Xcel Pro kicks off big-wave season
The veteran coach keeps a few tricks to himself on Day 1
The big ones are back, and the big guns too.
For 132 top international surfers, the big-wave season officially got under way yesterday with the start of the 22nd annual Xcel Pro, presented by No Fear, at Sunset Beach.
The world's best flock to Hawaii each year around this time, and the prestigious $50,000, 3-star World Qualifying Series Xcel offers them their first chance at about three months of top-flight competition in the famed, heavy surf on Oahu's North Shore.
Waves were fairly clean and mostly in the 6- to 10-foot-face range, with occasional 12- to 14-foot sets, for the first day of the three-day event. The entire first round and half of the second were completed.
"Ever since I was a little kid, I've looked at this event and all the guys who've won it, and looked up to all of them," said Maui's Ian Walsh, who made the Xcel finals last year and placed third. "This is the beginning, a reason to get excited for what's to come, the starting point for everything that's going to happen this winter -- so you hope you get a good start. And if you win in these powerful conditions, then you're one of the best surfers at the time and everyone knows it."
After competing regularly in other WQS events this year, Walsh, 22, was seeded directly into the third round and will not surf until the second day. But he was still in the water on the first, serving as the extra-board caddy for his coach, Rainos Hayes.
Though Hayes coaches top surfers in the draw like Walsh and 2003 Xcel champion Pancho Sullivan, he still competes in events like the Xcel to remain sharp and motivated.
The North Shore veteran dominated his second-round heat with a polished and radical backhand attack, receiving 6.25 points, and then a 7.00, for a 13.25 total for his top two waves. He almost doubled the total of second-place Sebastian Zietz (7.25) of Kauai, who also moved on.
"I had a lot of nerves going out there. Doesn't matter how many times you've done this, if you're not nervous you're kidding yourself a little bit," the 36-year-old Hayes said. "I'd like to perform, to show the guys that I can do what I'm talking about and can walk the talk. But the main focus is my guys, and that doesn't leave a lot of room for myself."
As for having to actually face some of his current or former surfers, which will start when he battles Makaha's Brian Pacheco in the next round, Hayes said: "Generally my guys tend to do very well. We're just going to have to do our best together. ... Youth definitely plays a part, but you can cheat that with experience, knowledge and being smart about what you do. This is still the proving ground."
Unlike Hayes, Zietz was participating in only his first Xcel and needed the 4.25 points he received on a wave just before their heat ended to advance. Perhaps too young to truly grasp the significance, the 17-year-old seemed relatively unfazed afterwards.
"It was pretty hard out there. There was just that one big set (the entire heat), and I blew it, so I was hoping all the way to the end," he said. "I'm just trying to gain points so that I can be on the tour (regularly) someday. My first Xcel: Definitely a thrill to be in it, but no pressure -- I made it this far, so I'm stoked."
Other Hawaii surfers to advance to the third round included: Mikala Jones, Ian Walsh's younger brother, Luke, Tamayo Perry, Danny Fuller, Kawika Stillwell, Chaz Chidester and Kahea Hart. Local casualties included former world champion Derek Ho going down in the second round, and brother Michael Ho and his son, Mason, going down in the same first-round heat.
Notables from elsewhere to advance included Australians Corey Garcia (15.75 points) and Josh Dowthwaite (15.25), who in winning their respective second-rounders posted the two highest heat scores of the day.
The Xcel will continue today, conditions permitting. The waiting period within which the event must be completed ends Nov. 10.