This article originally appeared on Surfer.com and was republished with permission.
You knew that a WSL Big Wave event was about to be underway when the broadcast team started using words like “commitment,” “bravery,” and “Herculean” to describe the what we were about to witness. The WSL has never shied away from hyperbole, but when it comes to Jaws, you kinda can’t blame ‘em. Words really do fail to convey the power, the drama, the gravity of the whole scene when the conditions align on a 30-foot day, and maybe WSL commentary clichés are actually as close as we can get.
Over the past few years, the Jaws event has essentially become a kind of horrifying XXL tube shootout, with the expectation that competitors must thread train-tunnel-sized barrels if they want to advance—or at least go down trying. It’s a heavy proposition, and it was clear in the first heat that not everyone had the stomach for it on Thursday.
In the first heat of the day, Australia’s Russell Bierke seemed more than keen, nearly getting a haircut by a 60,000-gallon guillotine as he bottom turned into the cavern. Anyone who saw his recent edit “Flow State” knows that Bierke has is a master of the dark art of heavy water surfing, but he seemed to have particularly unholy energy this morning. Many of his friends call him The Day Walker—a reference to a “South Park” episode where Cartman posits redheads have no soul—and his barrel ride was scored an 8.33. With highest scores being doubled, the wave ended up a 16.66, more or less the number of the beast. Somewhere on the cliff above Jaws, the stereo in a lifted Tacoma spontaneously turned on and started playing Slayer. Probably.
While Bierke’s opener was certainly the wave of the heat, it was first-time Jaws competitor Eli Olson who would claim the heat win. Olson has long been seen as one of the most fearless chargers out at Pipeline on any given day, but this year he’s been steadily adding to his list of heavy water bona fides. It was his monster wave at Outside Log Cabins last season that allegedly tipped the scales and got him an invite to this event, and clearly Olson was going to make good use of the opportunity. One giant pocket ride followed by a tube that saw him engulfed in a “carwash” of spray was more than enough to put him in the lead and keep him there.
Heat 2 was a relatively slow affair, but it provided a partial answer to the question that everyone came into this contest with. Last year, Maui charger and social media provocateur Albee Layer sparked a debate over the scoring of the event after surfers like Grant “Twiggy” Baker and Billy Kemper earned higher marks for pulling into dramatic closeouts than others got for completing rides. One might make for a more gripping broadcast, sure, but does it actually demonstrate better surfing? And should the WSL be incentivizing people to take bigger, dumber risks by packing terrifying, unmakeable waves? Kai Lenny may have suffered the most from those judging calls in the final last year, but he benefited in his first heat this morning, winning with a single closeout tube ride. To be fair, the judges didn’t go anywhere near the excellent range with it, but they still deemed it better than completed rides in the same heat.
At some point in the morning, Kaipo Guerrero and Pete Mel welcomed Tour commissioner Pat O’Connell to the booth, who was positively beaming about the WSL’s good luck with the conditions. “We’ve really outdone ourselves,” he told the gang. Hmmm. Although I’m sure there’s a lot that goes into putting on an elite surfing event, unless it’s being held at Kelly’s pool, I’m not so sure that the WSL can take credit for the quality of the surf.
Mother Nature may have been listening. The trades quickly kicked into full force and the previously smooth entries into the bowl were replaced by giant liquid moguls sending competitors airborne on nearly every takeoff. The wind at Jaws certainly has a way of sorting the field, increasing the fear felt in that final moment before getting to your feet, making the wave of the day and a potential brutal wipeout look almost indistinguishable from the point of entry. Lucas Chumbo didn’t seem to mind much, and even told Dave Wassel that he prefers air drops in his post-heat interview. That might be read as a weird sort of flex, but his penchant for mid-face ollies on blustery walls made it feel pretty sincere.
It’s always a different kind of commentary at Jaws. There’s something a little more home cooked about the whole thing. A little less of the typical WSL sheen. You’ve got Fun Uncle Dave Kalama in the booth, for one, who sounds more like he’s got a beer in his hand at a backyard barbecue than on a globally streamed webcast—and that’s a good thing. He dropped some casual history about the wave’s many previous names, including “The Atom Blaster”, and made sure to let viewers know that “Albee Layer’s Instagram game is really tight.” For his part, Dave Wassel was dropping “Star Wars” references and calling Ian Walsh “The Oprah of surfing.” It wasn’t always smooth, but the crew sounded relaxed, like they were having fun—like real human surfers, basically, which is weirdly not always the case with WSL events.
One awkward moment in the webcast came during the women’s first semi, after Felicity Palmateer charged down the face of a wave and rocked up to the ski afterward seeming unable to deflate her vest. She spent several minutes struggling out of her busted vest and into a working one, but with a lack of action in the water, the broadcast team kept the cameras on her changing for a very uncomfortable amount of time. I never thought I’d say this, but is there a wide shot of a bunch of bobbing surfers that we can throw to?
On another set, Palmateer wrangled her big pink gun in the wind and held on long enough to lock in a backup and stay in first place. It was a tough pair of semis for the women, with winds raging and airdrops pretty much guaranteed. Not everyone had the stomach for it, but Keala Kennelly, Emi Erickson and young local Annie Reichard all hucked themselves over that nauseating ledge, whether that meant a clean line down the face or drifting sideways in the breeze toward annihilation. Either way they found themselves on the right side of the final cutoff.
Billy Kemper offered few words in his post-heat interview with Dave Wassel after his semi. He seemed impatient, eyes like laser sights locked onto the waves while he bobbed in the boat, mentally sticking airdrops and threading barrels from the channel. He’d have to wait a few hours to get back out there, but once he did, he didn’t waste much time manifesting in reality the surfing he’d been doing in his head. He set the tone for the final by scratching into a jaw-dropping wall, his board chattering down the wind-torn face before bottom turning to set up one of the biggest tubes of the event for a 7.83.
While you could make a case for any one of the Maui boys—be it Kemper, Ian Walsh, Kai Lenny or Albee Layer (who was unfortunately badly concussed during a horrific wipeout in his first heat and was unable to continue surfing)—being the best surfer at the wave on any given swell, Kemper is singularly skilled when it comes to actually competing at the place—his three Jaws trophies say as much. Which is why Kemper seemed like he probably had this thing cold before he even paddled out, there were just a few hours of surfing for him to get through first. His opening barrel in the final confirmed it, and his backup score made it official.
That’s not to say the others went down without a fight. Walsh stroked into some mountainous waves, Nathan Florence double-arm dragged in the pocket of a hulking wall and Lenny laid into some honest-to-god face carves on a few ungodly large waves. But the day was Kemper’s, just as it was always going to be. It’s kind of starting to feel like the Jaws event is actually just a contest for second place.
The women’s final wrapped up the day, in which Paige Alms continued her own dominant streak. She caught just one wave in the final, and while technically an incomplete ride, it was a bigger set, she made it to the bottom and earned a 6.17 from the judges in the process. There was a valiant effort to catch her by Reichard, who is looking very much like the future face of women’s surfing at Jaws, but that’s for another year. Thursday marked three Jaws wins for Alms, whose trophy cabinet is starting to look a lot like Kemper’s.
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