This 10 point ride is being hailed as the best barrel ever ridden in competition. Photo: Aeder
This 10 point ride is being hailed as the best barrel ever ridden in competition. Photo: Aeder

A Big-Wave Event for the Record Books

Looking back at Finals Day of the 2017 Pe'ahi Challenge

When Big-Wave Tour commissioner Mike Parsons saw that Friday’s long-period NW at Jaws would peak in the middle of the night, he and his team decided to split the Pe’ahi Challenge over the course of two days, offering a fair amount of uncertainty as surfers rose at first light this morning and watched the incoming sets from atop the cliffs. Would yesterday’s conditions hold? Would the swell’s energy have enough juice to validate the drama of Finals Day?

The Final Day of competition for the 2017 Pe’ahi Challenge was held in beautiful offshore conditions, and, like yesterday, in pumping surf. The swell interval had dropped compared to Friday and sets were noticeably more consistent, with more opportunity for top-to-bottom barrels brushed by light NE winds.

“We've been watching the buoys all night to see how they hold, which we based our information on for today,” Parsons told commentators Pete Mel and Keipo Guerrero as the first men’s semifinal paddled out. “It looks pretty good through the middle of the day. Now, we’re seeing about 13 feet at 16 seconds, where yesterday, we had 13 feet in the 30-second range. You can see the difference in the power of the waves. We're stoked that the buoys held.”

Rides like Ian Walsh’s four-story elevator drop yesterday set the scale for how judges determined worthy scores on Finals Day. Mark Healey took a righthand bomb in the early minutes of the semifinal, grabbing rail for a smooth completion, and earned just a 3.67. The judges were looking for more.

Makua Rothman found his chance midway through the heat, as the former BWT champion paddled into a giant set wave and executed a clean ride up into the pit, the wave barreling behind him in the critical section. Rothman took the lead and held on for the remaining 30 minutes despite late insurance scores from both Greg Long and Billy Kemper, who secured their spots in the Final by stuffing giant closeouts.

“It's been a long time, with these first-round losses all year,” said Rothman in a post-heat interview. “My little brother Billy has me really inspired me these last few years. Watching him win the contest twice now is amazing, and to be here and surfing with him is great. I’m surfing for [Kemper’s late brother] Eric Diaz today. We're going to surf in honor of his name today, and give him a f—in battle.”

Semifinal Two began straightaway with five of the six surfers trading 35-ft sets — Albee Layer hunting for the barrel; Ryan Hipwood looking for the critical inside section; Ian Walsh sticking the late drop; Lucas “Chumbo” Chianca airdropping on his backhand; and Kai Lenny, to finish off the exchange, threading a two-section tube for a 7.77 single-wave score. All in the span of a few minutes.

Never had Pe’ahi been surfed so aggressively for the barrel in a competitive setting than in the second semi. Twelve minutes in, Lenny scratched underneath the ledge, bottom-turned, parked inside a beautiful tube, and pointed his nose towards the channel for a 9.27 score. Minutes later, Ryan Hipwood paddled early for a set wave that gaped wide and hollow after hitting the reef, and he was spat out after negotiating an enormous foam ball for a perfect-10 ride, the event’s first. Everyone was getting barreled.

But the best pit of the day came near the 24-minute mark from Maui’s Ian Walsh, who, like Greg Long, is known to patiently wait out the back for the largest sets of the session. Committing an expert line deep on the reef, Walsh disappeared from camera-view after pumping through an enormous barrel, maintaining speed down the face and into the channel, which was already erupting into cheers. The judges didn’t hesitate — perfect 10s across the board.

“I got in a pretty fortunate position—the wave came to where I had been lining up for about 30 minutes already, and it gave me a really good entry,” said Walsh. “And that heat just had some phenomenal rides in it. Like, even after getting a 10, I finished the heat in third place, and that’s just a testament to how well Kai [Lenny] and Hippo [Ryan Hipwood] surfed that heat.”

The horn finally sounded, and after a brief intermission, the Final roster paddled back out in grooming offshore winds: Billy Kemper, Greg Long, Ian Walsh, Kai Lenny, Makua Rothman, and Ryan Hipwood.

Waves continued to load up on the reef, and a few of the opening rides ended in stuffed closeouts. Kemper took the first wave and wore the lip on the head as the wave shut down. Rothman packed a humongous closeout after taking off deep behind the peak and weathered an uncomfortably long hold-down. Long followed with a high-line into a terminated barrel. Similar rides, and similar scores. 20 minutes into the heat, Walsh tried to delay beneath the curtain on a wide set, and though he wouldn’t find the shade, he would complete the ride, earning him a 7.67 single-wave score. Walsh established his lead as the clock ticked to the halfway mark. Kemper and Rothman, respectively, followed close behind.

The tide began to fill in, the hollow sections seen earlier in the day started to cap on the outside bowl, and the field started to scratch for late scores. Enduring heroic pitches over the ledge from surfers like Rothman and Lenny, Walsh held his lead through the Final’s dying seconds to win his first Pe’ahi Challenge title.

“This is a really big honor, and I’m stoked I can follow up on Billy’s [win] and keep this thing on Maui,” said Walsh from the channel. “It was an incredible couple of days of surfing with some challenging lulls, but everyone surfed really, really well, and it was a pleasure to be in the water with them.”

But the event was only half-through: six of the most skilled female chargers in the world, including defending Jaws champion and Haiku native Paige Alm, took to the lineup for the women’s final. While the light sea breeze preserved the wave quality from that from the men’s heat, the tide had filled in, creating sets that gave the deceptive impression of standing tall, only to travel underneath the surfers.

France’s Justine Dupont, known for drawing wild lines at Nazaré, found waves early, handling a few big drops and well-executed rides. Alms also found her rhythm early, easily navigating a late drop for a completed ride into the channel.

Keala Kennelly, who made history during last year’s contest by scoring the first-ever ride in a women’s big-wave event, engaged the rail on a bottom turn but went down hard with the whitewater, which snapped her board. Once she was tracked down by water security, she grabbed a replacement board from Grant “Twiggy” Baker (The South African arrived an hour late to Jaws yesterday after a number of plane delays and was forced to sit out the contest). The board, larger than Kennelly’s original gun, gave her the volume and the paddle power she needed to hustle for elusive sets out the back.

One of the more nastier-looking wipeouts of the heat came from Australia’s Felicity Palmateer, who committed on a massive wave only to slip her foot against the rail, upending her into a 35-foot freefall down the face. On the wave behind Palmateer’s, Alms stuck a late drop, bottom-turned for the critical section, and punched out the back before the oncoming closeout. She scored a 7.70 on the ride, which put her into the lead with a 21.23 total.

Kennelly sat in second place with under five minutes to go. The Kauain needed a 6.9-scoring ride to beat Alms for the Pe’ahi title, but she spilled over the falls near the three-minute mark and took a long hold-down while valuable seconds ticked away.

The heat was over. Alms screamed and raise both arms in the air once she heard the news from the back of the ski: the back-to-back Jaws title was hers.

“I honestly had no idea [that I won] at the end,” said Alms. “I just paddled out and told everyone how I felt so grateful to be able to sit out in an empty lineup at firing, perfect Jaws [with them]. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Header: Ian Walsh, Photo by Aeder.