When dawn broke Saturday on Maui Mike Parsons took his first sigh of relief in over a week. The new Big Wave Tour Commissioner hadn't been sleeping much since calling this event on, and after a successful opening round on Friday, the decision to wait until the next day to finish it off was his final roll of the dice. All night his eyes were glued to fresh buoy reports pinging away from the North Pacific, the ones so important to mariners around the world. The buoys telegraph essential data to weather centers around the world, where the information is distributed for public consumption, and end users crunch the data to extract the essential information that pertains to their immediate needs. Mike's immediate needs were for those numbers to hold up.
Every big-wave break on the planet has a magic formula that, when the numbers match the proper balance of wave height, wave interval, swell direction and wind speed, translate into a day to remember. Mind you, a good year at any big-wave break will produce three-to-four magic days. Like every surfer who keeps an eye on Pe'ahi knows, whatever beasts were making those buoys bounce way out in the far reaches of the Pacific, they'd be marching into the lineup about eight hours later. With the numbers still holding up in the solid range past midnight, Parsons' nerves were calmed a bit. He felt confident the competitors would have plenty to feast on. A dropping interval translated into a higher rate of consistency, and dropping wind speeds close to Maui meant it had all the potential of being picture-perfect Pe'ahi…and it was.
The day got underway with two very stacked Semifinal heats. The first featured two former Big Wave Tour champs, Makuakai Rothman and Greg Long, plus two-time event winner Billy Kemper against the hard-charging Mark Healey, Danilo Couto and Cristian Morello. By Maui standards, it was sheet glass. But the North Shore of Maui is the kite-flying capital of the world for a reason. Glassy on Maui means two-foot chops are still lingering.
Rothman, Kemper and Long spent the early part of the heat settling into the day's new rhythm, but nobody was having an easy time with the early-morning chatter. Boards were bouncing hard during bottom turns and the barrels were behaving badly, vaporizing anyone who dared to enter. While a few lefts were attempted, the judges were clearly not interested in them, and that message was being relayed through the lineup by board caddies and support teams tuning into the webcast. Neither Rothman, Long nor Kemper emerged from a tube during the heat, but they were able to find the tall racy walls that pushed them through to the Final.
By the time the second Semifinal started the morning bump had all but disappeared and Pe'ahi's magic was on full display. The next hour of action turned into what is easily the best Big Wave Tour heat ever surfed. It started with Kai Lenny emerging from the first big barrel of the morning. Lenny, the current BWT leader, seemed ready to run away with it, but within minutes Australian Ryan Hipwood -- who gained entry as an alternate -- upped the ante with the first perfect 10 of the event. Hipwood bagged the first picture-perfect tube with a clean entry and exit, and his high line made it even more impressive.
But then Ian Walsh entered the fray. Walsh was in last midway through the heat, until he scored the second perfect 10 of the day. And if the judges were allowed to give him a 12 they would have, because Walsh's tube was one of the most impressive ever at Jaws. He entered from way deep and travelled through a spinning cavern bigger than most apartments. It shot him into advancing position, but the heat was far from over. Albee Layer got his crack at a couple of good ones, and so too did Jamie Mitchell and Lucas Chianca. Everyone charged. In fact, all six surfers in Semifinal 2 had accumulated more points than the Makua had in the first heat. That was a testament to how much conditions had improved, and guys were charging. Walsh, even with his 10-point ride, was lucky to advance over Layer by just over a point. Hipwood walked away with a very meaningful win in a heat that won't soon be forgotten.
While the Final was a bit slower moving, and the barrels were harder to come by, the competition was fierce. Every surfer in the lineup was scrapping for the outside position when the starting hooter sounded. Kemper signaled his desire to take a third Pe'ahi Challenge win with his first closeout barrel. Rothman fired right back and upped the ante on an even bigger one, pulling into a Hail Mary closeout. Makua was rolled pretty hard in the aftermath, but with Johnny-Boy Gomes motivating him from the channel, he took a quick sip of water and regained his composure before paddling right back out for more.
Kai Lenny was looking for some inside sneaker sets, but he caught one the wrong way, enduring every surfer's worst nightmare. With a huge set approaching Kai was stuck paddling toward shore during one of the biggest sets of the Final, trying to escape a 50-foot ball of whitewater. Kemper suffered a pretty horrific wipeout too, when his board bucked him loose during a high-wire escape attempt of a throaty hollow section and he was rag-dolled down the face. Hipwood took the brunt of the punishment in the Final, though. The Australian had to exit the water early after getting whiplashed on the inside.
"Even after getting a 10 I finished the heat in third place," Walsh noted afterward. "That's a testament to how well Kai and Hippo both surfed that heat. And I watched Albee take off on a couple crazy ones. It's nice when there's a lot of opportunity and everyone can kind of have their space and just progress our beautiful sport."
While the Final didn't have the same level of intensity as Semifinal two, it was a horse race to the end. Everyone left in the water at the end had a shot at winning it. Walsh got a slow start in the Final, but came on strong in the second half again. The 30-year-old's positioning couldn't have been better as he rolled into back-to-back bombs. His first was another nice cover up. His next was a beautiful screamer that shot him into the lead. Walsh surfs Pe'ahi with silky smoothness. No matter how late he's dropping in, he always looks poised, and the halo effect he's been carrying the past two days carried him to victory.
Given Walsh's day-winning performance on Friday, and his big barrel in the Semifinals that will undoubtedly be a nominee for Ride of the Year at the Big Wave Awards next spring, it seemed fitting that he walked away as this year's champion of the Pe'ahi Challenge.
"This is a really big honor and I'm stoked that I can follow Billy [Kemper] and keep this thing on Maui," said Walsh. "It was an incredible couple days of surfing…Everyone here surfed really, really well and it was a pleasure to be in the water with them. It was fun to watch each heat almost, our sport progress as the waves got bigger and better. If feels just like those big free-surf days so I'm really honored and stoked."
2017/18 BWT Men's Pe'ahi Challenge Final Results:
1 - Ian Walsh (HAW) 21.67
2 - Billy Kemper (HAW) 18.57
3 - Makuakai Rothman (HAW) 18.46
4 - Kai Lenny (HAW) 18.26
5 - Greg Long (USA) 14.67
6 - Ryan Hipwood (AUS) 6.60
2017/18 BWT Men's Pe'ahi Challenge Semifinal Results:
SF 1: Makuakai Rothman (HAW) 16.61, Greg Long (USA) 13.74, Billy Kemper (HAW) 11.83, Danilo Couto (BRA) 11.26, Mark Healey (HAW) 7.77, Cristian Merello (CHL) 4.66
SF 2: Ryan Hipwood (AUS) 26.50, Kai Lenny (HAW) 26.31, Ian Walsh (HAW) 25.33, Albee Layer (HAW) 24.23, Lucas Chianca (BRA) 22.19, Jamie Mitchell (AUS) 16.44
2017/18 Men's BWT Rankings (after Pe'ahi Challenge):
1 - Kai Lenny (HAW) 19,042 pts
2 - Billy Kemper (HAW) 18,807 pts
3 - Ian Walsh (HAW) 15,625 pts
4 - Makuakai Rothman (HAW) 13,920 pts
5 - Jamie Mitchell (AUS) 10,647 pts
Headline photo courtesy of Sofie Louca