Joe Turpel sits down with me at the some semi-posh airport cafe. We survey each other’s food selections. We both got croissants but I went in for some ham baguette breakfast sandwich. Joe Turpel, for those who don’t know, is one of the World Surf League’s broadcasters. I introduced myself as we squeezed through an immigration line entering Spain.
He’s articulate and affable and cool at the same time. It’s a strange thing to be a webcast announcer for the WSL–you’re a celebrity but you’re not a celebrity. You spend almost as much time on the road as the athletes. In Europe you can’t go out in any of the surf towns without being recognized and you can’t surf almost anywhere in the world without being recognized. But you’re not recognized like a John Madden. You’re not famous enough not to chat, but you’re famous enough to be wary. And yet, you’re still just a surfer.
I have a ton of respect for a lot of what these surf announcers do. A bad heat can be worse than watching golf. An ocean is prettier to look at than a golf course, but the ocean often goes flat for twenty minutes, while golf at least always has someone putting. Their job is to translate what it’s like to be in the water waiting for a wave that can change a competitor’s career for people who’ve done this for half their lives and for people who may never surf. Anyone can step onto a golf course or a basketball court and take a shot. Everyone knows what it is like to stand under a basketball rim and imagine dunking a ball. But going out at Hossegar when the waves are twice your size and the current is pulling you out to sea and every wave that catches you off guard can snap your board and hold you breathless under water is another thing entirely. To make laymen feel that fear and pressure takes talent.
The first heat of the contest is about to start. Due to a flight delay, Joe is here with me when he should be in the announcer’s booth. He excuses himself and goes off to a corner to watch and to take a call. The surf is stormy, big, unruly. The first two heats run. Kelly Slater pulls into an amazing tube, comes out, scores a nine. But he can’t find another wave in the next thirty minutes and loses the heat needing less than a weak, three-point ride. A loss in the next round will mean he’s done in France and will take him out of the running for his twelfth and final world title. “Whose call was it to run heats today?” Kelly Slater asks in his interview afterwards. After the next heat at 10 a.m, the beach commissioner shuts down the contest for the day.