WCT heavy hitters enter the ring as Round of 96 gets underway.

SURF: 2-4 ft. with occasional bigger sets.
EVENTS HELD: Finish Round of 132; 8 Heats for Round of 96.
NATURE’S CALL: Alright, alright, I’m coming.
PREDICTIONS: Much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack! And, yes, Whack again. That’s the sound of Hawaiian world surfing champion Sunny Garcia announcing his entrance into the Triple Crown event with five successive backside hacks — one for each of his previous Triple Crown victories. The judges nodded a respectful 8.5, securing him the heat in otherwise low-scoring conditions, while East Coaster Ben Bourgeois rode his tailwind into second place. To everyone on the beach, the message was loud and clear: the heavy hitters had arrived.

After nearly a week of mild anticipation following Friday’s abrupt start, the jerseys are back in the lineup at Ali’i Beach Park. No money on the line yet (unless you count the wasted plane tickets for the early eliminations), but it’s so close you can almost smell it.

With clean-but-wobbly swell, intermittent showers and persistent rainbows, the Round of 132 wrapped up with little drama and the four-man Round of 96 heats got underway. Two advance. Two go home. Already 36 surfers have been eliminated, and another 32 will fall before anyone sees a paycheck. This is still the ditch-digger end of things, but it matters plenty to the grunts slogging their way towards the final.

Under the guise of “not peaking too early”, some of the day’s strongest prospects managed to barely squeak through their heats; like local Hawaiians Jesse Merle-Jones and Mikala Jones, as well as three-time world champ Tom Curren, all of whom advanced with their second place finish. In these very mediocre conditions, this becomes a true test of “contest surfing”: where solid 5’s and 6’s, careful wave selection and subtle tricks of strategy make all the difference of who will advance. Local hopeful Pancho Sullivan came up just short, but another Sunset slugger, 19-year-old Nathan Carroll, dominated the heat with some of the cleanest, strongest surfing of the day. Watch for Nathan to slay some giants and more big leaguers enter the ring and things start to get really heavy.

Stay tuned.