At 7 a.m. the lights in Nat Young’s house are on. Music plays as Nat, Miguel Pupo and Michael Dunphy get ready to drive to the Lane. They watch a new version of Nat’s revised Innersection part on an iPhone and put on their wetsuits in the kitchen. Dunphy is the second alternate in the event. Pupo is in the fifth heat. Nat surfs against world No. 2 Jordy Smith in the first heat of the day.
There are a lot of quasi-journalistic questions that I want to ask Nat: Are you nervous to surf against Jordy? Do you feel pressure to repeat as the Coldwater champion? How was the pro junior in Bali? How many days a year do you spend in Santa Cruz? But it feels like trying to interview a boxer minutes before his fight, so I don’t.
When we pull up to the Lane the swell has picked up, just as predicted, and the wind is light. Waves pour through and a large percentage of the 96 surfers left in the event seem to be out in the water warming up. Nat jogs to the point but they call him back over the loudspeaker to pick up his white singlet. It throws off his rhythm and he only has a chance to catch one wave (which he falls on) before the horn starts his heat. Jordy draws first blood but it’s only a mid-range score. Nat catches a wave and falls on his first turn. Halfway through the heat and Jordy, Nat, Rudy Palmbloom and Killian Garland all have one mid-range score. No one is running away with the heat and they all seem out of position.
Nat’s mom Rosie stands on the cliff, as nervous as any mom would be. “I hope he doesn’t feel like I do right now,” Rosie says. Nat paddles inside a bit and catches a wave that walls up and nets him a 6. While paddling back out he gets another wave that vaults him into the lead. Time winds down and the heat ends with Nat in first and Jordy in second. Rosie relaxes and spectators on the cliff clap as Nat walks up the stairs.
“We were all out there waiting for waves that weren’t coming,” Nat says. “It was backwashing off the cliff and kind of weird.”
We head to New Leaf Market for smoothies and egg and cheese croissant sandwiches. We see Luke Davis and Kolohe Andino (both of whom won their respective heats) and a cute woman standing in front of us in line. She smiles at the young surfers. There’s no time for flirting with older women though; Nat has to get back to the Lane and caddie for Miguel in his heat with Mason Ho, Brett Simpson and Marco Giorgi. Coaching from the cliff is tough. You think you know which waves are best from your vantage point 20 feet above sea level but if you’re wrong you feel responsible for your friends’ loss. Nat stays quiet unless he’s sure the wave is either good or bad, and Miguel loses by a slim margin.
By the time we get to Nat’s house the wind has turned south and the beach breaks up north are ruled out. Everyone deliberates in the parking lot until the call is made to go surf a Westside reef. After a few fun waves Nat takes a board in to the shop to get a ding fixed and gets ready to surf the Lane once the heats wrap up for the day. Tomorrow he’ll surf against Jonny Craft, Alain Riou and Joel Centeio. —Matt Skenazy