m. in the lobby. Stephen Belly comes up to my chin, his grey hair is buzzed to a stubble, a pointy head and wrinkled face and if you didn’t know it you’d think he was here to play golf, which he loves, or, more accurately, bet on golf, which I imagine he loves. He’s the trusted confidant of Kelly, and all the Quiksilver team. The contest could end today and he’s excited; he’s building a new home where he lives in France. He’s one of the most approachable and likeable elder statesman on tour. I didn’t notice him at first. The windows of the lobby run floor to ceiling. The hotel pool and bluff and ocean run floor to ceiling. The water this morning was clean and smooth–no wind through the night, no storm brewing close by. A wave was rising out of deep water, heaving towards shore, a perfect right in an area I’d only seen lefts. I jumped up, said too loud, “look at that right!” But when a wave breaks in a country you don’t know, in a place you don’t know, with no one in the water to create perspective, it floats, amorphous, in space. Other days this week a rideable wave has broken perfectly and created the illusion of a channel, of a safety lane to paddle back out, only to have several closeouts follow behind, trap whoever was trying to get back out. This wave, this morning, and the wave after and the wave after that reeled cleanly to shore, with a channel. “That looks fun,” I said. “Yeah, but you need a jet ski. That’s an easy ten feet.” He meant the back of the wave, half the size of the wave face.

Connor Coffin sneaking by the crowd, away from the competitors’ area after his heat. Shot from my spot outside the journalists’ tent on a dune.

I am walking past the spot I surfed yesterday, a mile or so away from the contest. My guest pass doesn’t let me park anywhere near the contest site. I’ve not been given a worker’s pass or a competitor’s helper pass, because I am neither. The people who work onsite at the WSL don’t know what to do with me, like the competitors don’t know what to do with me, like the people in the bars all decades younger don’t know what to do with me. “What publication do you write for?” I am asked. “None,” I say. “Well, sort of, maybe the WSL,” I say. “Are you on holiday? By YOURSELF!??” “Not really,” I say. I’m a forty-something year old well educated man following twenty-something year old uneducated men around Europe and the world without a direct affiliation to anything or anyone. This makes people uneasy.

When I told Anna and Wilko this morning that I’m writing a literary essay, the conversation ended, the same way the conversation with Kelly and his girlfriend the night before, and Ace and his wife before that and so on. I keep trying to reassure the competitors I meet by telling them I’m not writing for a surf publication. I think that will make them more comfortable, allow them to relax. But it occurs to me that saying “literary” just makes them more wary, me more of a freak. Most of these guys haven’t been in a formal classroom setting for more than a few days at a time since they were fifteen. One of the reasons I’m out here is to separate from my wife, to separate us, for a bit, from our dependencies on each other. But I can hear her voice pointing out that I say too much, that in my desire to make someone else comfortable, make them trust me, I give away too much information. It drives me nuts. And I know she’s often right.

A grom with a couple of broken boards, hunting for signatures.

I can tell it is Saturday because the air is clearer –- no one is burning their dead crops in the fields. I walked by a giant tepee of what I think is sugar cane, woven into a pyre, ready to burn on Monday, an effigy to hard labor. I am typing this on a dune next to where the announcers lounge. Sebastian Zietz had just taken a seat in a bean bag behind me and is saying something about the jet ski drivers, how one of them got mad at him as he got bucked getting pulled back out. Peter Mel, broadcaster and big wave rider extraordinaire was just in from broadcasting in the water, where his driver and ski got knocked over and he had to restart the ski on the fly. The crowd has filled in. A grom walks by carrying some pro’s broken board. Pros are breaking boards everywhere. I had a glass of wine, a Manhattan, and two small beers last night–my boards are staying in the car.

The announcers have called the contest on hold until 2:45. At 2:45, thousands of people show up in a light rain. The organizers put the contest on hold until 4:45. People have driven here from all over Portugal, walked miles on a dirt road, but the organizers don’t like what they see–big surf, off shore winds but too scattered, the shape of waves just not good enough. At 4:45 they say come back tomorrow, Sunday, at 8:00 a.m.

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