Competing at Pipe (2002 MSIPP) -- 1/8/02

This is *not* me! However, this was my first look at the conditions. Farq!
Below frame grabs courtesy D.B. Dunlap

The Mike Stewart International Pipeline Pro (MSIPP) is the premier professional bodyboarding contest. Competitors from around the world converge to the North Shore every January for a shot at riding the infamous Banzai Pipeline.

I've dreamed about entering, but never had the guts to try. Well, this time (for the first time) all trial heats were to be held at Pipeline. That opportunity to surf Pipe with just a few other guys pushed me over the edge--I was just going to go for it!

Once I decided to enter in mid-December, I immediately went into a state of constant angst. My main concern was that the surf was going to be too big. I also was worried that I'd make a poor showing. But I wasn't getting any younger--my Achilles injury punctuated that oh so strongly. Anyway, I'm old enough to take the "no shame" attitude.

First I set some basic goals. Of course, I wasn't aspiring to make the final, but I did have some things that I wanted to achieve. It was a short list:
1. Make my wave count.
2. Get at least one tube ride.
3. Take off on a set wave.
4. Catch the last one at Backdoor.
5. Advance one heat.
Pretty low aspirations I know, but that was good enough for me.

I started strategizing how I was going to approach my heat. The plan would definitely be modified given the condition of the day, however there were some basic tactics I was going to employ:
1. Sit deep--I prefer to sit as deep as possible at least at the very start of the heat (sometimes paddling to the outside mid-heat can be tiring).
2. Get tubed--because my trick repertoire is small and limited, I decided that catching tubes would be the easiest way to go.
3. Try and build wave count early--this, again is dependent on conditions, but is still a good idea to establish wave count early.
4. Rub my rabbit's foot. ;-)

I pored over the Internet weather and surf forecasts and found that some serious swell action was coming. More nervousness!

After a while, I thought that I was overthinking the heat to my detriment. I tried to kinda forget theories and plans and just surf. However, it was hard not to think about it.

The event started off on Saturday (1/5/02) with a fun bodyboarding promo at Ala Moana Center. See for complete coverage.

Sunday (1/6/02) was competitor registration day at Ehukai Beach Park. It was much more informal and unstructured than I expected, but was still nice to start meeting other competitors. That's when I found out that, besides Mike Stewart himself, I was probably the oldest competitor in the field of about 150. The surf was on the rise and out of control. I was sweating bullets!

Because of my work schedule, I called GOB's Derek Hulme who was organizing the heats. He was generous enough to put me in trials round 1, heat 5, late enough for me to get there with adequate time. He actually offered to step me up to round 2, but GOB tour points didn't matter to me. In hindsight, it turned out to be a good thing.

The start of the waiting period was Monday (1/7/02), and as expected, it was huge!!! In fact, it was so big that both the Quiksilver Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational and the Jaws Tow-in World Cup contests went off. The MSIPP contest was of course postponed.

Called Mike that night to find out the status of contest for the next day. He said there was a 60% chance of it running. Man, I could not believe it. Given the surf forecast, I just assumed that they would have to call it off due to the declining swell still being too big (15 ft Haw'n was the forecast). I was definitely not prepared mentally to surf.

In the morn, I made arrangements with work, dropped off my daughter real early at school in town, then raced out to the North Shore to compete (avoiding the photo speed-trap vans).

When I parked the van, I saw Mike in the lot and asked him how it was. "Six-to-eight and superclean," was his reply. OK, I can kinda handle that, I thought.

When I got to the shoreline, I was horrified to find a mack set blowing through the lineup, with precontest bodyboarders taking huge pits. "That wasn't no eight feet!" I thought to myself. Talk about losing confidence. I got all flustered just thinking about having to go out in that surf, much less compete.

