The O'Neill Coldwater Classic, stop #30 on the World Surf League (WSL) Men's Qualification (QS) Tour, surged through the first day of action with lively surfing in fun conditions at Steamer Lane today. Beginning the day with the Local Trials to see who would surf as the Santa Cruz wildcard, the competition also completed Round 1 in its entirety and Heats 1-3 of Round 2 to finish the day.
Conditions started to improve in the afternoon as the tide began to drop and Tonino Benson (HAW) put on the performance of the day. Dropping the opening day's highest single-wave score, 9.53 (out of a possible 10), and heat total, 16.20 (out of a possible 20) in Heat 15 of Round 1, the Hawaiian returned to competition after a very difficult few years away.
"It feels great to have the jersey on and be prepared after I took some time off to spend it with my dad before he just passed away," Benson said. "That was a changing point in my life and I got to spend a couple of years with him so it was good there in the end. I'm glad to be here over - it's a great start to my first QS so I'm just really happy and trying my best. I've been doing this my whole life and I'm ready. It feels like there hasn't been a day gone from work."
One of the youngest surfers in competition, 16-year-old Micky Clarke (USA), picked apart a Steamer Lane beauty for an impressive 8.67 to earn an advancing position behind Benson. The Ventura native couldn't believe the wave that came his way and knew it deserved his best efforts.
"I was so pumped," Clarke said. "I was sitting out at the beginning of the heat with first priority for about ten minutes and I got pretty stressed out. When I saw that dream wall come through I just hoped it lined up so when it did I was really excited."
Clarke's history at Steamer Lane began with the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) and now finds himself amongst some incredible international talent. Despite the varying conditions, Clarke dug deep into his background here and stuck to his strategy.
"The NSSA have a few contests here which is really good experience for how this wave is," Clarke said. "It can be really shifty and wobbly so if you link into the right wave it can be so fun. It was leading up to the end of high tide which is good but I think the swell started falling off a little bit so I just waited to pick off the right waves that suit me best."
While Benson and Clarke reveled in the afternoon conditions, Victor Done (USA) had his strategy in place and earned the first heat win of the main event in slower, early morning conditions. Posting a solid 15.00, including an excellent 8.50, Done took that momentum into a Round 2 win and is looking to be a threat here in Santa Cruz.
"I was really trying to stick with my priority and really solidify on that," Done said. "It seemed like Ben [Coffey] got a lot of good scores on the inside so he kind of did it all under priority. If I had known that was an option I might of tried that as well but you have to stick with your guns."
"There's also a lot of warble out there so when you're bottom turning you have to wait and pick your spot but be really quick and react to it," Done added. "I feel like I did that pretty well so I tried to slow it down and really not try to fit too much in - it's a long wave so you have to be patient."
Before the O'Neill Coldwater Classic began the main event, Local Trials were held amongst some of Santa Cruz's finest surfers. Bud Freitas (USA) took down the all Eastside Semifinal before blasting an 8.00 and 6.50 in the Trials Final for a victory. Though he has his local status cemented in Santa Cruz, this wave is ever-changing and Freitas has been out at dark each morning leading up to the Classic - showing that experience does pay dividends.
"This wave is actually really challenging to surf so I was out there early just to get the kinks out," Freitas said. "Every day at the Lane is different. If you look at the stats you'll see there's a lot more winners from the East and we're proud of that. It's a friendly rivalry though. We don't really have what was going on back in the 70's and I support them as much as they support me - and I really support those guys."
Going forward, the 32-year-old surf industry sales representative is loving his time competing in front of a home crowd and charging through Trials into a main event, but not something he can do too much more of.
"I'm sick of the trials," Freitas said laughing. "I'd love to just get in the Main Event straight away. Can't take it anymore - I'm getting old and keep telling myself if I don't win it I'm out, can't keep chasing it. But, in all seriousness I am super stoked to make it into the weekend and keep competing without a doubt."
Tune in tomorrow at 8:00am PST for continued action of Round 2, beginning with Heat 4, at us.oneill.com/cwc as a new swell is expected to fill in throughout the afternoon.