The Vans Triple Crown of Surfing embodies all the drama of six intense weeks on the North Shore. Great stories, there were more than a few in 2016: The John John Slam; Kanoa and Zeke -- the Odd Couple; Kikas and the Euro New Wave; John and Jordy's Title Tango; Backdoor Belongs to Bourez; and the list goes on. Of course, there were some painful memories, too. Perhaps the most bittersweet being the unfortunate departure of journeyman Kai Otton, who by his own admission was "forced" into a reluctant early retirement after 10 years on tour.
It may seem far-fetched now, but here was a time in the not-so-distant past that John John Florence's rise to the pinnacle of pro surfing wasn't a foregone conclusion. There were questions about his commitment to competition and tactical acumen. Would he devote his energy to filming and traveling? Was his growing interest in sailing becoming a distraction? Yet, starting with his epic roll to victory at The Eddie in conditions contest organizer George Downing surmised were the biggest and best in the history of the event, JJF answered all his critics, winning his first World Championship and third Triple Crown in a single season.
There are not many times when an 18-year-old from Southern California sends a sonic boom across the North Shore. But that's just what Griffin Colapinto did when the young buck from San Clemente hucked his buzzer-beater at Haleiwa during the Hawaiian Pro. With immediate comparisons drawn to Dane Reynolds' famous "Turn Heard ‘Round the World" at the 2012 Reef Hawaiian Pro, Colapinto dropped his heat-winning, corked 540 to the sound of collective jaws dropping in web-land and on the sand at Ali'i Beach Park. The brawny man from Ventura's turn may have had more grunt, but Colapinto's had more guts.
If the 2016 Vans Triple Crown of Surfing succeeded in revealing one overlooked story, it did so by providing a bright shining spotlight on the European Next Wave. Led by Triple Crown giant-killer Frederico "Kikas" Morais, the 2017 Samsung Galaxy Championship Tour will feature three fresh faces from the Old World including Morais, Frenchman Joan Duru and Italian Leo Fioravanti. Another Euro, Frenchman Marc Lacomare, made an equally impressive push up the QS rankings during the Triple Crown, only to come up just short in the end.
The feel-good moment of the Triple Crown chase belonged to everyone's favorite Brazilian -- Jadson Andre -- and his successful hunt for re-qualification. Andre's no stranger to the qualification bounce, having spent most of his pro career living on the QS bubble over the past five seasons. Yet, despite his own struggles with sponsorship, or lack thereof, he's become a mentor to the ranks of young Brazilians on tour. Even going so far as to take part of his own salary and giving it to a fellow Brazilian CT competitor to support that surfer's travel budget.
Vans World Cup of Surfing
After a rash of injury-plagued seasons, the real Jordy Smith stood back up in 2016. His No. 2 finish in the rankings, matching his career best since 2010, signals a return to form for the big South African. Pegged by Kelly Slater in his early pro career to win multiple world titles, Smith was dominant at the World Cup, surfing with a blend of raw power and progressive technique matched by very few surfers on the Samsung Galaxy Championship Tour (CT). His rise brings back memories of a world championship season by another smooth-surfing, exceptionally gifted regularfooter by the name of Joel Parkinson. It took Parko 12 long years on tour to get his only World Title. Smith will look to top that in 2017, which marks his tenth season on the pro circuit.
It would be easy for Tanner Gudauskas to look back at his crazy, last-minute, midnight charge up the QS rankings and feel frustration and anger. He was merely two podium spots short of making what could have been one of the most unlikely returns to the Championship Tour in recent history. But with an easy smile and a shrug, Gudauskas took the near-miss all in stride, stating that it "was a fun experience, and I just need to enjoy the moment." In a world full of social justice warriors shouting down "the entitled establishment," we can use more warriors like the Gudauskas Gang spreading positivity, not negativity.
