I was thinking about seeing. I was thinking about not seeing. I was wandering around Porto, a city I knew almost nothing about except for its Port wine. I don’t drink Port. I drank port in my late twenties, one little glass with my wife around nine, before putting a fire in the potbelly stove and watching a movie.
I didn’t go to Porto to wander distilleries, although that seemed like a perfectly fine thing to do. I came to Porto to get perspective on the surf scene, on my own behavior, on a city I’d heard retained the original architecture from Roman times and mixed in modern architecture seamlessly. I wasn’t aware of its crazy graffiti tradition. The city pried my eyes open. After ten days of surf town, of surf schools, of camper van and contest culture, I wasn’t ready for Porto. But, coming from family life, I hadn’t been ready for surf contest culture either. How long, I wondered, would it take before I stopped seeing Porto’s walls and old houses rising out of the Duoro as being spectacular? Did I stop seeing how amazing the World Surf League is because I’d been around it for a month?
My father is a painter. Someone just posted a video of the mayor of Florence, Italy, coming up to him and taking a selfie at a gallery showing some of his photos. He taught me to see. He taught me to change the color of a background to make you see the thing I want you to see. Think of a polished, grey, concrete floor. A dark grey polished concrete floor in a large room. A large room with nothing in it except an orange pillow big enough for your lover to lie on. The floor is so highly polished that the pillow reflects on its dark surface. Looking from the threshold of the room, it looks as if the pillow is floating, as if the dark grey floor is water. Your lover is floating in the room you made. She’s asleep in a book, towel wrapped around her after a shower, after her morning surf. The question is, if you see this everyday, if you live in this house, how long before you start to see your lover as lazy? The “lake” as nothing but cold concrete?
After ten days, the concrete floor was my Baleal/ Peniche. Porto, the pillow, my lover, floating. I stopped seeing the men competing. I never stopped seeing how amazing the men were competing but I didn’t feel the men competing in the same way that I did when I first arrived in France. I’m not in the natural habit of taking selfies of everything I do. If I’m having an amazing moment, I tend to want to stay in that moment and I forget to photograph it; I forget to broadcast it to my 973 friends. Julian Wilson paddled toward Mick Fanning last year in the finals heat in South Africa as two sharks attacked Fanning, presumably to try to help beat them away. Whipping out my phone, doing the selfie thing, that would have felt awkward to me, my big Picasso cubist mug next to his GQ cover boy face only emphasizing that I’m some anxious fortysomething following around a bunch of fearless and handsome younger surfers.
I saw John John twice, getting in and out of the water before or after I surfed. People went up to him and took selfies. I could have dangled my silly wristband, said who I knew that he knew, but I sat back and watched him, let him do his thing. I only ever surfed, for a heartbeat, with Ace, once. How his knee almost touch his board on his bottom turn, how much flex he had in his ankles was eye opening to me. I’m not sure if I ever was that flexible. Medina I saw eating dinner after he lost in France. Again, I said nothing. Some young Brazilians about his age apologized for interrupting his meal for a selfie. Graciously, he offered them a seat at his table. When you get used to being around these comps all day, it becomes easy to mistake the lower ranked professionals for other young surfers, particularly if they don’t have a large, curly lion’s mane of blond hair, like John John, or are bald like Kelly. After we’d been hanging out at the after party with Sebastian Zietz, I asked a young Portuguese fan I’d brought to the party what she thought of Seabass. She’d been a bit starstruck earlier in the week and now was getting a chance to have beers with a few pros. Granted Seabass doesn’t come from any money and might be one of the most approachable surfers on tour. She said, “He just seems like a normal guy.”
The exception to this is probably Kelly Slater. In old literature exams you used to have to identify a writer by a single line. It didn’t matter what century they were writing in; great writers styles are distinct. Walking up the beach during a heat with Kelly in it, I didn’t know what color Jersey he was wearing. He could have been in red or blue or white. I also didn’t know who he was surfing against. I was late. I had lingered at the hotel posting something, etc. But when Kelly stood up on a wave, I knew it was him instantly. His style was that recognizable. Slater is the closest thing the sport has ever had to a Michael Jordan. I’m pretty sure he can’t go anywhere in these tour towns without being approached. On the second day of competition at Supertubos, I saw two middle-aged women, who have never surfed and rarely go in the water, kissing the photo of Kelly in his parking place. They said they would “die” to meet him. He is the one surfer whose celebrity truly transcends surfers. The only time I saw Kelly, he was eating dinner in my hotel. I introduced myself. As soon as I said I was friends with his manager he said, “Cool” and went back to eating a potful of shrimp soaking in an oily garlic sauce. He was shorter than I imagined. But he was burlier. The conversation was over. His girlfriend chatted for a minute, politely, almost to make up for his dismissal. A selfie would have been more comfortable – it has a start point, an end point, shows respect, and takes very little interaction.
