There's just something about the second half of the North Shore winter season. While November through December gets all the Triple Crown of Surfing glamour and attention, January through February is when the seven-mile miracle really shapes up, dishes out a few lickings and comes into its own.
Indeed, the swells are far more consistent, the direction is better (usually more west), the sand has been pushed out of the reef and the waves are just plain bigger. It's a phenomenon that happens every single year. A phenomenon perfect for one of the most entertaining and often treacherous contests of the entire WSL season, literally kicking off the year with a 10-12-foot, spitting bang.
That bang is the Volcom Pipe Pro, a Qualifying Series (QS) 3,000-level event with all the characteristics of a Championship Tour (CT) stop. And depending on who you ask, the Volcom Pipe Pro might be even harder to win than the Pipe Masters. It's a bold statement. But why?
Because unlike the Pipe Masters, the Volcom Pipe Pro is a virtual cage match of World Champs (Kelly Slater, John John Florence, Adriano de Souza), local heavies (Jamie O'Brien, Makua Rothman, Mason Ho), youth trying to prove something (Finn McGill, Josh Moniz), international stunners (Jack Robinson, Wiggolly Dantas) and many, many more extremely high-caliber surfers vying for a wave and/or a win at arguably the best break on the planet.
Not surprisingly, even with the mix of CT warriors and underground Pipe specialists, in the Volcom Pipe Pro's seven-year lifespan only three guys have ever won it. I say "not surprisingly," because those three gents are Jamie O'Brien, John John Florence and Kelly Slater. JOB won in '10, Florence won in '11, '12, '13 and '15 and Slater won it in '14 and '16.
And yes, those three gents will be competing next week and are reputably the three best surfers at Pipe. It's safe to say that it will be tough to take one of them down, but it isn't impossible.
It's possible because the field of competitors are hungry for more than just flawless barrels. Beyond getting to surf (often big, perfect) Pipeline with just three other guys out in the water, 3,000 points is not a bad way to start your year. The field is also hungry because the Top 12 Hawaii regional competitors from this event (once it's finished) get slots into the Pipe Invitational (the trials for the Pipe Masters) in December. There's a lot on the line here for such an early event.
So who, then, could break the Slater-Florence hex? A consistent finalist like Mason Ho? An impressive, fearless local like Makai McNamara? A modern classic and Pipe champ like Bruce Irons?
We will find out. Regardless, you'll most likely hear these words said again about a heat at this special event, during this very special time of the year. "The waves were flawless," said Slater, after his win. "That was what you grow up dreaming about as a kid. It was unbelievable. I can't believe we get paid to do this."
I can't believe I don't have to pay anything to watch.
And you don't have to either, so tune in Sunday, January 29, when the waiting period begins.