Full disclosure: Prior to last year's Rip Curl Search comp in Puerto Rico, it'd been at least six years since I'd witnessed a WCT -- oops, I mean World Tour event -- firsthand. The last time? Lowers, 2004. Back when it was still called the Boost Mobile Pro; back when there were 44 surfers on tour, including Pat O'Connell, Shane Powell and Peterson Rosa. Needless to say, things have changed, from a more complex format to what we're supposed to call the damn things. But there was still plenty familiar, too. So, with three fresh contest sites on the docket in '011 -- one at NYC, one in Rio and one in a little Asian country called Hu D'Hek Nos, plus the classics like Bells, Pipe, France, and Trestles -- it seemed a good time to offer some suggestions to any frothing circus fans before joining the freakshow.
1) Go the first day.
Kelly, Dane, Jordy, Taj, Mick -- you already know your heroes rip. The coolest thing about Day One is watching the guy who never even gets a postage stamp in print go huge in person. It makes you recognize the full level of talent that defines the WT. Also, the lower seeds are generally the freshest arrivals (Julian Wilson) and rawest talents (Dusty, Wilko). You don't want to risk them going down early.
2) Go the last day.
Between the instant replays, ice-cold beverages and clean toilets, the only thing watching live offers over today's webcast is what we call 'palpable drama.' So if you want the full experience, you must witness those last rounds as they culminate into a clashing, single point of impact --possibly 10 points of impact -- as the modern two-strikes format allows for bigger moves and repeat showdowns. (Besides, one day, you'll wanna brag about being there. And "I saw [blank] win" always sounds better than "I saw [blank] beat two other dudes you don't remember in Round 4."
3) Access will be denied.
Once upon a time, on a scaffolding far, far away, bro-ing down with "the boys" was as easy as climbing a flight of stairs and throwing shakas at the bald guy up top. (Not that bald guy, dummy.) Not any more. In Puerto Rico, the flimsy yellow tape was replaced by reinforced plywood and two 8' x 12" mokes, as they literally funneled pros right down to the water, pushing mass crowds closer to entry and exit points in hopes of a post-heat autograph or pre-heat butt-slap. In other words: if you want a shot at the champ, be ready to scrap for it.
4) I'm with the band.
Hestor Prynne had the Scarlet Letter, Hector B. Connected has a neon green bracelet at an ASP event. Both serve a similar purpose: marking you as the town sinner. And while contest cred may grant access to a free meal on-site, in the water it basically screams, "I'm with the comp, please cut me off." (P.S. Don't bother trying to score chicks by saying your Ace; the only people who don't wear bands are the competitors.)
5) Surf the contest site.
Truth? I was always more of an Uppers guy. (Less fights, more rights.) But when Lowers first came to town, the pre-dawn media parking was impossible to resist. And guess what? The lineup was actually mellower. Instead of the usual angry wave hogs, I surfed with some overly considerate competitors. (Jake "the Snake" Paterson even kicked out for me!) Flash forward to PR, and it the scenario was eerily similar as Middles more low-key than loco. The downside? Come Lowers 2.0, the morning brawl was back on with every fighting style, belt color and weight class represented. The point? Get it while it lasts.
But there are even better reasons to go stick your nose in the ring, from floating between pros, to scrapping for sets to -- most strikingly -- taking off in front of a giant three-tier set-up stacked with speakers and jaded spectators. Knowing the world's best surfers and judges are watching (read: heckling) is a valuable lesson for all of us who sit back and critique their performances -- especially those of who've never surfed a heat. After all, if a paltry 36 pairs of eyes makes you go over the handlebars, imagine the stress a packed beach plus a million more online fans.
In other words: anyone can watch a World Tour event. Surfing the contest site is a once-in-a lifetime opp to feel what it's like to be in one -- the good, the bad and (in the case of this correspondent) the ugly. Next stop, Bell's Beach.