Maitland & Port Stephens Toyota Pro

Top Seeds Hit the water at Newcastle Surfest

Stuart Kennedy Stuart Kennedy advanced to Round 4 with a strong performance. He's clearly gearing up for a big 2016. - WSL / Bennett

Several of the world's best surfers were on display Thursday as the Taggart Women's Pro and the Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota Pro resumed in clean two-to-three foot waves.

One of the most anticipated heats of the day featured Stephanie Gilmore's(AUS) return to competition. After suffering a knee injury in April, the six time World Champion put on a contest jersey for only the second time in almost 10 months. The seemingly relaxed Gilmore posted and excellent 8.00 point ride (out of a possible 10) to progress to Round 4.

Steph Gilmore Stephanie Gilmore looked sharp in her return to competition, winning her Round 4 heat. - WSL / Bennett

"There was definitely some nerves before getting in the water, but it comes back to you pretty quickly," Gilmore said. "I had fun out there, I really love surfing Merewether so it's good to be back. My body feels great, I'm feeling fit and healthy so looking forward to surfing a bunch and competing."

Women's World no. 3, Sally Fitzgibbons (AUS) was also looking sharp this morning drawing some clean lines to post two mid-range scores to place second in her first heat of the season. Fitzgibbons will progress to the next round but admits there is room for improvement.

"It's really good to get back in the jersey and get the first heat of the year under the belt," Fitzgibbons said. "I have a few things I'd like to work on, especially with the four person priority, that was the first heat I've surfed with that so I was a bit behind on my tactics. Everything is feeling really great, I'm just looking forward to the next heat and keeping the ball rolling."

Sally Fitzgibbons Sally Fitzgibbons glad to be back competing - Bennett - WSL / Bennett

After an early exit at her first contest of the year at the Burleigh Pro, former Championship tour (CT) surfer Dimity Stoyle (AUS) stepped up her game massively in Round 3 of the Taggart Women's Pro. Stoyle attacked each wave like her life depended on it event landing closeout floater on dry sand. The judges absolutely loved Stoyle's performance, scoring her a near-perfect 9.43 and an excellent 8.23 for the highest heat total of the Round, a 17.66 (out of a possible 20) to continue into the fourth round.

"I'm so excited to win that heat, it was a really hard heat on paper so stoked to take top spot," Stoyle said. "The first heat of a contest is always a nervous one, it's been a while since the tour finished last year so I'm glad to be back competing."

Dimity Stoyle Dimity Stoyle put on an impressive performance posting the highest two wave total of the day - Bennett - WSL / Bennett Tessa Thyssen Tessa Thyssen's backhand attack couldn't get her over the hump against Gilmore and Mikeala Greene. - WSL / Bennett

French surfer Johanne Defay finished 2015 in 9th spot on the CT rankings. She began her 2016 competitive campaign off in much the same way utilising the early clean conditions to exhibit her stylish powerful surfing, posting a heat total of 15.73 to win the heat.

"It's nice to get back into competition mode, it's been quite a while for me," said Defay. The waves are really fun this morning it's really clean which is always such a treat when competing. Hopefully the waves continue and I can keep making heats."

Johanne Defay French competitor Johanne Defay wraps in the pocket - Bennett - WSL / Bennett

With the smaller onshore afternoon conditions, Kanoa Igarashi put his experience at Merewether to the test picking the medium waves that walled up better than the sets which enabled him to mix his impressive rail game with his outstanding aerial surfing. This combination saw him post a heat total of 13.26 and win the heat.

"I just planned to stay active out there and I guess it paid off," Igarashi said. I've surfed with all of these guys before so I know what they're capable of so I knew I had to bring my best to the heat. It was definitely hard, I hope the swell continues to build."

Kanoa Igarashi Kanoa Igarashi preparing himself for the 'Big Leagues' - Bennett - WSL / Bennett

After spending a large portion of his maiden year on the CT sidelined with a knee injury, Matt Banting is eager to kick his 2016 of the right way. Although the waves went a little quiet during his heat, the young Australians technical brilliance allowed him to make the most of what he was offered taking out his heat with ease.

"I waited and waited for a bigger one it just never came," Banting said. "It's always tough surfing those smaller heats so I'm stoked to have made it through, hopefully the swell builds for tomorrow. I'm feeling really fit and good to go, hopefully I can build momentum from this event to take to Snapper."