I started analyzing and gauge the surf, trying to think about how I was going to approach the heat. For the moment, conditions were excellent, with light offshores and sunny skies. The swell came down from the day before's Eddie, but there were still some mondo sets plowing through. There was a definite push from more a northerly direction, making Pipe shut down a lot and making Backdoor look enticing, if you had the sack.

I checked in with the contest director for my heat, then asked whether I could shoot from the water later on. Unfortunately, they were limiting it to two water photogs, and there were already a couple in the lineup.

I made my rounds, talking story with some of the bodyboarders and videographers lining the beach. The consensus was that it wasn't perfect, but the size was making for some exciting moments. I saw one guy come in with his bodyboard snapped from getting axed by the lip.

So I settled on the beach and shot some pics with my 500 mm lens, all the while taking as much mental notes on the conditions as possible. There was an obvious downward trend in wave size. Still, every once in a while, a few mackers would push through. Some heats actually had very few open-faced rides, and that was very disturbing.

I was in heat five of round one and was kind of surprised with how quickly my time came. I was nervous, but didn't get butterflies in my stomach (like I used to). Nothing to lose.

Bob Thomas (the contest director) called our heat, and just me and another competitor, Thomas Bunting (Tom) was around. I introduced myself to the guy out of sportsmanship. The third person in our heat was nowhere to be found. Top two advanced, so we were hoping he'd be a no-show so we could essentially have a free surf session.

We got the standard pre-heat brief: 19 minute heats, one minute between heats, one horn and green flag to start, two horns to end, yellow flag means five minutes or less in heat, best three waves scored.

After we got our gear, we made our way to the jump point. That's when another bodyboarder asked me whether they called the heat. I quickly realized that it was our missing third competitor. A bit discouraged, but still there would only be the three of us in the water.

With about eight minutes remaining in the previous heat, we made our way out to the lineup. The surf was still sizable, but the paddle-out was easy. We hung out in the channel near the jetski water patrol, just relaxing.

The late guy was named Micah Oh from the Westside. We talked a lot and found we had some mutual friends. Micah wasn't into the contest scene, but I just knew he was no slouch in the water. The other guy, Tom, I never found out where he was from. My guess is Australia.

The waves in the heat prior to ours weren't all that great. It looked like the competitors were groveling at the end of the heat, trying to get one last good ride in.

When two horns sounded, the three of us made our way to the lineup. The beach was pretty far away so I didn't think about the crowds or the cameras at all. All I wanted to do was catch a few good ones and hope for the best.

I hung back a bit, paddling a little slowly for no reason. But after a bit of thought, I realized I wasn't where I wanted to be. I always prefer to sit deep when waiting for waves. So I motored ahead of the other guys just as the horn signaled the start of our heat.

Good timing. A small set came through and I was on the first wave. I wasn't picky at all--just jumped on it. Really do-nothing ride. I just sort of trimmed, flowing with the wave. Think I did a flat 360 halfway through. I felt good about catching the first wave of the heat and got rid of a bit of the contest jitters.

I paddled back to the lineup before the others got waves. Hey, I was leading the heat! Not for very long though. The other guys both got waves--couldn't tell how they did.

After they paddled back, Tom came kinda close to where I was sitting. I did the standard jockey to maintain my outside position for the next wave even though he was fairly nonconfrontational.

Another small set loomed, looking like the left wall was open. I took off on the first wave (again, too impatient), and caught a fun little ride, looking back to see the wave curl over the back of my fins.

As I was paddling back out I was treated (disgusted) to see Tom pull into a sweet, well-overhead barrel. I remember having evil thoughts, wishing for him not to make it. Of course, he came out flying. Well, I guess Micah and I were vying for second.

Speaking of which, I hadn't seen Micah through most of the heat. Apparently, he caught a couple of waves that got him stuck inside. Think he got some good ones, but I wasn't sure.

I sat for a while, waiting for my next one. Impatience got the better of me and I picked off a smaller wave. But this one was well-formed and provided me an itty-bitty tube ride. Came out cleanly and awkwardly worked it to the inside sandbar. Hey, at least I accomplished that goal.

