The first ever WSL Women's Big Wave Tour competition ran on Friday, The Pe'ahi Women's Challenge, alongside the Pe'ahi Challenge (Mens), marking a landmark day for women's surfing, and crowning its first ever Big Wave World Champ.
In 30 foot plus surf at the famed big wave spot known as Jaws aka Peahi, on the Hawaiian island of Maui, locals Paige Alms and Billy Kemper won their respective events and ensured the trophies stayed in the hands of their local line-up.
The day would be marked as historic as soon as the first heat of the women paddled out amongst the strong tradewinds and big swells of the famous break—those six being the first to ever do so in a sanctioned WSL big wave event.
Keala Kennelly, who the WSL describes as "arguably the mother of women's big wave surfing", and who is also the first woman to have won a WSL big wave award (beating the men), for her tube at Teahupo'o in 2015, fittingly paddled into the first wave of the new event. Chattering down the giant face on her backhand with conviction before being detonated by the breaking lip of whitewater on her back, the wave alone would be enough for her to win the heat and qualify her for the final, but unfortunately also put her in hospital with a knee injury. Big Wave Women's competition surfing was not yet 15 minutes old, and already there had been fireworks.
She wouldn't be the only casualty of the day, Hawaiian Emily Erickson taken to hospital after suffering a terrifying wipe-out just a few minutes later, committing to a critical take-off and sliding down the face on her back as the wave broke over her. A terrifying clean-up set would also rattle through the heat, sending the competitors either paddling for the horizon, or, if less luckily positioned, diving away from their boards and to relative safety, while the six competitors of the next heat had to watch, waiting from the channel for their turn. Just watching the surfers navigate the football field size of a line-up to find correct positioning as sets headed their way was fascinating as it was nerve-racking.
The present danger of the Pe'ahi Challenge could best be exemplified by the safety precautions necessary to run such an event: eight jet skis, four equipped with swimming lifeguards, three boats, and a helicopter buzzed around the line-up, while six lifeguards were spread along the bouldery shore, all at the ready in the case of an emergency. The surfers also elect to compete wearing inflatable vests—a recent technological development that has helped push the boundaries of big wave paddle surfing (as opposed to jet-ski assisted tow surfing) in the last five years. The vests allow surfers to pull a ripcord, when being held underwater by a 30-foot Pe'ahi bomb, that releases a gas canister, inflating the vest, and shooting the surfer to the surface.
The second heat bore witness to another casualty when current world no.10 CT competitor, and former World Junior Champion, Laura Enever would qualify for the final but not take part due to a knee sprain. She, like many of the competitors, including fellow Australian Felicity Palmateer, who got the call just 24 hours before the event and had to borrow a big wave gun suitable for charging ocean mountains, had never surfed Pe'ahi before paddling out to compete in the event.
The final took place between the semi finals and final of the men's event—worth noting for being the exact same venue, with the same conditions and dangers that the world's best, and more famous, male big wave surfers on the planet faced. The winner of the men's second semi final, Californian Mavericks specialist Nic Lamb, told viewers as the women's final began: "Waves are biiiiig, and windy, this place is incredible."
"Oh my gosh, still feel like it's kind of a dream, I can't quite believe it, what a blessing to be out there with just a couple of girls, that was special, for sure," Alms told the broadcast from the channel. "This has been a dream to have an event for the women here. Just to have an empty line-up, that was the blessing, win or lose."
And it was in the final that Paige Alms wrote herself into history, easily winning, finding the two best scoring waves, a 6 and a 7.83. The take-off of her 7.83, with an air drop gracefully controlled was the highlight. She also had two wipeouts, one of which was among the worst of the day, and suffered at the very end of the heat when she couldn't lose—a prime demonstration of her commitment.
Alms' win would come as no surprise to locals who see her out in the line-up whenever it's big enough to break, or to surf fans who witnessed the viral footage of her barrel at the same spot in 2015, which garnered her International recognition.
Fellow local Maui surfer BIlly Kemper made it back to back wins on the men's side of the Pe'ahi Challenge, from Californian Greg Long, and South African Grant "Twiggy Baker", by spectacularly scoring a perfect ten in the final with the best and most critical high-line tuberide of the day. He put the win beyond any doubt when he also found the second best wave of the heat with just 15 seconds left on the clock, inexplicably double arm dragging to slow down and place himself in the pocket of the giant and perfectly groomed tube. He didn't come out, but it was a 9.07 point ride nonetheless, and by the time he had pulled the ripcord on his vest and floated to the surface he was the 2016 Pe'ahi Challenge Champion. His back to back win makes him the only (male) surfer to have ever won there.
"I grew up here, this is my bread and butter, this is my backyard, I've blood sweat and tears," a truly elated Kemper told the broadcast. "I actually hit the reef on my last wave, but this is what I grew up to do, and I love it, and I ain't gonna change it for anything."
The men's side of the WSL Big Wave Tour has a possible six events, of which there are two left between now and the end of February when the event windows of the Nazare Challenge in Portugal, and the Todos Santos Challenge in Baja California, Mexico, finish up. Grant Baker leads the rankings, after winning the Puerto Escondido Challenge in Mexico in June. He's followed closely by Greg Long. If optimal conditions don't reach those possible locations, then Baker will remain at the top and become the 2016 WSL Big Wave World Champion. For the women, in its inaugural season, the Pe'ahi Women's Challenge was a one-and-done litmus test for the possibility of developing a bigger tour in 2017 and beyond.
"I hope we get to do this every year, and hopefully at other spots too. I know a few of the girls got hurt, I'm super bummed that they weren't out there with us but they'll be back for more. And I know they can put on an amazing show, so I hope we get more opportunities," said Alms, the just crowned first ever female Big Wave World Champ. "Thank you WSL, this was really big."