So many guys from so many places all going for the same thing at the same time: A spot in the ASP Top 44. The list runs deep — 600 surfers deep — and just browsing up and down through the names of the Men's WQS Top 100 Ratings is enough to boggle the mind. Surfers from Australia, Brazil, France, the United States, Spain, New Zealand…Unpronounceable names and erratic point totals and "Best 7 Results" and "Tour US$" and "Career US$". Then there is the schedule itself: Six-Star Trials, Super Series, 1-Star; Fernando de Noronha, Brazil; La Sauzaie, Bretignolles, France; Pasta Point, Maldives; Huntington Beach, California. Madness.
Imagine being a surfer and not only trying to wade through it all, but having to survive and excel. In the middle of all the alphanumeric madness, in at spot number 34 ("After event 16 O'Neill Highland Open, Thurso-Scotland"), is an American named Shaun Ward. After finishing in the WQS Top 130 Ratings in 2005, the 23-year-old from Huntington Beach, California, is now comfortably inside the 2006 WQS Top 50 — and trying to scratch and claw for more, part and parcel of professional surfing's natural selection process.
"There's a strategy to it," explains Ward, of navigating his way through the mystery inside a riddle wrapped in an enigmatic labyrinth that is the globetrotting WQS system. "You have to pick and choose what events you're going to do. You have to pick the places you do good at or think you'll do good at. You also have to try not to burn out. You try to do as many events that you're capable of and capable of doing well."
Sixteen rounds into the 44-round Men's WQS Schedule, 2006 has been a hit-or-miss affair for Ward.
"I got results in Brazil [The Costa Pro Floripa six-star event from February 14-19] and in France [the Vendee Surf Pro]," he says. "I surfed in five events and got points in two, so I guess I'm two for five. But the ratings are kind of fluffed right now. I just want to try to stay up where I'm at, then back it up big this summer."
Ward's most recent event — one he could actually drive his car to and sleep in his own bed at night — was the Body Glove Surfbout at Lowers Trestles, California. It did not go well. Being a victim in an early heat put him on the trailer. "Trestles was not a good go for me. I struggled there. I seem to struggle at the home events and do good on the road. I need to break it through at home this summer. Before I'd have trouble on the road and do well at home, but now it's the other way around. I need to switch that up."
For now, though, it's a few trips back and forth to John Wayne Airport and unloading a board bag in foreign lands. "After a photo shoot I have coming up in Cabo, I'll shoot straight over to Japan for the four-star there in May [The Hyuga Pro in Hyuga, Miyazaki, Japan]. After that contest, I'll come home. A few weeks later I will do the five-star contest in Brazil [the Billabong Costa do Sauipe Pro in Brazil from June 12-18] and the U.S. Open of Surfing at Huntington Beach."
Undisputedly the mist important leg of the WQS tour is the Tour de France in August [the six-star Sooruz Lacanau Pro, from August 14-20, and the Ripe Curl Pro Super Series, from August 21-27]. Ward explains: "I'll head to Europe. That's the most important time of the year. That's when it all goes down. There are so many quality waves and surfers that show up for those events. You take five really good boards — your best boards — throw them in a bag and fly over to France. The events draw a lot of people and are shown live on the webcasts, which have been really good for the sport."
Ward will ultimately wind down in October/November. He says he'll remain in the western part of the world, adding, "After Europe, I'll do Santa Cruz [The four-star O'Neill Cold Water Classic], Brazil [Onbongo Pro Surfing six-star] and the Hawaii six-star events [OP Pro and O'Neill World Cup]."
So why the grind? The often small, unremarkable waves. Airport security. Packing and unpacking bags. Passports, And, hell, more than anything, going broke in the process. The answer is easy. To earn a spot in the illustrious ASP Top 44.
"That's definitely the main goal, but I don't really look at it like that," concedes Ward. "I look at it more like taking it one task at a time. I know what my goals are. I keep them to myself. I'll let the WQS system do the talking for me."
So Ward, along with his American comrades in arms, will forge ahead, traveling the globe and staring out 747 windows, undaunted. "You definitely travel in your own little crew," he says. "Like in the past year or two, the U.S. guys have been rooting each other on. Like Aussie Pride, we're trying to have American Pride. At the last event, we brought an American flag down to the beach. But no matter wherever anyone is from, we all respect each other. Everyone is cool to one another. I mean it's not like at any point that we're all bro'ing down with each other, but you do have friends on thetour."
Still, there's the name, rank and serial number WQS ratings sheets, and all those names and numbers that come with them.
"You never know," Ward says of the constant shuffling of ratings and the rolling-the-rock-up-the-hill task of trying to break into the Top 44. "It's like you're always surfing against yourself. You can be surfing in the best heats and scoring sevens and eights, but you're surfing against guys that are just numbers to you."
But like the old adage proclaims, nothing good comes easy. It's a long way to the top in which one has a short period of time to get there, but with hard work and a little bit of luck, for Shaun Ward, it just may happen. "It all comes down to who gets on that roll — to whose confidence blows up," he reasons. "You have to do well and build on your confidence. It's just like any other sport, you need to get on a roll."