Sunset Beach swept wildly challenging surf through the lineup for Day 3 of the Vans World Cup of Surfing, event No. 2 of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing and final WSL QS 10,000 of the year, but eleven-time World Champion Kelly Slater seemed to play in the unruly conditions as he put on a show in his Round 3 opening heat. It has been 21 years since Slater earned his last Vans Triple Crown victory, and today he kept the possibility of a second title alive now that frontrunners Frederico Morais and Leonardo Fioravanti are out of contention.
A wildcard replacement for Gabriel Medina, Slater entered the competition ranked No. 7 in the Vans Triple Crown title race and No. 10 on the CT, safely within the Top 22 requalification requirement. Although Sunset is not a venue where Slater has seen success, today he advanced in first with playful, yet powerful authority. Nabbing the best wave of the heat, he dropped into a barrel behind the section for an 8.33 and cemented his lead after stacking up a 6.83 earlier in the matchup. Tactful, top-to-bottom surfing earned Slater the second highest two-wave total of the day, a 15.16, which included a 6.83 for big arcing turns. The degree of difficulty on every wave was unmatched and Slater's ability to read the challenging conditions was top-level, despite a strained affair with the break.
"I had a lot of fun, it was a blast," said Slater. "I like it when it's like this, I like the North. It's almost a little too North, the inside bowl gets really fun, there's those ones in the middle that are a blast. There's a lot of waves out there. If I was a little more patient I probably would have even gotten better waves. I saw a couple real good ones that we all missed. Yeah, that was fun."
Slater's caddy was a story of its own, as 13-year-old Jackson Dorian, son of big wave legend Shane Dorian, paddled two boards around the lineup with fearlessness. The two took a beating from the powerful shore break while trying to reach the lineup, while dad, Shane, looked on from a spectator's perspective.
"A big set came right as we jumped in to paddle and we both got so smashed in the shore break," Slater continued. "I felt like I was watching myself at Waimea when I was a little kid, trying to get through the sandbar, get through the shore break. But it was fun, he had a good time. Shane and I took him for a surf this morning in some big stuff and got him loosened up and then he was all excited to caddy."
Reigning Vans World Cup winner Ezekiel Lau oozed confidence in his Round 3 heat with powerful, committed surfing to conquer the challenging conditions. With five victories at Sunset, Lau is one of the most experienced and successful athletes in the draw and moved into the final day of competition with ease.
"When I showed up the waves were bombing," said Lau. "It was windy rainy but for some reason, I felt comfortable. I felt confident, I have a good board under my feet. This is the same one I rode last year in this comp, so I know it works and I can trust that. And everything just felt really good this morning and I just followed through."
With smart surfing, Lau picked up the better waves of Heat 2 for a 13.84 heat total, including a beautiful open face wave that formed up on the inside to provide a good scoring opportunity. The Hawaiian looked casual as he switched on with an opening turn, then unleashed a critical, committed maneuver followed by an airdrop into a barrel. Although he did not make it out of the cavern, judges awarded the wave a 7.67, which he followed up with a 6.17 for perfectly timed layback hooks.
Outside of CT qualification, Lau needs another win at Sunset Beach to get into the top 10 by way of the QS. He moved up the rankings after placing runner-up in the Vans Pro QS 3,000 last month but needs a win to join the qualification conversation. Currently No. 28 on the CT, 2019 didn't go the way he had hoped and now Lau is faced with the pressure of surfing for requalification at home in Hawaii. Lau is one of the most formidable contenders at Sunset, however, and has a clear goal in mind.
"I want to win, I want to go back to back," said Lau. "It'll make up for the Vans Pro, the win that I didn't get. I came close but it's not going to be enough this time, I want to solidify that win and get back on tour."
Polynesian powerhouse and former Vans World Cup winner Michel Bourez, along with Maui's Cody Young, caused a big upset by taking out the Vans Triple Crown ratings frontrunner, Frederico Morais in Round 3 Heat 5. A high-energy matchup saw Young take a quick lead with a 5.00 score, however, Bourez stitched together two decent rides, a 4.27 and 4.83 to end with the heat win. Meanwhile, Morais rode to the finish line on his final wave, needing a 4.70 to advance but narrowly missing out after judges scored the ride a 4.67.
This now leaves the Vans Triple Crown race open as the following athletes remain in top contention after advancing through Round 3 today: Matthew McGillivray in No. 3; Ethan Ewing in No. 4; Bourez and Wade Carmichael tied for No. 5, Slater in No. 7; and Beyrick De Vries in No. 9.
Last-minute heroics saw 2018 Vans Triple Crown Rookie Weslley Dantas power through a thick barrel for an 8.20 to jump from fourth to first advancing position in Heat 15. Fighting his way into Finals day, Dantas wore his heart on his jersey sleeve as he claimed the wave with enthusiasm and exuberance while fans cheered on the beach. He and Ewing knocked out Deivid Silva and Sebastian Zietz en route to Round 4.
Jacob Willcox had an incredible backside tube ride on the inside bowl in Heat 6 after reading the wave perfectly, which judges deemed an excellent 8.00, one of the higher wave scores of the day. Willcox has gained valuable experience in similar open ocean venues like Sunset, thanks to his Western Australia upbringing. He utilized the experience to advance today in first ahead of Jadson Andre (BRA).
"I really like it when the conditions are like this, reminds me of home a lot more, especially this howling wind," Willcox said. But Sunset Beach, the ultimate deep-water playing field, was still no easy feat, regardless of his upbringing. "Other than that one 8, I kind of had a hard time out there, but when you get one it's really fun," he continued.
Willcox is surfing for a big result in order to qualify, but the young athlete brings a mature mindset into this year's Vans Triple Crown: "I've had a really fun year already and I've grown, learned a lot this year so that's a win for me. Whatever happens in this event is whatever happens, I can't wait for it all."
As a perennial Sunset Beach standout, Jack Robinson is surfing to redeem himself from a less than stellar result at the first jewel of the Vans Triple Crown in Haleiwa, the Hawaiian Pro. Today, he controlled Heat 9 early and opened up with a 5.0, keeping the lead for most of the matchup and only dropping behind World Title contender Kolohe Andino for a few minutes. In-form, Robinson solidified his heat win claiming an 8.83 by taking off on a set wave and nailing a big turn on the outside, then kick-stalling into the barrel on the inside and flying out into the channel. Robinson now ties Billy Kemper - who was eliminated today in Heat 3 - for the highest single-wave score of the event.
"I sort of think about wave by wave each day," Robinson said when asked about the pressure. "I don't really care about it too much right now. I did that last event so, just having fun. It's exciting, makes me excited. Just surf, eat, sleep, eat more, and then surf again. Hang out, enjoy the place. Just enjoying life. Having fun over here this time, it's good, I'm stoked."