NewsVans World CupEzekiel Lau

Sunset Beach: Surfing's Spiritual Proving Ground

"When you take off at Sunset you get butterflies in your stomach because it is so unpredictable," said Pancho Sullivan, the former World No. 7 who is regarded as one of the best Sunset surfers in history. "It's a unique experience because you just never know whether you are going to get smoked or get the wave of your life."

Sullivan is one of the few modern professionals who dedicated his life to mastering Sunset, the unruly break on Oahu's North Shore that's also home of the upcoming Vans World Cup -- Stop. 2 of the Vans Triple Crown. He first surfed the wave as a teenager, watching the likes of Bobby Owen and Gary Elkerton in their prime. Over time he graduated to the top of the pecking order as well as winning multiple competitions at the break.

You can't buy experience at Sunset Beach, Pancho Sullivan (HAW) has earned his through the years and remains in the VANS World Cup of Surfing.   ASP / Cestari Sullivan tearing apart Sunset. WSL / Kelly Cestari

"For the better part of 30 years Sunset Beach was surfing's spiritual proving ground," continues Sullivan. "If you wanted to prove your ability to surf powerful waves with true style and technique, it was at Sunset where you had to do it."

During those years, the term "Mr Sunset" was coined. This was an unofficial title given to each surfer of the era who had dominated the wave, both in freesurfing and competition. It was one of surfing's highest accolades. In the 1970s the title was bestowed on Jeff Hackman and he would later used the title for his autobiography. In the late 1980s it was Gary Elkerton who reigned supreme.

The lineup during Round Three. One of surfing's greatest lineups. WSL / Ed Sloane

In the 1990s, however, the focus shifted away from Sunset and onto the Pipe/Backdoor stretch of beach. This was because Pipe offered a more technically complex tube and was also far easier to photograph and film. Led by Kelly Slater, who is on record as saying he has little interest in Sunset, surfing's gaze shifted away from Sunset's lumbering breaks.

Of course, the wave didn't stop breaking and surfers like Sullivan, Tom Carroll, Myles Padaca, Jake Paterson, Tony Ray, Andy Irons, Ross Clarke-Jones and Makuakai Rothman, to name just a few, continued to place the wave at the center of their North Shore surfing. It was also always a key component of the Vans Triple Crown.

Joel Parkinson Joel Parkinson draws new lines at Sunset back in 2005. WSL / Karen

In the modern era, Sunset has come back into sharper focus as the playing field for the Vans World Cup of Surfing, the last QS 10,000 event of the year. With the final CT qualifiers being decided at that event, Sunset again receives the undivided attention of the surfing world. And rightly so, according to Sullivan.

"For a wave that can handle 15 feet, it is a definite high-performance wave," he says. "You have to have the ability to make really long sections, but also you need to jam your board in the pocket. It's a unique test."

John John Florence during his Round Three heat. John John Florence puts the performance into Sunset. WSL / Ed Sloane

Sullivan believes the new era's move to much shorter equipment has made that test even more difficult. The nature of Sunset's huge takeoff zone and inherent power means longer boards are essential. For many younger competitors they will have had little experience riding Hawaiian guns. In 2013, when a young Frederico Morais signaled his potential with a Final at Sunset in huge conditions, he rode a 7'0". At the time it was the biggest board he had ever ridden.

Now, of course, plenty of modern surfers simply have the technique and ability to draw the necessary lines on bigger boards and bigger waves. Morais is one, while defending champion Jordy Smith and three-time champion Joel Parkinson are more obvious surfers who have had success here. Zeke Lau, who would be the heir apparent to the Mr Sunset title if it were still in circulation, is another who has forged a special bond with the wave.

Ezekiel Lau of Hawaii wins the Vans HIC Pro at Sunset Beach, Hawaii 2017 Zeke Lau on the way to winning the HIC Pro last week. His record at Sunset is outstanding. WSL / Keoki Saguibo

It is fitting then that the QS year ends in one of surfing's most prestigious proving grounds. It may not be at the center of the surfing universe as it was in the '70s and '80s, but few waves test a surfer like Sunset. With the pressure on and careers on the line when the Vans World Cup of Surfing kicks off on November 25th, all eyes will be back on Sunset. And that is a good thing.

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