NINE days before he was attacked by a shark in the finals of the 2015 J-Bay Open surf competition, three-time world champion Mick Fanning told me he had been “quite scared” while practicing for the event.
He’d been going out early in the morning – just after sunrise, really – to get in some free surf sessions, and his smooth, powerful style was easy to identify from the beach. But early mornings and evenings are when the buffet opens for sharks, and Mick admitted that made him nervous. However, who could have predicted that the J-Bay Open defending champion would be brazenly stalked and bumped off his board in broad daylight last Sunday, in front of literally thousands of spectators (the event is streamed live around the world)? It’s got to be the most publicised shark attack in history – but thanks to his quick reflexes and the water safety patrol, Mick made it out unscathed.
The incident brought the annual World Surf League (WSL) surf competition to a swift end, rounding off 12 days of expectation, frustration and finally exhilaration (well, until the scene from Jaws).
Small waves, a nasty “devil wind”, and some downright stormy patches meant that the competition was slow to start, with a good many rest days before things got going. But that didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of either the spectators or the surfers (both the pros and the non-pros). On lay days, everybody hits the beach anyway, either to practice or show-off, and the waves are usually packed. Jeffrey’s Bay has its own special vibe, and for the duration of the competition, it’s easy to fall into its rhythm. Wake up, watch sunrise, drink coffee, surf/see surfing, watch sunset, drink beer, wind down. Repeat.
There’s even an unofficial dress code, which begins and ends with Instep Leather Ugg boots, and features anything with RVCA, Billabong, Quiksilver or Hurley branding. Mussy hair and check-flannel shirts optional.
The name of the spot where it all happens is called Supertubes, and it’s regarded as one of the best right hand breaks in the world. For many years it’s been a stop on the professional global surf tour, now known as the Samsung Galaxy World Surf League Championship Tour. There was a break in 2012 and 2013, but last year saw the tour return, and with it all the excitement that a major sporting event brings.
With a difference, however. South African surf fans are a pretty mellow bunch. Unlike at the Oi Rio Pro in Brazil, one of the tour stops where competing surfers have to be escorted into the sea by bodyguards because the crowds are so intense, we’re a lot more laidback. The wooden viewing decks at Supertubes are a casual affair where you can sip coffee and eat muffins while surf superstars like Kelly Slater and current world champion Gabriel Medina jog past to get in a practice session. For those who don’t understand the importance of these names, imagine Bruce Springsteen or Lady Gaga calmly walking their dog in the same park as you, without any fuss. In fact, the only people who got really worked up were the little kids who wanted their t-shirts or surfboards signed by their favourite star.
So that’s how we got chatting to Mick Fanning early in the competition – because of the casual vibe. Every evening there’d be a smallish group gathered at the Corona Bar (yup, cold beers by the bucket), watching the last surfers finish up. The Aussie and Brazilian boys were regulars, and so it was that I told Mick I’d read his autobiography Surf for your Life, and enjoyed it, and next thing my friends joined us and we were all nattering away. I don’t think that happens with Lady Gaga a lot. But it’s entirely possible at a space like J-Bay.
It’s also probably one of the only stops on the tour where two Labrador retrievers nearly upstaged the surfers. Apparently the pair are full-on locals, and are completely fearless when it comes to the waves. If they spot a bird bobbing in the sea, they launch themselves off the rocks and head straight out into the swell at Supertubes. Regardless of whether there’s a contest on or not. Needless to say, they had a lot of fans.
And it’s a venue where the waves are democratically shared between locals and pros, on days when the competition is off and everybody just wants to get some groovy wave action going. We watched a pint-sized ‘grom’ in a blue wetsuit repeatedly catch waves alongside the likes of Owen Wright and Adriano de Souza (current world number one). Then there was the weird longboarder who liked to squat on his board. And the bald guy who everybody thought was Kelly, but wasn’t. And the two “power nuggets”, Keanu Asing and Glenn “Micro” Hall, who are teeny, but tenacious members of the WSL tour. So many waves, so many different styles, so much stoke...
Oh, and Cape Town was proudly represented by our own Mikey February from Kommetjie, who was chosen as a wildcard draw to take part in the competition and made it to the second round, only to be beaten by then-world number two Filipe Toledo (the ratings have since changed). There was HUGE support from the stands, and an amiably grumpy feeling that “we wuz robbed” at the finish. All part of the fun.
It took literally days to get the first couple of heats completed, with conditions ranging between neat, gnarly and not nice at all. Not all rounds are elimination rounds, which gives competitors a bit of breathing space, but by round 3 we were down to 24 out of 36 surfers, and some big names were dropped before moving on to round 4 – Owen Wright, Matt Wilkinson, Joel Parkinson and more. Round 4 also featured the “clash of champions” – Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning and Gabriel Medina, up against each other. Further upsets happened down the line when Medina and then Slater fell by the wayside, leaving the swell open to a final between defending champ Fanning and fellow Aussie Julian Wilson. From a surfing point of view, it was thrilling stuff.
Taken that the shark attack on Mick is the first and only time this has ever happened in the 40-year history of the international professional world surf tour, it was certainly a memorable ending to the 2015 J-Bay Open.
One just hopes that it won’t deter the organisers from holding future competitions here. (Perhaps an opportunity for our Cape-based Shark Spotters to expand the programme?)
If the contest were to end, the impact on local businesses would be bad; but even more disappointing would be the loss of a kind of magic. There is really something special about the 12 days of J-Bay during the WSL tour. Please don’t let it stop.
l Mick Fanning and fellow finalist Julian Wilson took equal second in rankings for the 2015 J-Bay Open, and split the prize purse. For more details and to see the shark attack: www.wsl.com