The early-morning hours at today's Jaws Challenge were greeted by a gray squall hovering over the competition zone. A rising, long-period swell was pulsing long, powerful lines across the horizon as competitors anxiously awaited the first heats of the day.
A significant Pacific storm - 50-foot seas measured a mere 1,800 miles from the islands - combined with the low morning tide created one of the most challenging days of competition for the Big Wave Tour riders in the event's four-year history.
The women took to the water first, as the mighty claws of the Pacific clamped down on the field, and the blowing easterlies made each drop difficult, and, at times, treacherous.
Defending champ Paige Alms caught one of the only waves of the first heat, scoring a 4.33 in a format where a surfer's high score is doubled per Big Wave Tour protocol. "The conditions were extremely challenging," said the defending champion. "I probably wouldn't have been surfing in those conditions if it was a free surf."
Justine Dupont nabbed the high score of the day, a 5.50 and then fell on a subsequent wave and severely dislocated her shoulder, eliminating her from the competition. A painful blow physically and mentally, as her extended training in Nazaré has made her a standout Big Wave competitor.
Andrea Möller made a steep drop, which she stuck, but "the bottom turn was held by the wind and I never could make it to the bottom of the wave. The next thing I knew I was doing somersaults."
Keala Kennelly and Emily Erickson scored the best waves in the second heat, with Keala dropping in on almost every wave she could position herself to catch.
Erickson rode a beautiful wave to it's completion with fluid style and grace on her trusty 10'6" Lyle Carlson single fin. "Fear is the mind killer," said Erickson, who has used this mantra to recover from the trauma of her fall at this contest two years ago.
During the final, every woman to post a score -- Erickson, Kennelly, Möller and Alms -- charged down at least one wave, but none were completed. Kennelly felt that her leg was, "ripped out of its joint" by her leash on her first wipe out. She broke her leash on her next fall and ran out of eight CO2 cartridges by the time the swell was in full force.
"That was some of the most challenging Pe'ahi I've ever surfed," said Kennelly shivering and slumped in a ball next to Alms on the medic boat. "I was literally seeing stars," she said of her final wipe out, surfing with no leash and no inflation. After displaying full commitment, wave after wave, the day ended with Kennelly crowned as the new women's Jaws Challenge Champion.
"I think everyone sent it super hard and to pass the torch to my good friend is the best feeling ever," said Alms. "I'm stoked that KK won and I'm very proud of her."
"I'm too tired to celebrate," said Kennelly after her win. "It hasn't really sunken in yet."
The day's swell continued to build as the men situated themselves in the heaving blue water as line after line continued to hammer the underwater ridgeline at Pe'ahi. Forty-foot faces began to transform into 50-foot plus.
Local surfer Billy Kemper paddled himself into the first monster barrel of the day, perhaps a 40-foot cavern, that clamped down on him mid-vision.
"I knew when I got into the wave that it was going to be a big barrel so I set my line and I kind of got two good pumps and it kind of inhaled - these big boards are hard to adjust in barrels like that, not like Sunset," said Kemper, fresh off yesterday's 10-point barrel in the Vans World Cup at Sunset Beach. "You're locked in, and the inhale of the wave-it just evaporated me. It's very violent," he continued.
Next came Grant "Twiggy" Baker, who dropped into another bombing barrel only to get spit out onto the face, and then chewed up as he separated from his board. After six weeks of training and a win in Nazaré, Baker felt he was "as ready as I can be," before the competition. Still, he was skeptical that the crown would leave Maui. "Billy, Ian, Shane and Albie are almost untouchable," he said.
Mark Healey bagged a backhanded bomb, again to get clamped down upon, and Russell Bierke cleaned the only completed ride of the day.
As the first heat concluded, and conditions continued to ramp up, tour commissioner Mike Parsons stepped in to put the rest of the competition on hold. "It was a tough call that I had to make, but I just feel like at the end of the day safety has to remain the number one thing," said Parsons. "It was too risky, and the swell will still be huge in the morning."
"It's as nuts as it gets right now," said Billy Kemper, shortly after the contest was called off due to the maxing swell. "It is dangerous, but big waves are dangerous. This is what we train for, this is what we live for."
Day two of the Jaws Challenge is scheduled to run tomorrow. Next call is at 7:00am HST.