This wasn't an easy call to make for a new Big Wave Tour commissioner. After all, it's only October. The North Pacific is just awaking from its summer slumber, and Maui's big-wave brotherhood (and sisterhood) haven't even had a chance to brush off the cobwebs. So to call the Pe'ahi Challenge on during the first big swell of the winter was gutsy, but it paid off on Friday in the form of an impressive opening round.
To be clear, the Big Wave Tour is a logistical miracle. There are hundreds of people waiting in the wings to spring into action when a call gets made. They've got just 72 hours to get everyone and everything in place. It's not easy to wrangle surfers from all over the world on short notice, let alone ground crews, broadcast teams, safety squads and support teams. It's even tougher when nobody expects it. Again...it's only October. Grant Baker missed his heat.
But the moment Billy Kemper set his edge and committed to driving through a massive three-story tube in Heat 1 of Round One, Hawaii's real big-wave season officially got underway. "If there's one way to kick off an event, I think that's it," said Kemper. "You got to work to play so that was definitely some hard work, rough start. I just kept my head in the right place and kept digging until I found the gold, and I found a really good wave. Unfortunately, I didn't make it out, but I'm very lucky that they [judges] gave me the score that they did. That was probably one of the best barrels I've ever got out here, so, almost made it, but I'm just stoked. I'm in a really good head place so I'm here to have fun."
Mark Healey was right behind Kemper, courageously charging through a hopeless barrel on his backhand. Chile's Cristian Merello, meanwhile, seemed to be taking a safer path on the lefts, which had a bit more open face. But he paid the price. After getting swatted off his board by a 30-foot wall of whitewater he was washed into the rocks, where his leg suffered multiple lacerations. Merello was right to be shaken, and he was hardly the only one. Pe'ahi had some anger issues today. The wipeouts were violent.
Makuakai Rothman won Heat 2 with a solid performance, but not before taking some gas of his own. "That was a pretty good couple flips on the water," Rothman said. "I'm just so happy to make a heat. This is my third year, and I haven't made a heat until now, so it feels really good to be moving on. The swell is beautiful. There's definitely some big bombs. We made a good call and stoked to have my feet up and relaxing and get ready for tomorrow."
With the swell rising all afternoon Maui's Ian Walsh hit the water just in time to bag one of the biggest bombs of the day. Walsh took off steep and deep on both of them, then picked high lines across the huge green walls. On his first ride, things were going perfectly until he hit the frothy white moguls from the the wave before. While he was bucked off his board just before reaching the channel, the judges rightly determined that he'd done all the dirty work by that point, and awarded him an 8.33. He followed with an even bigger wave that he wheeled into from way out the back, and the endless drop alone was worth the 8.9, which was the highest score of the day. Former Big Wave Tour champ Peter Mel was losing his voice trying to determine how many times overhead it was. He figured about eight.
"Those are my first two waves to open up the 2017/2018 winter," said Walsh. "I'm glad we're getting a start to the winter this early and hopefully this snowballs into something pretty special."
Brazil's Lucas Chianca earned a big upset win over Jamie Mitchell and Albee Layer in the last heat of the day. Why Heat 4 didn't see as many huge sets as the heat prior, it was hotly contested. Chianca's ability to navigate the afternoon chop earned him the edge, and a trip to Saturday's Semifinals.
With the swell peaking overnight, Parsons' plan is to start the competition as early as possible on Saturday. There are only four hours of heats left to complete the men's and women's competition. Winds are projected to be even more favorable tomorrow, which could bode well for those big barrels on the inside. Tune in at 7:00 a.m. HST for all the fireworks.
2017/18 BWT Men's Pe'ahi Challenge Round 1 Results:
Heat 1: Billy Kemper (HAW) 21.51, Cristian Merello (CHL) 19.94, Mark Healey (HAW) 18.83, Koa Rothman (HAW) 17.84, Francisco Porcella (ITA) 11.37, Jimel Corzo (MEX) 0.20
Heat 2: Makuakai Rothman (HAW) 17.27, Danilo Couto (BRA) 14.84, Greg Long (USA) 13.94, Will Skudin (USA) 10.71, Tom Lowe (GBR) 7.54, Aaron Gold (HAW) 3.20
Heat 3: Ian Walsh (HAW) 26.13, Kai Lenny (HAW) 19.37, Ryan Hipwood (AUS) 15.03, Pedro Calado (BRA) 14.71, Trevor Carlson (HAW) 13.57, Nic Lamb (USA) 0.20
Heat 4: Lucas Chianca (BRA) 20.50, Jamie Mitchell (AUS) 17.87, Albee Layer (HAW) 12.41, Joao De Macedo (PRT) 11.64, Nathan Florence (HAW) 9.34, Shaun Walsh (HAW) 3.54
2017/18 BWT Men's Pe'ahi Challenge Semifinal Matchups:
SF 1: Billy Kemper (HAW), Cristian Merello (CHL), Mark Healey (HAW), Makuakai Rothman (HAW), Danilo Couto (BRA), Greg Long (USA)
SF 2: Ian Walsh (HAW), Kai Lenny (HAW), Ryan Hipwood (AUS), Lucas Chianca (BRA), Jamie Mitchell (AUS), Albee Layer (HAW)
2017/18 BWT Women's Pe'ahi Challenge Final Matchup:
Final: Paige Alms (HAW) Justine Dupont (FRA), Andrea Moller (BRA), Keala Kennelly (HAW), Felicity Palmateer (AUS), Bianca Valenti (USA)