A new season for competitive surfing has begun with the start of 2018 and the WSL Hawaii/Tahiti Nui region welcomes athletes to the big wave break of Sunset Beach for the first events of the year, the Sunset Open, a Men's QS1,000 rated event, and the Sunset Pro Junior for Men and Women. Historically, the holding period of January 18 - 28 delivers peak season surf and contest organizers are hopeful that a series of extra large waves will grace the North Shore for the launch of the event.
Headlining the 112-man field for the Sunset Open is recently crowned WSL Hawaii/Tahiti Nui Regional Champion Benji Brand, who looks to back up his stellar run on the North Shore and protect his position at the top of the regional rankings. Brand earned a spot into the Billabong Pipe Masters after placing runner up in the Men's Pipe Invitational; ended with a Quarterfinal finish at the 2017 Vans World Cup QS10,000; and had matching fifth place results at the 2017 Sunset Open and Papara Pro Open Tahiti QS1,000's. He was honored for his regional achievements during the Vans World Cup, the second event of the prestigious Vans Triple Crown of Surfing.
"For me it was a bit of a surprise to end up with the title - my goal last year was to just do well enough to qualify for the Triple Crown, so to do well enough in all the events to win was really awesome," commented Brand. "I think the confidence booster for me came during the Triple Crown events, mostly at Sunset and Pipe. Being in a heat with CT guys so many times made me feel like I could really start to play with the big boys on a consistent basis."
Along with taking the Regional Champion title, Brand also earned the $5,000 Vans Travel Scholarship Award to help support his QS campaign around the world, with plans to compete in all of the QS6,000 and 10,000's before the mid-season date, as well as a few select 3,000's.
Defending event winner and international upstart Jack Robinson (AUS) returns to Hawaii after competing in the 2017 Vans Triple Crown and finaling at the Pipe Invitational in December. Along with a win at last year's Sunset Open, Robinson placed runner up in the 2016 HIC Pro QS3,000 behind Sunset mastermind Mason Ho (North Shore) and ended with a Semifinal finish in this past year's HIC Pro. With big waves on the horizon for the competition, Robinson will tap into his Margaret River experience to tackle the similar conditions of Sunset and further cement his standout status.
Big wave Maui notables Kai Lenny and Ian Walsh are also confirmed to compete and will be major threats to Robinson's back-to-back title hopes when the surf reaches double overhead. Both Lenny and Walsh have been victorious on the Big Wave Tour and won the Puerto Escondido Challenge and Pe'ahi Challenge, respectively, in 2017. Billy Kemper, another Maui native and resident of the North Shore, will add to the roster of acclaimed watermen. With two Pe‘ahi Challenge wins under his belt, Kemper is an experienced competitor especially in heavy surf, and is hungry for a maiden win at Sunset Beach.
In the Pro Junior division, North Shore's Barron Mamiya and Savanna Stone are cuing up for another successful year. Mamiya earned a strong regional lead at the 2017 Sunset Pro Junior after winning the event and went on to secure the Men's Regional Junior Champion title, making the event a strong indicator for year-ending success.
Mamiya's win at Sunset Beach was his first professional career victory and became a launch pad for his most noteworthy year to date. He won three out of four Pro Junior events in the region and capped 2017 with an impressive showing in his first Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, where he ultimately won the highly esteemed Rookie Award. He also debuted his first edit at Surfer the Bar and after graduating high school, will be looking to compete on the QS full time in 2018.
Newer to the scene, Stone of Maui had a breakout performance in Tahiti during the Women's QS1,000 event at Papara, where she took down local heavy hitter Vahine Fierro (PYF) in the Final and current Regional Junior Champ Zoe McDougall in the Semifinals. A Quarterfinal finish at the Turtle Bay Resort Pro Women's QS1,000 in October locked in Stone's status as Regional Champion and she moves into 2018 with newfound confidence to attack the highly-competitive Junior division.
More than ten different countries will represent the Sunset Open and Pro Junior at Sunset Beach, including the up-and-coming surf locales of Israel, Nicaragua and Peru. A win at these events could mean a jump start on the regional standings for Hawaii/Tahiti Nui athletes, or indispensable experience at one of Oahu's most famed waves.
In light of the recent beach erosion affecting the North Shore, WSL is working with local officials and environmental consultants to ensure minimal impact to the coastline at Sunset Beach and has consolidated their footprint for the competition. The public is encouraged to join WSL in their efforts to reduce overall impact and not contribute to further erosion by heeding all event organizer instructions and lifeguard directions.