Sometimes a single offhand anecdote can reveal a much deeper revelation about the high-stakes gamble required to survive on the Championship Tour (CT). When WSL analyst Peter Mel mentioned during the Billabong Pro Tahiti broadcast that he saw Kanoa Igarashi -- currently ranked No. 28 on the Championship Tour, No. 3 on the Qualifying Series -- listed in the heat draw for the Vans Pro in Virginia Beach, Virginia, running August 22-27, he offered a glimpse of life living on the CT edge. Won last year by Evan Geiselman (QS No. 44), the current Vans Pro draw also includes No. 32 Miguel Pupo.
Mel's comment tapped into a whole world of qualification machinations happening outside the CT, pulling back the curtain on a life of chasing points on both the elite level and second-tier tour. It's a treacherous juggling act living outside the CT's qualification zone, where the requalification cut is No. 22. Theoretically, anyone ranked between 15 and 36 on the CT is living in the danger zone at this point in the season. If they can't crack the Top 22, their backup plan is to make the QS cut, which means finishing in the Top 10 in those rankings.
A quick glance down the Jeep Leaderboard reveals a collection of rookies and CT vets who are teetering on the brink, a perilous position with just four Tour stops remaining on the calendar. At this point it's but a snapshot of the qualification chase, yet it does illustrate the tenuous times brought about by starting poorly on the CT and then having to grind on the QS.
It's been well reported that No. 24 Kelly Slater is out indefinitely, while No. 23 Italo Ferreira is another likely candidate for the injury wildcard exemption in 2018 if he fails to qualify on his own merits via the CT.
The surfers from No. 25 - 30 are carrying one decent result to go with a mixed bag of 13ths and 25ths. From spots 31 - 34, they're holding mostly 13ths and 25ths. Drilling down even more deeply, Josh Kerr and Ethan Ewing, sharing the No. 35 spot, have each both only won a single heat all season.
For any surfer on the CT currently sitting in the No. 23 position or lower, the time is now to begin crafting an alternative path to qualification. To be sure, there are many different paths to qualifying. The simplest being: Get to work in Europe. With the European Leg already kicked off (they're currently running the Caraibo Lacanau Pro in France), the proof of concept was proven in the summer of 2016 by Gouveia who, mainly on the strength of three solid results on the continent, finished well within the CT qualification zone.
This year, with just five QS10,000 events on the schedule, it's likely a race to 19,000 points or better. As of today only QS No. 1 Jesse Mendes can rest easy on the QS. Michael February, currently ranked No. 2, is still a good 4,500 points shy of being "safe."
CT surfers on the bubble could conceivably surf the QS6,000 Galicia Pro Spain at the end of August, race over to California for the Hurley Pro at Trestles September 6 - 17, then zip back to Portugal for the crucial QS10,000 Cascais Billabong Pro in late September. But there's more than one way to skin a cat.
Igarashi, for one, has chosen the simple road -- he just wins QS events. He's bagged four QS victories in the last 12 months, including a QS10,000 and two QS6,000s. The aforementioned Ewing ended the 2016 ranked QS No. 2 on the back of a 2nd and a 5th at the US Open and Ballito Pro respectively, then sealed it in Hawaii with two 13ths. Frederico Morais, a Rookie of the Year candidate in 2017, essentially did most of his damage in Hawaii with two 2nds at Haleiwa and Sunset (that's 16,000 points in the matter of a few weeks). Jack Freestone did it in 2016 with three 5ths in QS10,000s, although it took some clutch work under pressure on the North Shore to lock it in.
After Europe, or running concurrently, there's the tentatively scheduled QS6,000 Hang Loose Pro in Maresias, Brazil (won by Igarashi in 2016) and three QS3,000s still remaining: the Vans Pro, The HIC Pro at Sunset Beach in late October, and the Siargao Cloud 9 Surfing Cup in the Philippines the final week of September. The final litmus test are the twin QS pillars of the Triple Crown: the Hawaiian Pro at Haleiwa and the World Cup at Sunset Beach. If you've left it that late, you're leaving it to fate, much like Ezekiel Lau in 2016.
At the start of the North Shore contests last year, QS No. 11 Lau and No. 12 Bino Lopes arrived after nearly identical seasons. The only really difference was Lau's 2nd at a QS6,000 and Lopes' 9th in a QS10,000 -- a total of about 750 points. Thanks to Igarashi's Pipe Masters heroics (there's that name again), fewer than 800 points was the difference between Lau qualifying and Lopes not qualifying, the difference of advancing through a single heat early on at a QS10,000.
And there it is -- the qualification chase in a nutshell -- the reason they call it "the grind." Every heat counts, every wave matters on the QS.