"The first thing was just getting out there again," Mick Fanning said of his highly anticipated return to Jeffreys Bay. As fate would have it, one year after a shark knocked Fanning off his board in the Final here, he found himself in the first heat of the event. Fittingly, he caught the first wave of this year's tournament, immediately putting the past behind him.
"It was definitely emotional, even just paddling out," he said. "But how could we not have come back to J-Bay?"
Going full circle, on Saturday Mick caught the last wave of the event, capping a masterful performance that had all the appearances of destiny. "I just wanted to right the wrongs from last year," he explained.
The 5'9 channel-bottom swallowtail he rode would help him greatly in that effort. It might have looked a bit short at times, but he utilized the full length of the rail on almost every turn, and nary a rail bog.
Fanning's performance in the Final was both inspired and inspiring. Despite the small waves, the scarcity of sets and the fast, racy sections, he could do no wrong. He applied power when he needed to and down-shifted when it was called for. Making the most of every wave, he hacked them to pieces with hard and fast rail surfing, carves and cracks and huge hooks. He again showed that he is one of the world's best surfers, and deserved to be crowned the J-Bay Open event champ for the fourth time.
John John Florence, meanwhile, was just the right amount of disappointed over his his loss to Fanning, yet gracious in defeat. He surfed incredibly well, including two massive air-reverses. He landed the second move on the bricks with an explosion, and still managed to ride it out. While it wasn't enough to earn him a victory, it did propel him to World No. 2 on the Jeep Leaderboard, the highest ranking of his career to date.
Mick's journey to the Final was anything but easy. For starters, he faced the frightfully dynamic Filipe Toledo in the Quarterfinals. Toledo took to the air as often as he could, earning huge roars from the crowd, especially during one massive alley-oop.
Fanning saw the alley-oop from behind, but remained steely. Toledo paddled back up to Fanning, stopping just short and sitting on his board, at ease. And still, Fanning stayed totally focused.
When the next set of their heated Quarterfinal arrived, Fanning made no mistakes. From paddling hard into it, to executing a series of excellent turns and capping off the performance cleanly, he banked a 9.27 and strode into the lead.
The final move did leave him leopard-crawling painfully over the bricks in front of everyone, falling and sprawling until he got into slightly deeper water an was able to paddle again. (It is imperative to finish off waves with a solid turn at Supers -- and all finishing moves lead to dry rocks.) But Fanning's rock-climbing session paid off, seeing him into the Semifinals.
As he drew ever-closer to triumph, the heats grew more intense. In a fitting rematch of last year's unfinished Final, he again faced Julian Wilson, this time in the Semis. And this year -- with a clock that didn't stop -- he killed it. Julian tried to match him with rail surfing, but Fanning was unbeatable. His speed lines were unbelievable, and his knowledge of the bottom section at Supers is unsurpassed. He is one of the few surfers who has this break dialed.
On the other side of the draw, John John was edging his way to the final with air surfing. He was on point and knew that the only way to make noise was to get above the lip. His win against Kerrzy was punctuated by these big moves, and it was set to be a Final of rail and speed vs. airs. Everyone loves an air game, and John John Florence is one of the most influential new-school surfers on tour. But the vibe on the beach was Fanning, all the way through to the podium, for an emotional win.
It's hard to believe just how fast and on-point Mick surfed out there. It was an eerie feeling, remembering this time last year. And with that emotional weight bearing down on the final day, it almost seemed pre-ordained that in the end, it was Fanning who finished with the win.