- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
For months the California companies that supply, surfboards to America and most of the world have filled the trade magazines with triumphant claims of "revolutionary breakthroughs" in board design. But in the fifth annual Smirnoff World Pro-Am Surfing Championship, held last week at a little-known and somewhat grubby beach called Laniakea on Hawaii's famed North Shore, the most highly advertised board—the Bonzer—never left the beach. Judging by the result, the breakthrough—if, indeed, it has occurred—was accomplished in just about absolute secrecy in the world's most remote and least visited metropolis: Perth, Australia.
The Australian entry was demonstrated convincingly by one of its co-designers, 21-year-old Ian Cairns (below), who skimmed across the collapsing walls of Laniakea's testy waves on his triple-finned, double-concave West Coast board to win the grand prize of $5,000. No one outside of Perth had ever heard of West Coast surfboards before and on the day of the tournament hardly anyone in Hawaii knew that Ian Cairns existed. He was not one of the 30 renowned surfers who had been invited to compete, and he had come only in the hope of filling a no-show slot.
"I thought if I could get in I might have a chance to win," Cairns said afterward. "It really is a good board, you know. But it isn't exactly an invention. There have been other double-concave boards, and others with two or three fins. But I got to talking with two friends of mine and we decided we could improve on them, so I quit my job and got to it." The job Cairns quit was in his father's fireproof-door factory and, when seen from above, the 7'6" board he and his buddies shaped does not look like much of a departure. But viewed from behind at eye level, the difference is apparent.
The underside of the stern resembles a pair of arched eyebrows over the long, pinched nose of the central fin or skeg. At the tips of the eyebrows two tiny subfins descend from the rails (edges) like medium-short sideburns. The grooves created by the arched brows slope gently up to the center of the board, which has less scoop than most boards. (Scoop is the surfing term for the clipper-ship upsweep of the pointed prow.) As in many boards designed for speed, the rails are fiat to the water. This sends the wake streaming straight back, rather than deflecting it to the sides, and the long grooves of the West Coast design aerate it so that a sort of hydrofoil-jet effect is obtained.
Cairns had only the one board with him—unheard of for an international competitor, some of whom carry as many as 15—but it proved to be the right one for the treacherous Laniakea surf, in which the waves slide right and often break at the top instead of arching over to form curls or tubes. To beat Laniakea, a contestant had to streak along the face of the wall at flank speed to keep from being wiped out by the pursuing spill. Congratulating Cairns after his victory, Lord James Blears, the onetime professional wrestler who has become a respected senior surfer as well as father of two world champions, Jimmy and Laura, exclaimed: "I've never seen a surfboard go that fast. Never."
Few Hawaiian surfers or shapers expected any radical design to succeed in the Smirnoff. It is almost a matter of doctrine in Hawaii that big surf takes a big board—a standard gun eight to 12 feet long—and big surf is what the North Shore normally produces in November, with waves even reaching an unsurfable 30 feet. But not this year. Last Monday and Tuesday the sea at Sunset Beach, the Pipeline and Haleiwa looked like Walden Pond in July. On Wednesday, Meet Director Fred Hemmings Jr. abruptly ordered the troops to Laniakea after the surf there suddenly rose to eight feet.
Given a choice, nobody would have picked Laniakea. Coral rims the water's edge, and the narrow beach above it looks like the crust of an old piece of toast. There is no parking area, and anyone who is not willing to walk a mile for an amenity—be it telephone, sandwich or toilet—should have stood at Waikiki. But none of these disabilities mattered to the contestants from Australia, Peru, Japan, California, Florida and Hawaii who gathered around Hemmings at 11:30 a.m. as he prepared to send out the first of five six-man heats. At that moment a career—and perhaps a revolution—was launched. Ivo Hanza of Peru was missing, and Hemmings beckoned to Cairns.
The young Australian found himself in tough company—Jim (Booby) Jones, Bunker Spreckels and Jimmy Blears, all of Hawaii, and the redoubtable Californian Mike Purpus, among others—and nobody noticed him or his board until he scrambled to a qualifying third place. Cairns squeaked into the semifinals as well, where he was up against Purpus, Jeff Hakman, 1972's leading money winner, and Jones and Larry Bertleman, both part Hawaiian and popular favorites, and Dave Balcerzak, the first Florida surfer ever to reach the Smirnoff final.
At intervals the surf, as though responding to a moody, overcast sky, had dropped as low as four feet and most of the time had hung between six and eight. Now, as the six finalists paddled out in premature twilight, the waves began to surge and an occasional 10-footer ripped down the surfline from the point. Hope flared among the remnants of the meager crowd. With three locally based surfers in the final there was at least a chance that Hawaii might at last claim the sport's richest prize.
That hope persisted to the very end, with Hakman and Cairns only micro-points apart. It died just after a long and thrilling ride down a nine-foot wave by Hakman. Far up toward the point, Cairns appeared on the crest of a 10-footer and began the dazzling expedition that Blears described as the fastest ride he had ever seen. Even so, it was close. After consultations that were completed by flashlight, the judges voted 3-2 for Cairns.