When the sun, wind and conditions all align in Cascais, Portugal, the water glitters. With jagged cliffs, sweeping dunes and a crisp, blue sky the coastline feels endless, the beaches seductive.
But for a handful of the Top 17, the dazzling vista at Praia do Guincho belied the high stakes of what began unfolding this morning, on Day 1 of the Cascais Women's Pro. At the lower end of the rankings, surfers like Pauline Ado (World No. 14) and Coco Ho (World No. 12) are pushing to clear the cutoff -- No. 10 -- to re-qualify for the 2018 Tour. At the other end of the spectrum, however, there's only one thing that matters: The World Title.
And for the women who are so close that they can practically feel the trophy in their hands, their eyes were firmly on the prize in Round One. Among them was current World No. 1 Sally Fitzgibbons. She has only surfed one heat so far with the Jeep Leader's yellow jersey, but she made it clear that she has no intention of letting it go. In her Round One heat, she leapt into the lead on her very first wave, and sent an unmistakable message for the rest of the 30-minute bout: She is here to win.
"There's plenty more surfing to be done, but it's so good to feel comfortable," she said afterward. "You have to grab onto the lead at some point if you want to hold on to it for the rest of the year. I'm definitely going to try and hang on tight until the end of the year."
The operative word there is try. There is a pack of hungry surfers nipping at her sandy heels, and ready to overtake the lead at any second -- starting with World No. 2 Courtney Conlogue [Editor's note: at the end of the season, each surfer's lowest two results are dropped and rankings are recalculated. As some of the WSL commentators have said on air, if that were to happen today, Conlogue would be No. 1]. Like Fitzgibbons, Conlogue has come within clutching distance of the World Title, finishing runner-up for the past two years running. And her record in Cascais is stellar: Not only has she won this event for the past two years, but it was this time last year when her win pushed the Title race to France.
Which is all to say, it was no surprise when she came out of the gate firing this morning in glassy conditions, earning one of the two highest scores of the day. Clad in her signature, leopard-print wetsuit and the higher seed's pink singlet, she was unshackled and relentless. Neither of her Round One opponents -- Bianca Buitendag, who is surfing as an injury replacement and second-year Tour surfer Keely Andrew -- stood a chance.
Amid the low-boil battle for primacy, there were a few other notable performances Wednesday. The first belonged to Carissa Moore, who brought her A-game to Guincho for a see-saw heat against Stephanie Gilmore. Malia Manuel was in the lineup as well, but appeared to be tentative. After being sidelined with injury for a chunk of the season, it's possible she's still finding her feet again. Moore, meanwhile, arrived in Cascais ranked World No. 9 -- a big drop for the three-time World Title winner, who's a perennial Top 5 finisher. Despite her sunny disposition, she's more than aware of what's at stake.
Still, Moore brought her grin-game to her post-heat interview. "It's been a while since I've had a Round One win so I'm stoked. It's been a really challenging period but I'm really happy with the place I'm at now."
Last but not least, Silvana Lima brought an A-game of her own to the beach, practically nailing down a heat win before her opponents even got started. After years of watching flashes of brilliance punctuate season-long slogs on the CT, it is a joy to witness what she's capable of when consistency is on her side. It was no coincidence that she was drafting directly from her California coup earlier this month, when she won the Swatch Pro at Trestles.
Lima isn't vying for a Title this year, but that doesn't mean that she won't be in the mix as heats unfold in Portugal. After her heat win she said, "I'm stoked to make it through and I'm just going to take it heat by heat from here. I'd love another win though!"
The next call for both the women's CT event and the men's QS contest is at 7:45 a.m. local time Thursday.
CASCAIS WOMEN'S PRO ROUND ONE RESULTS:
Heat 1: Lakey Peterson (USA) 12.50, Pauline Ado (FRA) 11.70, Sage Erickson (USA) 10.14
Heat 2: Carissa Moore (HAW) 13.20, Stephanie Gilmore (AUS) 12.13, Malia Manuel (HAW) 10.30
Heat 3: Sally Fitzgibbons (AUS) 11.67, Coco Ho (HAW) 10.66, Teresa Bonvalot (PRT) 8.64
Heat 4: Courtney Conlogue (USA) 13.17, Keely Andrew (AUS) 11.10, Bianca Buitendag (ZAF) 9.77
Heat 5: Tatiana Weston-Webb (HAW) 13.17, Bronte Macaulay (AUS) 12.37, Tyler Wright (AUS) 12.26
Heat 6: Silvana Lima (BRA) 14.00, Johanne Defay (FRA) 12.30, Nikki Van Dijk (AUS) 11.30
CASCAIS WOMEN'S PRO ROUND TWO MATCHUPS:
Heat 1: Nikki Van Dijk (AUS) vs. Pauline Ado (FRA)
Heat 2: Johanne Defay (FRA) vs. Malia Manuel (HAW)
Heat 3: Tyler Wright (AUS) vs. Teresa Bonvalot (PRT)
Heat 4: Stephanie Gilmore (AUS) vs. Bianca Buitendag (ZAF)
Heat 5: Sage Erickson (USA) vs. Bronte Macaulay (AUS)
Heat 6: Keely Andrew (AUS) vs. Coco Ho (HAW)