The rest of the heat was a disappointment for me. I took off on an ill-advised wave that shut down. I just went straight and had the thing close out all around me. Got worked trying to make it back out.

With just a couple of minutes left, a huge set loomed on the horizon. In fact, it was so big, Third Reef started cresting and rolling in. "Uh oh, here we go," I thought.

Fortunately, it was only peaking outside, because when the set came in, it was substantially smaller. Still, they were the biggest sets of the heat and I was furthest outside. I had to go.

Picked the first one (again) and knew before even stroking into it that it was a closeout. Halfway down, I told myself "No way," and just straightened out, with whitewater blowing up all around me. Exhilarating, but worthless as far as points were concerned.

When I got in, I talked to a couple of friends who said I had a decent chance of advancing. Got my hopes up a little, but knew I was the least skilled rider in my heat. Oh well, just had to wait for them to call the results.

I purposely sat away from the action so that I didn't have to go through the agony of listening to them call out the results. After nearly an hour, I finally broke down and checked my results.

Went to the heat sheets and found out... I got third. I didn't advance.

To say I was a bit disappointed was an understatement. Although I didn't expect to advance, I felt that I did as well as thought I would, and at least had a little bit of hope in my mind that I could've made it.

So I checked the scoresheets to see just how I fared. My scores were surprisingly low, with three wave totalling 6.5-7.5 out of 30 (amongst the three judges). Micah only had two scoring rides but still beat me by a little bit (two judges gave him second, while the third gave me the nod). The difference was 0.5 points on one judge's card for me to advance. Sigh. With respect to Tom, well, we didn't stand a chance. His great tube ride scored an 8 across the board--that one ride topped my three best! Well, it was close, but then again, it wasn't even close.

I was bummed, but there was a huge burden lifted off of me. I actually had to attend a mandatory practice presentation at work, so now I could make that. Also, I could now concentrate on taking pictures rather than dwell on another heat.

Sour grapes! Of course I'd rather have advanced!

After our heat, the conditions deteriorated rapidly, with strong southwest winds kicking up. I mean, it was really ugly, victory at sea type conditions. Maybe it wasn't so bad that I lost. No, I still wish I advanced!

I watched several more heats, including one with my friend Charles. His heat was super-ugly, with rip currents, closeout sets, and blown-out waves. In that respect, I was stoked that I got to surf the cleaner conditions in round 1.

Was it worth it? I think so. If you look at it from a pure monetary standpoint, I spent $200 in entry fees to surf 19 minutes with two other guys out. It came to about $10 per minute or $40 per wave. Hardly worth the financial investment.

But it never was about the money or the glory or the sponsors or the fame. I think it's more akin to someone wanting to run a marathon. I mean, if you had the opportunity to compete in the premier event in "insert-your-favorite-sport-here" at "insert-the-most-prestigious-location-here", wouldn't you want to try, just to say you did? Something I can tell the kids and grandkids later on in life.

OBTW, I ended up equal last (actually, equal 129th place). I earned one point on the 2001-2002 GOB World Tour. I probably was the second oldest competitor in the entire field. The man, Mike Stewart, is a year older than me.

But I can say that I finally entered. After 20 years of not even considering the thought of competing at the world professional level, I finally went for it. I lost right off the bat, but I'm good with that. The preparation, the anxiety, the excitement and the relief were all part of the whole package that made it worthwhile for me. And doing it the winter after what I thought was a debilitating Achilles tendon rupture made it that much sweeter.

Would I do it next year? Hmmm. I'd have to give it some serious thought. Definitely only if they once again ran the trials at Pipe. And even then, I'm not sure. Competition is fun, but it definitely is not in my blood anymore. I'll let you know how I feel next season.

Aloha from Paradise,
sponge (the oldest amateur bodyboarder in the world)