Billy Kemper, the No. 2 surfer on the World Surf League (WSL) Big Wave Tour, raised the bar at the Sunset Open, a men's QS 1,000 competition, with the highest combined heat total of the event, an 18.15 out of a possible 20. Sunset Beach pumped consistent surf through the lineup with wave face heights reaching 15 feet, ideal conditions for the 2x Pe'ahi Challenge winner and 2010 HIC Pro winner.
Kemper surfed a series of aggressive turns for an excellent 9.15 from the judges on a larger west peak wave to open Round Three, Heat 6. Within minutes, he backed this up with another 9.0 for a few more frontside maneuvers and advanced ahead of Kaito Kino, who ended with a combined heat score of 10.50.
"To kick off a heat with a 9-point ride, it definitely builds your confidence," said Kemper during a post-heat interview. "At the same time, I've lost with 9s, so for me, my coach Kahea [Hart] is always on me to back it up. I know the lineups out there and when it's this swell direction I just place myself underneath everyone. Everyone looked at the wave and didn't go and I knew I could get one turn out of it and I was looking for a 5 or 6 and it gave me two turns and another 9 so I figured, ‘okay, time to relax.' Pretty cool to be nerve-free. I was just having fun and enjoying the moment."
Kemper helps make up the strong field of competitors at the Sunset Open, which is 65 percent local, and considers this event as one of the fiercest in the WSL Hawaii/Tahiti Nui Region.
"I feel like this event is really aimed towards the locals and that it's the hardest event on the North Shore to compete in," Kemper continued. "The local surfers know the lineups better and everyone feels like they have a lot more to prove in these events, everyone is fighting for the Hawaii Championship title and it's rad, I love it. We always seem to get good waves too, so just take it heat by heat and have fun and see where we end up."
Defending event winner Jack Robinson dropped the highest single-wave score of the event, an impressive 9.8 during the day's final heat to keep the excitement strong from start to finish. Robinson's excellent ride started off bumpy as he fought to steady himself on the board. But, after setting up with a bottom-turn, he quickly transitioned into an overhead barrel and then powered through the end section to stamp out a strong turn to wow judges.
"I kind of just started hand-planing at the start of that heat, I barely hung onto that one," said Robinson of his 9.8 wave. "I was just lucky there was another set. I don't really think too much, just cruise, surf, keep it simple."
Robinson got his big-wave experience largely from Margaret River, Australia, and is a known threat along the North Shore of Oahu with multiple final appearances at Sunset Beach. He uses the Sunset Open as a warm-up to Hawaii's next QS event, the Volcom Pipe Pro, and mentioned that starting the year off in Hawaii (versus Australia) just "feels a bit better, like it's the right thing to do going into the Volcom." He plans to return home for the QS 6,000's in February, but likes to "stay ready for what's to come" by competing along the North Shore.
2000 World Champion and 11x Vans Triple Crown winner Sunny Garcia dominated his Round 3 heat to advance ahead of Elijah Gates and eliminate day 1 standout Shaun Burns and Logan Bediamol. Garcia had competitors in a firm combo after posting an 8.75 and 7.65 with classic power-surfing flair and acute knowledge of the surf break beyond his competitors' years.
"It's fun, when the waves do come in, they're super good," commented Garcia. "It's weird surfing with the young guys because they don't know Sunset that well, so I was kind of second-guessing myself because we were sitting a little bit further on the shoulder because the swell is a little more west and going off the point. Lucky for me I got two really good waves. The kids were ripping, they just weren't getting the waves that I got, so I got lucky."
In 2017, Garcia took a back seat in competition, but while caddying for CT competitor Ezekiel Lau and other athletes during the Vans Triple Crown, he realized he wanted to get back in the game.
"While I was sitting in the channel I kept thinking, ‘man what am I doing?'" said Garcia. "I can still get in the events so, I'm not looking to win, I'm just out having fun, no expectations, but I figure I'd rather be surfing a heat than sitting in the channel. I can caddy and surf at the same time so I'm just having fun, no expectations. I figure if I surf a couple events maybe I can get back into Triple Crown and just have fun."
Kauai's Kyle Ramey donned a jersey for the first time in 10 years after being riddled with injuries in his 20's. He returned to competition in full force today and posted the event's second highest single wave score, a 9.35, in Round 3 Heat 7 to advance in second, despite an interference call.
"It was the first wave, I just wanted to get a ride under my belt, I didn't really know how good of a wave it was going to be when I took off," Ramey explained. "I could tell it was kind of a good one and I took off and I just had to hold on and let the wave do its thing. It was a good wave, I just did one turn and held on for a tube and got lucky."
Another excellent ride was had by Honolulu's Kekoa Cazimero, who scored a nail-biting 9.0 on the buzzer to remain in competition behind Ian Gentil in Round 3 Heat 9. Cazimero pulled in deep for a barrel and made a clean exit to lay down a turn and add to his first ride, a 4.25.
Fourth place finisher at yesterday's Sunset Pro Junior, Wyatt McHale advanced out of Round 3 today against a youthful generation of athletes including Tahiti's Eliott Napias, Maui's Cody Young and Honolulu's Noa Mizuno. At just 16 years old, McHale is graduating high school a year early to focus on competition, and has his sights set on a solid placing in the WSL Hawaii/Tahiti Nui region for 2018.
"I just want to focus on the region and the Juniors," said McHale. "I want to get into the Triple Crown at the end of the year, that's the main goal. I was really stoked to make the Final in the Sunset Pro Junior yesterday, I've never made a junior Final so that was one of my goals. And the QS is pretty much the same strategy just with bigger, better guys, so I took that out there and got the heat win today."