All Photos by ASP/Covered Images–Surfer Mark Occhilupo
Story by Kathleen Gasperini and Ocean Promotion

On November 13th, the first of the “Crown Jewels” of surfing competitions got underway starting with the Reef Hawaiian Pro on the North Shore of Oahu at Haleiwa Ali’I Beach Park. The $170,000 Reef Hawaiian Pro is a men’s and women’s 6-star rated Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) World Qualifying Series event and features more than 200 of the world’s top-ranked surfers. The Reef Hawaian Pro, like the rest of the upcoming events in the next 6 weeks including the O’Neill World Cup of Surfing, Billabong Pipeline Masters, and the women’s events, including the Roxy Pro Sunset and Billabong Pro Maui, cap off who will be named champions of surfing, and just as importantly, bringing with it thousands of fans, media, and surfers that provide an enormous economic stimulus package to the area.

Surfer Jordy Smith

Despite the economic hardships facing the nation and the rest of the world, ironically it’s on the beaches of Hawaii’s North Shore where the gathering of tribes congregate in the run-up to the holiday season and where things look brighter thanks to the 26-year-old event series, the Vans Triple Crown. What attracts most people other than surfers are the monster waves: 50-foot high faces are not uncommon during this time of year and just as quickly take out unassuming tourists on the beach as they do breaking boards on jagged reef in pounding surf among the pros. It’s this time of year that Label Networks covers surfing mostly, mainly because the waves are so huge here, the biggest sponsors in surfing are represented (Vans, Reef, Billabong, RockStar, Nixon, Roxy, Hawaiian Airlines, Chevy) and frankly, the U.S. Open in Huntington Beach in July and the former X Games of Surfing in Mexico in August just never compare. This is when speeddial is set to daily surf reports and our North Shore mobile text alerts start pouring in from event organizers and our peeps on the ground. (One of my favorites a few seasons back went something like: “Expect a gigantic swell coming in from a storm off Japan and then it’s going to get monster.”)

The Vans Triple Crown, which takes place along a 7-mile stretch along Kamehameha Highway on well-known beaches such as Pipeline, Waimea Bay, and Sunset, shows how an exceptional sporting event can transform a rural area with a quick influx of money. The North Shore is known also as an agricutlrual area and small-town surfing community during most of the year with quiet shops, surfboard rentals, roadside fruit stands, and a laid-back restaurant business.Yet the area around Haleiwa, the small town that acts as the community center and hub during the Triple Crown, tranforms during this time of year -even the local grocery store, which becomes a vertibale “who’s-who” of surfing with top global pros causally walking the aisles. It is also home to some of the most expensive real estate in Hawaii and some of the highest rents in the nation. According to reports from Ocean Promotion public relations, neither have trended downward much over the past 12 months. According to their reports, “members of the surf industry, pro surfers and visitors will be paying up to $30,000 a month to rent beach-side homes on the North Shore this winter.

“This is such a unique neighborhood that you can’t even compare,” says Roberto Lopes, Realtor/Principle Broker for Haleiwa’s Team Real Estate. “Our winter market is less susceptible to the economic downturn. It is made up of mostly single people–surfers and surf industry types, as opposed to the summer family who is going to find it economically more challenging to travel. Winter surf plays a big role in our local economy and it comes as a welcome relief.”

The last independent economic impact study during surf season, conducted in the winter of 2006, showed that the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing directly attracted a total number of 7,000 participants and spectators to the North Shore. Those participants and visitors generated $14.6 million in spending, including $8.9 million in direct spending. Studies for the Hawaii Tourism Authority also show that 51% of overnight visitors to Oahu venture out to the North Shore, equating to more than 2,000,000 people and their dollars annually.

“In a year like we’re having, the surfing tradition of six weeks on the North Shore is like a harbor in the storm,” said Vans VP of Marketing, Doug Palladini. “There’s not much in life that’s free these days,” says Vans Triple Crown of Surfing Director, Randy Rarick. “But the waves and world class surfing events still don’t cost a dime here. Even the parking’s free, and that makes events like ours even more attractive at times like these.”

