The 1984 Country Feeling J-Bay Surf Classic was the first Championship Tour event ever held at Supertubes. It was won by a high-pitched, square-jawed 18-year-old from Cronulla, NSW, named Marco Jay Luciano Occhilupo, who took down a tour vet named Hans Hedemann in the Final. Decked in his now-iconic pink, maize and blue short-sleeved Peak steamer, riding a boxy, nearly stickerless Rusty thruster, Occy was only a few weeks removed from his infamous proclamation, "Let's stop these American wankers!," in Australia's Tracks Magazine. The mid-1980s was a time of transition and great rivalries on the Tour: Youth vs. vets, USA vs. Australia, Occy vs. Tom Curren, Carroll vs. Curren, Kong vs. Curren, pretty much everyone on Tour vs Curren.
Occy's stunning backhand performance at Supers was a career milestone, and the beginning of a beautiful, lifelong love affair between the colorful Australian and the legendary point.
To this day, Occy is the only goofyfooter to win a Championship Tour event at J-Bay.
Naturally, this year's gaggle of goofyfooters is hoping to change that, let by Matt Wilkinson, Owen Wright and Connor O'Leary, who are all firmly planted in the Top 10 on the Jeep Leaderboard. Add guys like Gabe Medina, Ace Buchan, and Italo Ferreira to that mix and you have a pretty potent set of power. But do they stand a chance?
On paper the odds seem stacked against them. After all, a quartet of regularfooted Tour vets (Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson, Jordy Smith) have dominated since 2002, taking 12 J-Bay titles among them. The last time a goofy even made an appearance in a J-Bay Final was eight years ago, in 2009, when Damien Hobgood went down to Parkinson (Damo lost in the 2003 Final, too). But if Owen Wright's improbable win at Snapper Rocks proved anything, it's that nothing is impossible on Tour in 2017.
For the second year running, Wilkinson will be rocking the Jeep Leader's Yellow Jersey at J-Bay. This year he'll sweep into town riding the momentum accrued from a massive result at Cloudbreak, going one spot better than last year, to win in the Fiji Pro. Last year, he handed over the Yellow Jersey to John John Florence (who never let go) following a Round Three exit in Fiji, which was the first of six disappointing 13th or worse finishes to close out his year. Coincidentally, Wilko and Wright had their career-best finishes at J-Bay in 2014 when they both went out in the Semifinals, losing to Parkinson and Fanning, respectively. Likewise, Wilkinson and Wright's remarkable performances at the Quik Pro Gold Coast in March proved they've got the backhand chops to beat the world's best at a righthand pointbreak.
When pro tour founding father and 1976 world No. 2, Ian "Kanga" Cairns, once described surfing backhand as "doing the unspeakable," his joke wasn't directed at J-Bay specifically (Kanga's a naturalfoot), but he might as well have been. The wave is incredibly fast and peels away out of sight for backsiders, requiring a unique line of attack thought to belong solely to once-in-a-generation savants like Occhilupo. If racing the wave while still fitting in turns sounds like a dilemma, it is. The wave also requires the patience of a monk and the throttle control of a Formula 1 racer. And then there's the sometimes pinching/sometimes wide-open tubes to maneuver. For the screwfoot squad, J-Bay's a dichotomy yet to be unlocked after over three decades.
Riding the proper boards at J-Bay matters. For the better part of the decade in the 1990s, most traveling Tour pros rode Supertubes on the same chippy, low-volume, high rocker bananas that were in vogue at the time. With the noted exception of Tom Curren and Kelly Slater (who could both probably make a wooden door look functional out there), many pros looked under-gunned and bogged down in the rifling, hollow Supers freight trains. It's one of the main reasons local wildcards like Sean Holmes, Greg Emslie and 2017 Trials winner Dale Staples have disrupted the dreams of so many top seeds over the years -- they ride the correct equipment. Enter Gabriel Medina and his Tokoro-shaped sleds. Medina rides higher-volume boards with rounder curves than most of his Tour cohorts, a characteristic he shares with pro tour-era Occy. His boards fit the wave, and his electric backhand surfing rarely fails to impress the judges. The Brazilian will be looking to improve his current No. 11 ranking and better his J-Bay best of a 5th-place finish in 2016.
Like Occy, Tour rookie Connor O'Leary was raised in Cronulla, NSW. O'Leary used a win at the QS 10,000 Ballito Pro last year, buoyed by the strength of his backhand surfing in predominantly righthand conditions, to catapult to the top of the Qualifying Series rankings. Now brimming with confidence on the Championship Tour (CT), he used his lanky, 6'1" frame to construct a path to the Quarterfinals at Snapper to kick off a dreamlike start to his rookie season. And his second-place finish to Wilkinson at the Fiji Pro last month sent him rocketing from No. 15 to No. 7 on the Jeep Leaderboard. With his current form, he's a serious threat to make a deep run.
An upstart, young Aussie goofy from Cronulla looking to take a win at J-Bay early in his career... sounds familiar. Is this the year the curse finally gets broken?