The 2003 Hansen Energy Pro, which took place at the fabled Banzai Pipeline, will go down in history as one of the best events ever held at the gladiator pit-like surf arena. Held during a massive fifteen-foot west swell, a ridiculously talented field of surfers of various fame and fortune stepped up and showed the small yet boisterous crowd of peers and judges where the level of big Pipe surfing is today.[IMAGE 1]
One of the most intriguing things about the Pipeline Pro (as it’s called) is the variety of competitors. Local Pipeline rippers such as Braden Dias, Tamayo Perry, Danny Fuller, Mark Healy, Dustin Barca, Makua Rothman, and the rest of the Pipeline Posse are thrown in with veterans Johnny Boy Gomes (two-time champ), Sunny Garcia, and Derek Ho. The remaining spots are filled up with young aspiring pros from around the globe and hungry outer-island darkhorses.
Out of this crew, someone was going to blow up. Here are five who did just that: Professional bodyboarder, Kainoa McGee has been a fixture at Pipe for years. The large and vocal Hawai’ian has just taken up board surfing in the last two years, and the Pipeline Pro was his first surf contest ever. His performance in what he called “the gnarliest, most perfect, most dangerous Pipe I’ve seen in six years” was awesome and earned him an equal seventh place.
Danny Fuller had been telling me about his friend from Kaua’i, Evan Valiere, before the contest even began. “He’s snapped, brah, Watch, he’ll go on anything.” Danny was dead-on. The nineteen-year-old Evan Valiere wore a knee brace the whole contest that must have had some type of magnetic bomb-attracting device implanted in it. Every time his heats rolled around, he’d paddle right past the first reef takeoff spot and head out to sea in search of a massive second-reef set wave. When confronted with these beasts, Evan paddled for all his worth and take off on gut-wrenching, quadruple-overhead waves and look for the tube. For his efforts, Evan was presented the emotionally meaningful Todd Chesser Sportsmanship Trophy, given to Evan by Todd’s mother, contest announcer Jeannie Chesser. The award is given yearly to the surfer who best emulates Todd’s spirit of balls-out, fearless surfing.
When Bruce Irons rolled into the ‘hood, things got live. There was a nonstop flow of people at the beachfront Volcom house, and heads flocked from around the island to watch the two-time champ’s heats. In one of the earlier rounds, Irons showed why he is one of the top three Pipe surfers in the world with an amazing backside bunny-hop speed burst that propelled him through a 40-foot tube section. Bruce also showed the grit of a champion in the dwindling minutes of the final by attempting to take off on not one, but two absolutely crazy waves that looked like a warped 40-foot day in the shorebreak of Sandy Beach. The guy is indestructible.
Jamie Sterling is a bulldog. While two of his rides may go down as some of the best all winter, he displayed his true character after being dragged all the way from second-reef Pipeline, through the first reef, and swept down past Ehukai—about 300 yards. After this brutal beating, which he called his worst ever at Pipe, he sprinted up the beach in some kind of demented run-swim-run competition with underground ripper Marcus Hickman, back to the paddle-out spot. Jamie O’Brien said it best, “Sterlz is just all-out gnarly!”
As for Sterling himself? He was very self-effacing yet proud, “That wasn’t even me out there, that was Ronnie” (a reference to his godfather, the late and great Ronnie Burns). A notable performance was also given by rookie-pro Joel Centio, who charged to third place all the way from the trials.
Eventual contest winner Jamie O’Brien called the final day the best day of his life. He won seven-thousand dollars; beat his surfing idol in life-threatening, yet perfect waves; and netted his first of perhaps many victories in his young career. OOn fire the whole contest, the kid was a consummate crowd pleaser with antics in situations where others would be paralyzed with fear. A switch-stance tube ride after the heat is already wrapped up? No problem. A paddle battle with Bruce Irons? Who would dare? Jamie took Bruce’s late-backside-drop-into-the-pit trick and turned it against him—Jamie beat him with his own game! Do you sense a rivalry here? If so, it could make for some freaky surfing, the likes of which have never been seen.[IMAGE 2]
Thanks to the Hansen Energy people for running such an amazing event—many were calling it the best Pipe contest of the last couple of years. Again, the Hawai’ian Water Patrol did a great job making sure nobody got seriously hurt in the monstrous conditions. The biggest shout-out must go to the surfers who fearlessly charged and conquered Pipeline, giving everyone watching something to scream about. You guys (and Rochelle Ballard) are big-time and should all receive a medal of valor.—Justin Cote