Take what you can get: competitors make the most of a challenging Round of 96.

Perhaps Pipe charger Tamayo Perry said it best after his disappointing heat yesterday: “I hate Sunset when it’s this direction and this size. It gets evil out there.”

With a solid, 10-foot-plus swell on tap and stiff, E/NE trades whipping toward Kaena Point, Sunset was back to her old, bad self on Monday. The dominant west direction made it particularly dicey, with surprise cleanup sets and {{{100}}}-yard shutdowns across the Inside Bowl. The carnage started even before the first heat buzzer rang, when a handful of competitors faced a relentless row of exploding west peaks on the head. “Got washed all the way to the beach,” admitted Round of 32 seed Taylor Knox. “I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before.”

The pummeling continued at the beginning of Heat 2, when a three-wave monster set closed out the entire channel. “These are coming way earlier than expected,” said {{{Vans}}} Triple Crown director Randy Rarick. “I don’t know what we’ll be seeing by mid-afternoon.”

What we did see was not a migration to Waimea, but a gradual mellowing of conditions, a few five-star performances and a couple of driven surfers who just might make good use of this last World Qualifying Series event.

First, the stellar performances: local Marcus Hickman continues to show his mastery of the break, with a commanding win in Heat One over Travis Logie, Toby Martin and Sean Moody. When it’s west like this, those in the know can actually get barreled right on takeoff, and Hickman did just that for one of the highest combined scores of the day. Other surfers who owned it: Aussies Dan Ross and Adam Robertson, two WQS journeymen who slayed the Inside Bowl during their late-afternoon heats. And young Daniel Jones, who ripped so hard he got out five minutes before his heat ended (he actually mistimed it, but didn’t need to bother to paddle back out.)

As for the other advancements out of the Round of 96, they simply took what Sunset gave them. A two-turn section before the Inside closeout. A steep drop out the back and a straighten-out. A high-line steep section across the Bowl. Few surfers were truly in synch on Monday, but those who made it did so through sheer willpower.

Which bodes well for those who need a big result here to qualify for the 2005 World Championship Tour. Brazilian Bernardo Pigmeu knows nothing less than a semifinal finish will guarantee him a spot, and he powered through in heat 10. Young Aussie Shaun Cansdell needs no less than a runner-up finish to give him a chance, and he fought through a wave-starved heat to finish second.

And then there’s Brazilian Fabio Gouveia, who won this event in 1991 and is currently starring in a much-lauded biography film called Fabio Fabuloso. The 35-year-old, Currenesque regularfoot continued his winning ways today, and is hoping an O’Neill World Cup victory will catapult him back on the elite tour. “I’ve taken my break and am ready to do this again,” says the longtime ‘CT vet. “As soon as you’re relaxed about it, good things just….happen.”

Make room for the Big Boys.

While the Round of 96 saw a smattering of WCT surfers — including dominator Sunny Garcia, Nathan Hedge, Toby Martin, Peterson Rosa and Pat O’Connell, the Round of 64 rolls out the biggest cannons: namely current world champ Andy Irons (Heat 8) and six-time world champ Kelly Slater (Heat 9). Kelly just lost a ${{{900}}} poker tournament to 16-year-old Kellen Ellison, so we’ll see how that affects him. Andy, on the other hand, just arrived back on Oahu on Sunday after a long holiday weekend back on Kauai. He’s ready to return to work.

Other big guns to watch: Bruce Irons makes his run at this year’s Vans Triple Crown title in Heat 16, which also features this year’s world runner-up Joel Parkinson. Watch Kauai’s Roy Powers in Heat Four, who desperately needs a semifinal finish or higher to give himself a chance at WCT qualification. New American ‘CTer Chris Ward will be celebrating his quantum leap in Heat 10, while last year’s Sunset winner, Jake “Snake” Paterson will set down his waterproof walkie talkie long enough to charge Heat 13.

Keep an eye on Ben Bourgeois’ forward progress in Heat 6 — he’ll be facing Occy’s vicious backhand. And the previously mentioned qualifying hopefuls: Cansdell (Heat 8), Pigmeu (Heat 10), Eric Rebiere (Heat 5) and Gouveia (Heat 7).