Inconsistent, tide-punished swell, 25-knot onshore winds, broken scaffolding, lay days, rental cars and stripper bars – it's that time of year again, time for the hopeful masses to set out on the road and once more put in the long yards on the ASP World Qualifying Series (WQS).
For the third year in a row, Brevard County's Sebastian Inlet has served as the kickoff point for this marathon tour, affectionately referred to as "the Grind", serving up the WQS four-star O'Neill SI Pro presented by Ron Jon for 2007.
With surfers staying everywhere from Vero Beach on up to Jacksonville, the mornings of January 5th through 11th transformed the A1A into a demolition derby as the ramshackle caravan of competitive nomads sped passed slumbering highway patrolmen en route to the event.
176 surfers came to town in hopes of kickstarting their respective 2007 ASP WQS campaigns, but only a few would leave with points substantial enough to put in the bag.
A Tale of Two Contests
This year's O'Neill SI Pro felt a lot like two separate events.
The opening rounds were filled with weak swell, clean conditions and local heroes flexing their fangs against an onslaught of foreign invaders.
By the end of five days of competition 112 surfers had been eliminated, 32 had survived and 32 had yet to compete.
Come heat one of the round of 64, the influx of new faces plus a building wind swell made it feel like a brand new day.
However, for those who had to surf from the opening rounds, the big enemy became exhaustion with several surfers falling under the sword of marquee names and fresh legs belonging to surfers such as Patrick Gudauskas, Brett Simpson, Asher Nolan, Roy Powers and Gabe Kling.
“It’s a great way to open up the year. It was an incredible final and my boards feel good and it’s good for the confidence getting back on tour.” — CJ HOBGOOD
"It's nice to come in fresh," Kling said. "I've been able to watch all week and I want to start out the year with a good result."
Not all would go quietly into that goodnight though (specifically Australian campaigner Dave Reardon-Smith and local boy Bryan Hewitson), and the four-heat "warm-up" only served to iron out the creases in their seemingly flawless approach.
"I definitely feel like I've been building momentum," Reardon-Smith said after advancing to the semifinals. "I've been surfing here all week and the conditions have been getting better. I feel like my surfing has been getting better and my board feels better with every heat."
The Meat Market
With Surf Expo only a 90 minute car ride away in Orlando, you can rest assured that more than a few industry sharks made their way down to the event.
Although team rider budgets are typically set in October of the year before, several companies keep a little room in the wallets should opportunities arise.
"It's the first competition of the year," Split USA Surf Team Manager Jeff Deffenbaugh said. "It's considered one of the best spots in Florida and the event is one of the more prestigious, so yeah, it's a good place to scout new talent."
Yet contrary to popular belief, the talent being considered doesn't necessarily go on display in the water. The sub-par surfing conditions suffered throughout the week encouraged team managers to look for a little something extra in their prospects.
"I've just been watching the event and watching people's surfing evolve," Deffenbaugh said. "The talent level is just so high now that it's hard to comprehend. In these types of conditions, it's not so much the surfing that I'm looking at but more so the personality. There have definitely been a couple guys who have impressed me."
With two unsponsored competitors making the semifinals in Australian veteran Dave Reardon-Smith and local talent Jeremy Johnston, you can be sure that industry CFOs and accountants will be busy reworking the numbers this weekend.
"It must be the week, it's an all Florida final," said ASP North America Tour Manager Mike Martin moments before the opening hooter rang.
It wasn't just any week, and it wasn't just any final. With the Florida State Gators taking down the Tostitos BCS Bowl earlier in the week, it's easy to assume that the collective will of Floridian surfers everywhere ushered in this stacked heat.
St. Augustine's Gabe Kling, Jacksonville's Asher Nolan, Melbourne Beach's CJ Hobgood and Indian Rocks Beach's Shea Lopez went tit for tat in the this all-Floridian final.
Each surfer held the lead at one point or another during the final and everyone finished within .50 points of one another.
Kling proved to the world that he deserves to be on the Dream Tour, Lopez looked better than he had in years, Asher nailed a 9.33 but CJ was unstoppable.
Manhandling the punchy lefts and rights, Hobgood avenged his brother's early-round loss and kept the O'Neill SI Pro in the family. CJ now leads the ASP WQS ratings and will use the momentum heading into the ASP World Tour season opener on the Gold Coast.
"It's a great way to open up the year," Hobgood said. "It was an incredible final and my boards feel good and it's good for the confidence getting back on tour."
1 – CJ Hobgood (Melbourne Beach, FL) 14.90
2 – Gabe Kling (St. Augustine, FL) 14.83
3 – Shea Lopez (Indian Rocks Beach, FL) 14.27
4 – Asher Nolan (Jacksonville, FL) 13.16