The women's 2015 Championship Tour began nine long months ago in Australia with 17 elite surfers searching for a World Title. But the Hawaiian island of Maui is where the season will end, with one woman -- either World No. 1 Carissa Moore (HAW) or World No. 2 Courtney Conlogue (USA) -- rising to be the new World Champion after what will be a battle of power vs. power in heavy surf.
The two have been trading the top spot on the Jeep rankings for months, with their latest swap in Europe. After making it to the Semifinals of October's Roxy Pro France, Moore took the yellow jersey back from Conlogue, which sent the Title race to the final event of the season, the Target Maui Pro.
When they arrive at Maui's Honolua Bay, Conlogue, Moore and the rest of the Top 17 will have their work cut out for them. Despite its perfectly shaped waves, wowing in Maui is no easy task: Lineups shift rapidly, as does the wave itself depending on nature's elements. No one knows this better than Maui local Paige Alms, who was the 2014 Target Pro wildcard and winner of 2014/2015 Big Wave Awards women's performance of the year.
"I describe the wave to people who have never surfed it before as the ultimate dream wave," said Alms. "The coastline and how the cliffs set up as you pull into the parking lot -- you're looking down on one of the best waves. It's kind of amazing to see."
The event at Honolua Bay was first introduced in 1999 and ran every year until 2009. Following a four-year hiatus, the Target Maui Pro returned to the schedule in 2014. Last year's victory by Moore solidified a World Title victory for reigning World Champion Stephanie Gilmore (AUS), and fired Moore up to win another Title for herself.
Honolua Bay's worthiness as a stop on the women's "dream tour" is apparent from a casual glance, but getting waves during freesurfs before the event begins can be a tricky task even for the world's elite. The secret about Honolua's perfection is out, and has drawn increasingly bigger crowds in recent years.
"When I was surfing out there as a young teenager, I remember it being really crowded, but not anywhere near what it is now," Alms said. "Negotiating the crowd and finding your flow and place in the lineup is challenging. It's important to stay busy."
Surfline Best Conditions
Swell Direction: North-Northwest, North, North-Northeast
Surf Height: Overhead to triple overhead
Wind: East to South-East
A powerful righthand pointbreak with a reef bottom, the wave at Honolua Bay can offer an open wall or a hollow barrel depending on what Mother Nature delivers. The perfection of the wave is highly influenced by the swell direction and, according to Alms, a specific combination really makes Honolua ignite.
"Northwest is the best swell direction," admits Alms. "If you have straight north swell you're getting a lot of size, but it can be really burgery and just plow through the lineup. And if you have straight west it misses Honolua. [A west] can be huge on Oahu and Honolua isn't even breaking. Northwest makes it hollow and lineup well."
The swell direction is often a topic of discussion among the WSL commentators as it relates to the judges' scoring criteria. Alms was also quick to discuss how large a factor the wind plays in the decision by the commissioner's office to run heats.
"Tradewinds are ideal because it blows off shore," said the Maui native. "Where I live in Haiku, when the winds are really good, it's onshore at Honolua and when the winds are bad here, it's offshore over there. Midday it's always firing, as soon as the wind comes up it lines up."
The varying shape of the wave generally rewards big points for two approaches: Powerful turns or serious tube time. Last year's event saw conditions suited for the open faces described by Alms and the results were indicative; eight of the most powerful surfers on Tour filled out the Quarterfinal matchups.
"It's really shifty and funky and that's why it's so stressful when it gets really good," said Alms. "It can be anything from big, carving turns the whole way through to insanely hollow and really fast down the line. It really changes a lot depending on the swell direction."
Approaching the shifting lineup depends greatly on the ability to find the right position to take off on a wave. Though there may be multiple sections in the bay, there's one that stands out among the favorite for competitors looking to advance.
"There's really four spots to surf at Honolua, even more if you're taking off in between them," said Alms, "but the contest really only runs at the cave and into Keiki Bowls. If it's more North, you [tend to sit] higher up from the cave, but once you've surfed out there, you can see based on the cave where the water is going and where you want to be sitting."
As far as equipment goes, this is no event to skimp on the number of boards packed into quivers. With the power of the surf an accurate representation of the term "heavy Hawaiian waves," it's likely that boards will be broken and near-impossible to predict whether the waves will warrant a high-performance board or a mini-step up.
"You need a range of sizes," advised Alms. "It could be 2 foot, like it was for the first few heats last year, or it could be 8 feet and bombing and you need to be on a 6'8 depending on how big you are. If I'm going, I take a bunch of boards, but you definitely want your mini-step up in case it gets big."