Image from http://www.aspworldtour.com/
The Great Ocean Carpark ... a look at the men's final for the Rip Curl Pro 2012 in Bell's Beach. In memorial to Michael Peterson.
It was as good as Bells Beach gets. Serene lines of possibility rolling in like thunder from the horizon, and four young men anxious to silence them. It was no Big Wednesday but on this Good Friday, with the 12 Apostles of the Southern Ocean just a short drive away and the sun shining like the return of summer, time carried little consequence.
The swell was flawless, six-foot, off-shore and so clean it looked like the work of a fairy tale glass-blower. The Great Ocean Road, the nostalgic passage of highway that delivers glory hunters to the iconic break, at a standstill.
For the first time anyone could remember, the Great Ocean Road turned car park. As far as they eye could see, or an eagle for that matter, cars lined the track. Overlooking the cove, the natural amphitheatre - not unlike those only read about in ancient Greek times - was at capacity.
Faces lined the hills, for in the water starred the main attraction – an ageless 11 times world champion in Kelly Slater and sun-kissed contenders vying for the right to be heir to his throne.With piercing blue eyes - somehow more powerful than the ancient ocean reflecting in them - after all these years the 22-year tour veteran still remained untouchable.
Nic Muscroft found out the hard way, the local surf shop-worker’s contest dream stolen from him in the dying seconds of heat three the day before when Slater scored a miraculous 9.3. For any other surfer it would have been considered freakish. For Slater however, a god amongst men, it was what everyone had come to expect. His back against the wall, the stage was set for an Oscar-winning performance. And with three turns and an air reverse to finish in impossible conditions, he brought the crowd to its feet.
Come Good Friday, jovial Australian Josh Kerr – all weathered blonde hair and stubble, fell by the wayside. Frenchman Jeremy Flores, too. The duo had the unwanted privilege of being defeated by Slater in round four and again in the quarter final and semi-final respectively. Flores’ semi-final was all but over after just 12 minutes. Perhaps Slater’s greatest weapon, his ability to adapt to the constant adolescent change in surfing introduced by his care-free younger counterparts.
On the other side of the draw, a duel just as enticing and every bit as historic - childhood friends and 2011 finalists Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson coming together for maybe the 400th time in their lives. The “victor”, left with the challenge to slay the relentless dragon.
The same time last year, the unheralded Parkinson’s defeat of two-time world champion Fanning all but ended his friend’s season, one that would be fraught with inconsistency and injury.
At 31, Parkinson is a man still with a point to prove. Arguably the greatest surfer never to win world title, it’s obvious he’s long fed up with the perennial bridesmaids tag and the sympathy that comes with it.
He’s a champion surfer and deserves the accolade and title that does with it. But Fanning, White Lightning, is the surfer, the man anyone who can stand on a board wants to be. Relaxed, modest, jovial and with an almost uneasy confidence, his boyish charm is as endearing as it is deceiving to his competitors.
And much to the delight of the thousands-strong throng of people packing the shoreline, on this day, Mick would emerge victorious, coming from behind to defeat his best friend and set up a showdown with Slater – who beat Fanning in the 2010 final before going on to claim his 10th world title.
For as long as Slater has been surfing, it’s been known the only way to out-class him is to start with a bang. And with storm clouds ominous, White Lightning struck early, the judges awarding the Gold Coast larrikin a 9.1 for his first wave in his third consecutive Bells final.
He hadn’t won at the Victorian heritage surfing event for more than a decade, but an emphatic first wave was backed by a second of 8.6, as reigning champion Slater uncharacteristically wiped-out three waves in a row for a two-wave total of 7.33.
But you never knock a champion, and having found himself with his back to the wall once again, Slater turned the final on his head, launching an unprecedented aerial assault to pull off arguably the biggest full rotation in competition history to post a perfect 10. Not content, he backed it up next wave to post an 8.07 only for Fanning to carve the following wave to the point of non-existence, forcing the judges to re-instate him with the lead with a score of 9.6.
With 13 minutes to go, just days after the passing of Michael Peterson, the beach, the crowd, the contenders all seemed to be channelling the spirit of the 1973-74 champion.
With the clock ticking Slater, posting consecutive 8.07s began to grow increasingly frustrated, throwing himself at every wave to score the 8.80 required to take the lead.
Try as he might, the big, single aerial manoeuvres weren’t enough to win the judges over, visibly angered by how at least one of his waves were scored, slamming his board against the barrier on return to the competitor tent.
But as world surfing mourned the loss of one Gold Coast great, almost 39 years to the day since Peterson won his first Bells title another young man from the Gold Coast by the name of Mick Fanning rung the coveted bell.
Many already argue it would be remembered as the best ever world surfing final. It seemed the sun wasn’t the only light shining on Bells Beach this Good Friday.