Richard "Dog" Marsh was never a threat to win a World Title, but he knew how to win a heat. During his eight-year pro career, the goofyfoot from Cronulla, NSW, Australia, gained a reputation as a tenacious competitor with a good heart. Flash-forward 20 years and Dog Marsh is on the North Shore coaching the Billabong team, specifically a lanky, Portuguese power-surfer named Frederico Morais who's become the biggest story of the North Shore season. While not a complete unknown (Morais won the Triple Crown Rookie of the Year in 2013), he's still a dark horse in most people's eyes. Yet, after back-to-back 2nd place finishes at Haleiwa and Sunset, he led the Triple Crown race by 2400 points over his nearest competitor, current World Champ John John Florence. Although Morais would eventually give up his lead, for four weeks he was the dominant performer of the Triple Crown.
Back in 2014, Torrey Meister ended his North Shore season laying on his back in a hospital bed, on the mend from a ruptured spleen caused by a brutal beat-down at Backdoor. He finished the year ranked No. 31 on the WSL Qualifying Series, just a couple of heat wins shy of qualifying for the Dream Tour. That kind of disappointment is one of the reasons they call the QS The Grind. Now a perennial contender during the Triple Crown, Meister knows local knowledge plays heavily to his advantage at a wave such as Sunset. Both his dad and his shaper, Tim Carroll of Carroll Surfboards, live in the Sunset Beach neighborhood. During the Vans World Cup, Meister's wave selection and equipment looked a step ahead.
When Ethan Ewing absolutely blitzed his way into 2nd place at the 2016 US Open of Surfing, finishing runner-up to Filipe Toledo no less, the world took notice. Flashing shades of the Brothers Irons, the 18-year-old from North Straddie (also home to Bede Durbidge) carried significant momentum into Hawaii and performed with confidence beyond his years. Quarterfinal finishes at the Hawaiian Pro and Vans World Cup locked up both the No. 2 ranking on the QS and the Triple Crown Rookie of the Year award for Ewing, who'll be surfing the Dream Tour in 2017.
Billabong Pipe Masters in Memory of Andy Irons
It wasn't just death pits and glory at the Billabong Pipe Masters this year. But the waves were pretty damn good, all things considered, especially on finals day. With a predominately NNE swell direction, Backdoor turned on and the CT's best weaved their magic through well-overhead drainers. Not content to just get deep, the double-arm drag is the move du jour on the frontside attack. Jack Freestone, releasing the pressure of a stressful re-qualification campaign.
Kanoa Igarashi and Ezekiel Lau -- has there been a more unlikely pairing of prodigies in all of pro surfing? One a first generation Japanese-American transplanted in Surf City, USA, the other deeply rooted in his Hawaiian culture and surfing heritage. The two are forever inextricably intertwined by fate, an inspirational story for the ages. Stuck in consistent mediocrity all season long, Igarashi goes on a dream run to the Final of the Pipe Masters and in the process drags good buddy Lau onto the 2017 Championship Tour. Inexplicable reality.
On this wild, Pipe Masters lay-day freesurf, getting a good one was like finding a needle in a haystack. And as might be expected, Kelly Slater was at the center of attention on all fronts. The 11-time World Champ snagged the barrel of the session, was involved in a contentious drop in with Julian Wilson and went toe-to-toe with John John Florence during an impromptu air show -- Slater's tuberide-to-alley-oop topped only by JJF's "Biggest Alley-Oop Ever."
After Bede Durbidge broke his pelvis last year at the Pipe Masters there were questions about when he would walk again, let alone when he would surf again. Spurred on during his rehab by a budding mentorship with the soon-to-be World Champ John John Florence, he made his formal comeback to the pro tour months ahead of schedule at Haleiwa. But it was at Pipe where he returned to exercise the demons of a horrific collision with the reef and there were glimpses of the ex-Pipe Master's prior form. Durbidge, along with Owen Wright, has been awarded a well-earned injury wildcard for the 2017 season.
No longer just a trend, now fast becoming the new normal, naturalfooters dominated the 2016 Billabong Pipe Masters in Memory of Andy Irons. Pipe's a wave once considered Mecca to goofy-footed surfers far and wide. The goofies' great hope -- Gabriel Medina -- seemed disinterested, and was by his own admission tired of the North Shore and ready to return home after his Round Three defeat at the hands of Ryan Callinan. In the end it seems poetic that the two highest performing goofyfooters at the Pipe Masters were Callinan and Nat Young, both of whom faltered in Round Five and fell off the Championship Tour this year.