Surfer Wilkinson

What happens in the Reef Hawaiian Pro, the first of the series, often provides a glimpse at what to expect in the next series of events. According to Randy, “The Reef Hawaiian Pro sets the tone for the rest of the Triple Crown events to follow. Both the men and women who do well at Haleiwa, put their stamp on the start of the North Shore competitive season and are destined to have their names etched in the record books. This is a ‘make it or break it’ event, particularly for those vying for World Championship Tour qualification and as such, nothing can be discounted. This is the one event that the best drama never stops unfolding!”

At the kick-off last week, 17 nations flew their flags with Hawaii and Brazil standing to incur the heaviest cuts this season. The 2008 ASP World Tour featured five Hawaii surfers but those numbers could dwindle dramatically for 2009. Former world champion Andy Irons’ competitive plans for the future are unclear, although he looks safe to re-qualify based on his ratings points. His brother Bruce Irons plans to opt out of the tour at the end of the year. Pancho Sullivan is failing to re-qualify, and Roy Powers hovers dangerously close to the cut-off point of 25 on the World Tour rankings (he’s currently rated 24th). Fred Patacchia may be the lone Hawaii survivor, currently ranked 15th.

From seasoned veterans the likes of Mark Occhilupo, 42, and Peter Mel, 38, to young local rookies like Dusty Payne, 19, Haleiwa served up the best conditions possible for the opening day. As the day progressed, sunshine gave way and the morning’s sheet glass was interrupted by pulsing onshores. Former world champ Mark Occhilupo emerged from round one with one of the top 10 heat scores of the day.

“I always want to do the Triple Crown and I’ll do it as long as I can. It’s great to see everyone having a go at Haleiwa, Sunset and Pipe.” Occhilupo has been granted a wildcard into all three of the Vans Triple Crown events. Incredibly, over all these years, he has only ever won one event here: the 1985 Pipeline Masters.

At the other end of the age and career spectrum, Maui pair Dusty Payne and Hank Gaskell, 22, put on a brilliant show in back-to-back heats to close out round one. Payne posted the highest individual wave score of 9.33 points out of 10 and a two-wave total of 16.0, while Gaskell surfaced with the highest heat total of the day: 17.17 (9.0 and 8.17

Surfer Dusty Payne

In the women’s competition, a new generation is already stealing the show. From the first heat of wildcard battles among 6 young Hawain surfers, they simply dominated with wildcard winner Carissa Moore, 16, Laura Enever, 17, and Coco Ho, 17, all moving into quarters. One of the defending champs, Megan Abubo was eliminated.

Overall, 50 women will compete in this year’s three-event series including the Reef Hawaiian Pro at Haleiwa, the Roxy Pro at Sunset Beach, and the Billabong Pro on Maui. Including the $10,000 bonus for the top performing individual across the three events, the Vans Triple Crown offers an average of $4,300 per female competitor. The men’s series, on the other hand, offers a total of $600,000 across 180 competitors for an average of $3,333 per surfer.

Surfer Carissa Moore

Unlike the men’s world title race, the (ASP) women’s world title race is far from over coming into the Triple Crown. The top five ranked women remain in contention coming into Hawaii are: Sofia Mulanovich (Peru); Stephanie Gilmore (Australia); Layne Beachley (Australia); Amee Donohoe (Australia); and Silvana Lima (Brazil). Mulanovich, Stepahnie and Layne are all former world champions and Layne, who is now 36, and has won 7 Triple Crown events, has announced that this year’s Triple Crown on the North Shore will be her last.

“Six of my seven world titles have been won in Hawaiian waters and Sunset Beach is my favorite wave. The North Pacific has taught me more about myself and my ability as a surfer than anywhere else in the world! My dream for my last year in Hawaii is to surf well and enjoy every minute of the journey. Being in contention for my eighth world title will certainly make it memorable, but more importantly I want to perform well and exit the water proud and happy, regardless of the result.”

Stay tuned for more action from the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, including the Reef Hawaiin Pro final results and action this week.