Karen Rutter

WE went in search of Slater. We came back with a dog and a dude.

That’s how it goes on road trips – particularly surf road trips. There’s no predicting the outcome and, like riding a wave, it all depends on the conditions. Sometimes things get gnarly, sometimes you go over the falls – and sometimes you hit the sweet spot. That’s how it was for us – sweet, with a few surprising spots. When we took off, we couldn’t have pictured how we would return.

The catalyst was the 2014 ASP World Championship Tour at Supertubes in Jeffreys Bay. The venue has long been a stop on the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) touring schedule, from 1996 to 2011, but was skipped in 2012 and again last year. This year it was on, which meant 34 of the world’s top surfers would be in the water. And we wanted to be there.

Sue, Bridget, and I have been surfing, or involved with surfing, for around three decades. Jeffreys Bay has one of the best right-hand point breaks on the planet. South African Jordy Smith, who has won the event twice, would be competing in front of his home crowd. Most awesomely, 11-time ASP World Tour champion Kelly Slater would also be chasing the title.

As my eight-year-old niece would say: “Duh!” It was a no-brainer – of course we were going.

The event was running from July 10 to 20; the way surf contests go, it’s all about the waves. If they’re pumping for five days straight, the competition could happen very swiftly. If there’re lulls in the sets, everybody waits. And so it was with the J-Bay Open.

Things went fairly fast during the first week, but there were also a couple of “down” days. This meant that if we timed our trip for July 14 to 18, we hoped to see at least some of the remaining action. And maybe catch a few waves ourselves. So – boards packed, the combi gassed up (of course we went in a combi – this was a road surf trip) – we hit the N2.

The first upset came when we stopped for coffee in Vic Bay. Following the competition via the ASP website on our phones, we got a shock. Jordy was out, beaten by American CJ Hobgood in Round 3. We heard about the second upset as we pulled into the ASP lookout section in J-Bay – Slater had been eclipsed by Australian goofy-footer Matt Wilkinson. No more Searching for Slater! We hadn’t even had a chance to see him in action. Major bummer.

But then we checked out the remaining heats for the day, and were instantly stoked to see surf stars like Mick Fanning, Gabriel Medina and Alejo Muniz all competing in Round 4. And our backpacker’s accommodation was right on the beach, with a view of the Kitchen’s break. And they served cheesy, hot pizza and ice-cold beers. Suddenly things were looking good again.

We fell into a pattern over the next few days. Up just after sunrise, down to the ASP lookout section to see if the competition was happening. It didn’t – not for the next four days. Something about waiting for a huge swell to hit. But what did take place were the most incredible practice sessions by the pro surfers at Supertubes. Fanning, Medina, Adriano de Souza, Taj Burrow, Joel Parkinson – understand, these are gods of the surfing world, and here they were, trotting out onto the beach in the bright morning sunlight and sharing insane waves with J-Bay locals. It would be like watching soccer stars Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar kicking a ball about for fun, alongside a couple of kids.

And it was in those practice sessions that one got to see just what sets a world champion apart from any other surfer – speed, agility, the ability to read waves and dance on them. And, because these were practice sessions and not competition heats, it was easier for the pros to take chances with aerial 360s and radical cutbacks – these were the moves that made the difference. It was humbling to see.

It’s an interesting sport, surfing. We realised it’s possibly the only one where you are not really competing against other people, but against yourself. The aim is to do the best that you can on a wave. You’re always working towards that perfect 10. And it’s got nothing to do with crushing anybody else. Maybe that’s why the whole scene is so mellow.

And so, the week had its rhythm – wake up, watch world-class surfing, try and catch a few tiny waves well away from the main action, observe the social rituals at the backpacker’s lodge.

And then there were the two incidents that changed the trip home. Mike, the surf watch engineer, needed to get back to Cape Town early and asked for a lift. And then Sue saw a small dog get badly abused on the beach, and came to its rescue.

Suddenly it was time to go home. This time, with a dog and a dude.

Road trips are what you make of them – and how you catch what life throws at you.

Turns out, Mike was an amazing addition to the combi, funny and smart and interesting. And the dog was a most chilled and polite passenger. We decided to call her Kelly. We had been searching for Slater, but came back with so much more.

l The 2014 ASP World Championship Tour at Supertubes in Jeffreys Bay was won on July 19 by 2013 ASP World Champion, Mick Fanning, after an epic final with his friend and fellow Australian Joel Parkinson. See www.aspworld tour.com to follow the circuit.