Occasionally, watching basketball in a stadium, there are long parts of the game in which the play seems to take place in a void, especially if the score isn’t close. Without the announcers and the cameras, without an emcee getting the crowd involved, I can get a little sleepy. I always thought the bright lights of the stadium and the bright colors of the uniform and the blaring loudspeaker led to a type of sensory overload. But when games are close, a play momentous, a stadium stands up and the proximity and intensity of the crowd wakes me up. When I watch anything, be it a computer screen or the ocean too long, I become passive. I look at the waves too long, without paddling out, burn up my time, do the same looking at a poem, make no changes, then have to run off to work or to pick up a kid. At home, it is easy to follow the surfers in their heats. The narrators on my computer do a great job. The cameras do a great job. On the beach, however, watching heats all day, the ocean lulled me, occasionally, into a daze. An exception to this was in the final, when John John launched what was an aerial I have never seen in person before. I turned to Seabass and Pots and talked about how far he projected down the line, how he flew over the closeout section to make that aerial functional, enabling him to keep riding down the line. They nodded. I’d been snapped out of my daze and into the moment, but watching John John fly wasn’t anything new to them. The applause from the crowd was impressive, especially for a group that may or may not have been hungover at 9am on a drizzly Tuesday morning, but the applause went out to sea. It didn’t echo back like it would in a stadium. I was geeking out over a turn I will never be able to do while the surfers in the v.i.p. are quietly mumbling a lower case, “wow.”
Watching John’s John’s acceptance speech, I was amazed by his graciousness, his maturity and humbleness. Gone from his speech was the hyperbole that surrounds, say, a world series, which I just saw via the magic of the internet that the Cubs won last night. There was no thanking Jesus, talk of fate, or God’s will. Joe Trappell, at 32, was a fine master of the ceremony, placing the ceremony in the largest context possible, but John John wouldn’t take the bait. He paused for a second when asked which model Jeep, the sponsor of the event, he wanted to take home.
Those of us not attached to the competitors or the WSL’s private ceremonies stood on the beach and kind of wondered what to do. Debra, the young beautiful Portuguese college student I’d chatted with, debated with her friends whether or not to go to class. The surf journalists had articles to file. Sion debated whether or not to surf. I wanted to check out of the Marriot, the fanciest hotel in town I’d gotten for cheap, but that had only deepened my isolation, made me wonder whether I was here to surf and write about surfing or to play golf and bridge with the well-heeled silverbirds there from across Europe. When one wins a championship at 10 p.m., the party starts. When one wins a world title on a rainy beach at 10 a.m. on a drizzly beach in Peniche, Portugal, on a Tuesday morning, the fans, at least the ones in their forties, don’t know what to do. Both world titles seemed to happen in a bit of a haze for me, as if my brain was embalmed in salt water. How amazing the thing I saw just happen didn’t sink in until I was Lisbon, a week later. Ruiz, the bartender who made me some crazy drink with dehydrated fruit and a blow torch, said “You got to see both world titles crowned?” “Yes,” I said. “That’s amazing.” “Yes” I said. It was. It is.
After the contest I stopped off on the dirt road by the secondary contest spot. I thought it looked small and fun. Looking back at the photo I took, I realize that it was anything but small. This lack of perspective kept happening to me throughout Portugal. I moved out of my hotel and came back forty minutes later. The guys paddling out had come in and said it was hard to get waves. I ignored them, thought they just didn’t know what they were doing and I’d get a few. By the time I suited up and paddled out, this right was gone. The waves picked up a few feet, there were no lulls, and it was thumping. It took me two tries to get out and on the second try I paddled out one hundred yards down the beach. I paddled out cleanly there, taking waves on the head. But mysto sets kept appearing further out to sea to the left or right of me that I couldn’t line up correctly to catch. The wind was howling. After 45 minutes I called it a day without catching anything, much like the guys who warned me on the beach.