Earning a Quarterfinal spot in the evening's dying light via a Round Four "superheat" win, Florence ran with the advantage he gained when Smith slipped up in Round Three, by way of an air duel with -- wait for it -- Mick Fanning. With the defending World Champ only posting keeper scores above 9.23 today, a frightening display of form was on hand for his Top 5 rivals to witness. All of those rivals, except for Owen Wright, who will surf in Round Five, have been eliminated before the Quarterfinal stage.
"I feel awesome, that was an incredible heat, surfing with Mick and Joel... I was fully psyching on Mick's air," said Florence. "I found a few sections out there, it felt really good. It's my dream to surf against these guys, they've been huge inspirations for me, ever since I was young. It was such an insane heat, amazing."
When the flags hang limp on their poles alongside the seaside in France's southwest, it's usually not for very long. Something, surely, is about to happen, a change of sorts is imminent. If you're looking at a glassy sea while checking the surf with the sun already high, you can almost guarantee it'll be onshore before you've rubbered up. French pessimism, perhaps? Existentialist funk? Hardly. Merely an empirical observation; the cornerstone of all good science.
Today the offshores died around mid-morning, surely heralding the coming of the northwest sea-breeze spoiler. But instead a kind of lengthy limbo ensued, not just atmospheric, but vibe-wise too. Something was surely coming, but you didn't know what, or when. The swell was pumping, the ocean glassy, the sky bluebird and yet the surf was somehow… ominous.
It wasn't standing up on the outside bank, it wasn't really hitting the shorebreak as true as it might, somehow simultaneously cranking, and underwhelming. "Pot luck," Richard ‘Dog' Marsh called it, referencing the scant nature of opportunity. So when Jordy Smith and Marc Lacomare paddled out for their Round Three heat, conditions couldn't have been better for an upset; the perfect calm.
Local wildcard Lacomare, who had already defeated World No. 3 Julian Wilson, sat a mere few paddle strokes off the beach on the end of a closeout left to the south, while Jordy opted to head a few hundred yards north and out the back. At one point they weren't just surfing different banks, but different zip codes. Lacomare stuck to his left and drilled through a couple of throaty, if not awe-inspiring tubes to build a healthy advantage. The crowd whistled, hooted, but perhaps more out of duty than heartfelt frenzy. A sort of weird quiet ensued, with folks perhaps slightly perplexed that the scores didn't go higher for Lacomare.
After Smith had relocated to Lacomare's bank, a brief tussle over priority and a throwaway rodeo attempt that whiffed more of exasperation than desperation, the horn sounded twice, and Lacomare had taken down the World No.1 and became the toast of Hossegor, as well as presumably, camp Florence.
By day's end, Lacomare's clinical performance in smaller, lined-up peaks in a Round Four clash with Zietz and Ibelli earned him a spot in the Quarterfinals. "I'm just trying to have fun, taking it all step by step," said a delighted Lacomare, who is ranked No. 49 on the Qualifying Series. "Today was a magical day for me, I'm super stoked. Hopefully the swell shows up for Finals day. Bring it on."
Smith, meanwhile, was philosophical. "It's France, it changes really quickly," he reflected after his elimination at the hands of the Frenchman. "For example, the wave that we were surfing out front is pretty much non-existent anymore. I got two OK waves and kind of had a rhythm, Marc sat on that little left. With the tide dropping I thought I should head out to the point of the sandbank, got a good score but it wasn't enough."
What Jordy didn't mention publicly -- to his credit -- were the whistles he thought he'd heard from the Water Patrol helping Marc into sets. A debrief ensued between Tour Manager Renato Hickel, Deputy Commissioner Travis Logie, contest director Alain Riou and Smith in the showers, as to the legality of such wave signaling. Up until that point, you see, it'd been that kinda day. Even the protests were understated and bizarrely cordial.
"How that wasn't a 10," Mick Fanning said, with a serious chuckle. "I wanna go up there and spank the judges on the bottom." The three-time World Champion was referring to John John's outrageous backside air-reverse -- a wave, move and score that slapped the afternoon into life.
The defending World Champ's duel with rookie Ethan Ewing had been the subject of a restart, the second of three for the day. But with John's serious upping of the ante after a blistering speed-run culminated in an outrageous tail-high spin for 9.73, the Phoney War had just become the Battle of Belgium. Elsewhere, genuine scrums were developing in the crowd for the paddle-outs of Fanning and Flores. Beefy security men in tight tees, tribal tattoos and 2009's boardshorts scurried to and fro to maintain order. A water patrol pilot became separated from his vessel near the shorey as sets bore down, lifeguards tore through the crowd on a quad in his direction. Suddenly, everywhere you looked it was entertainment.
You can't help but feel desperately sorry for Ewing, who seems to continually get eliminated after surfing great, for more than respectable scores. While he was working over a screaming right in that over-referenced, yet hard-to-argue-with Andy Irons style, a huge roar erupted from the crowd, which was now emotionally invested. Behind him, while Ewing was still working over the inside, Florence had popped a single move out the back, this time a forehand air-reverse for 9.43, and essentially ended the heat as a contest, Ewing combo'd to the tune of 19.17.
From the teenager's point of view, fate hasn't been so much a cruel mistress as a brutal sadist with no ear for the safe word.
Who'll get to join Lacomare, Pupo, Florence and Medina in the Quarters will be decided when Round Five gets underway. The next call is 8:15 a.m. Saturday, October 14.