In the Middle Ages shepherds would place a bell around the neck of a wether; the castrated sheep that led the flock. This meant the movement of the sheep could then be noted by hearing the bell long before the flock was in sight.
From that practice came, of course, the word bellwether, which, in surfing, brings us to the men's Ballito Pro, a Qualifying Series event worth 10,000 points that also happens to be as predictive as that medieval sheep. In politics, bellwether states are the ones whose electoral results have consistently predicted the outcome of the presidential race. But in surfing, results at Ballito have become one of the better predictive tools for the Championship Tour (CT) qualification spots.
Last year, for example, both finalists Connor O'Leary and Joan Duru went onto to qualify for the CT, finishing first and fourth respectively. Now with Ballito being just one of five QS10,000 events, it could be said that the massive points haul that comes with a win or runner-up almost guarantees you qualification. However, if we drill down deeper, we also see that of the eight Quarterfinalists from 2016, six went on to qualify for the CT through their QS finishes.
In 2015 a similar pattern emerged. Both finalists, Alejo Muniz and Davey Cathels, made the cut at the end of the year, while fifth place or better finishes from Caio Ibelli, Kanoa Igarashi and Italo Ferreira helped them over the line. Further back it was a win here by Glenn "Micro" Hall in 2013 that helped him end a 10-year stretch aiming for qualification. Two years before, Pat Gudauskas' victory in South Africa earned him a second tilt in the top 32.
If the numbers tend to stack up, the next question is why? Part of it is due to the high caliber of talent in the field. As the first QS 10,000 event of the year, and running just before the Corona Open J-Bay, it attracts a ridiculous level of talent. This year the 112-man field features 11 of the top 12-ranked QS surfers and 29 of the top 32. Layered on top are CT surfers Jordy Smith, Zeke Lau, Jeremy Flores, Italo Ferreira, Joan Duru, Migel Pupo and the defending champion Connor O'Leary, fresh from his Cloudbreak success. The point being is that to do well here, your surfing has to be at the very highest level.
Another factor is the wave itself. Over the years the event has been blessed with some of the best conditions ever seen on the QS. The quality and power of the predominantly sand-bottom rights means that talent shines while dumb luck is dimmed. In this scenario the cream tends to rise to the top. It seems when you dump one of the strongest QS fields in quality waves, the results become predictive of a wider picture.
While there are no certainties at this level, by closely following the Ballito Pro we might get a glimpse of what the Class of 2018 is made of. Better yet, we don't even need to castrate a sheep.
The Ballito Pro runs from July 3 - 9 in South Africa.