Mick Fanning (AUS), three-time WSL Champion, will return to the event this season after becoming the subject of international headlines during last year’s event where he was attacked on live television by what is believed to be a 12-to-15-foot Great White Shark. The attack took place during the Final heat of the event as Fanning was waiting for his opening wave. Both Fanning and fellow Finalist Julian Wilson (AUS) survived the ordeal, with the event ultimately called off, and went on to compete throughout the remainder of the year.
Following a season that involved the shark attack, a world runner-up finish and the tragic passing of his brother, Fanning is taking a personal year in 2016, surfing in only select events. However, the Australian icon has committed to returning to Jeffreys Bay, an event he has won three times (2002, 2006, 2014).
“When I decided I was only going to do a few events this season, J-Bay was always on the cards,” Fanning said. “Even if I decided I didn’t want to surf in the J-Bay Open, I was always going to go back. I’ve had so many great memories there that to leave J-Bay on the note from last year just didn’t seem right. I want to go back and right the wrongs and move forward.”
The WSL has enhanced its surveillance and response capabilities for this season’s event with additional water patrol in the lineup and is augmenting with emerging sonar technologies to increase information available to event officials.
“I trust the WSL and the measures they’ve put in place,” Fanning said. “It is, however, one of those things where it is the ocean and, ultimately, there is not a lot anyone can do. I’m thinking positive and looking forward to coming back. The first surf is going to be a little bit tricky to get through my head. I’ve surfed lots of different places and have seen sharks since then and haven’t felt too concerned. It’s all part of surfing. We’re not going to go out and put a cage around J-Bay. We want to surf the wave and keeping everyone safe is a collective thing between the WSL and the surfers.”
Much speculation has occurred regarding whether the three-time WSL Champion will return to full-time competition at the end of the season. As of the J-Bay Open, Fanning remains undecided about plans for this year and beyond.
“2016 has been really fun to have some time off and do different things,” Fanning said. “It’s been really fulfilling for me personally to go to places where I haven’t been able to before. I’ve made an effort to distance myself from the tour. As far as 2017 goes, I couldn’t tell you right now – whether I’ll be back or not full time. I probably couldn’t tell you what’s going to happen in a month. I don’t know. I’m enjoying the freedom of doing different things and having no schedule right now.”
Fanning is currently seeded into the opening heat of Round 1.
Matt Wilkinson (AUS), current frontrunner on the WSL Jeep Leaderboard, has had a sensational year in 2016, winning the opening two events (Gold Coast and Bells Beach) as well as finishing Runner-Up at the Fiji Open this month. The dynamic goofy-footer’s backhand has been long celebrated and will be one to watch at the upcoming event in South Africa.
“I’ve always enjoyed coming to Jeffreys Bay and surfing on my backhand,” Wilkinson said. “It’s an amazing wave and carries so much speed. This is obviously my best season, but the past few years, J-Bay has been a spot where I’ve done pretty well. I think I got a 3rd there in 2014. I’m really looking forward to coming back.”
Wilkinson takes on Davey Cathels (AUS) and Steven Sawyer (ZAF) in Round 1 of competition.
Gabriel Medina (BRA), 2014 WSL Champion and winner of the previous event in Fiji, will lead the Brazilian contingent alongside current WSL No. 4 Italo Ferreira (BRA) and reigning WSL Champion Adriano de Souza (BRA). Medina is currently sitting at No. 2 on the elite rankings and will look to close ground between himself and Wilkinson at the J-Bay Open. He faces Dusty Payne (HAW) and Alex Ribeiro (HAW) in the opening round of competition.
Jordy Smith (ZAF), the sole South African on the elite WSL Championship Tour and two-time winner of the J-Bay Open (2010, 2011), will return to the J-Bay Open this season injury free. Smith’s 2015 campaign was derailed by a significant back injury that saw him finish 25th before withdrawing from competition for most of the year.
“It’s great to be back in Africa and be injury-free this year,” Smith said. “Jeffreys Bay has a special place in my heart. It’s where my Dad took me a lot when I was younger and it’s had a huge influence on my surfing and on my career. Very excited to be back in the event this year and hope we get a great swell.”
Smith will take on Wiggolly Dantas (BRA) and Adam Melling (AUS) in Round 1 of competition.
Steven Sawyer (ZAF), winner of the Local Trials, and Dusty Payne (HAW) have been allocated wildcards into the J-Bay Open.
Owen Wright (AUS) and Bede Durbidge (AUS) remain out with injury and have been replaced by Adam Melling (AUS) and Stuart Kennedy (AUS).
When competition commences, up first will be Mick Fanning (AUS), Conner Coffin (USA) and Alejo Muniz (BRA) in the opening heat of Round 1.
The J-Bay Open has a competitive window from July 6 – 17, 2016 and will be webcast LIVE on WorldSurfLeague.com as well as the WSL app.