presented by Health 2000
I’ve long been drawn and deeply intrigued by competition. Ever since I was young, I was always infatuated by the greats of all sports and the mind-blowing things these talented athletes could do under immense pressure. Like all kiwi kids, back then I watched the cricket, the All blacks and international sports such as tennis and boxing when they graced our screens. Back then that was the only medium to marvel at these great sportsmen. Then I became a surfer, reborn into the world of salt and I simply couldn’t get enough! There wasn’t a lot of coverage going on in those old days but early on I had the mags and had already pleaded my allegiance to my magazine idols both international and here in NZ. It seemed pretty obvious, the best surfers all won the big comps, so coverage of those dominated the pages. In 1988, as a young grom, I had the chance while holidaying in Mt Maunganui to watch the Joseph Kuhtze NZ National Champs. Right there on those very sands strutted the best in the business, and I was in awe of what they could do on a wave. That championship ended up going flat, it was then relocated and finished off in Gisborne and I wanted so badly to see who would become champ that I boarded a bus as a young 14-year-old. That was my introduction to the National Champs and since then I have attended 23 Championships not missing one since 1995, both competing and honing my skills behind the lens while the guns were out performing! While these days it is my job to cover the epic swells, and big events, I come to the Nationals year after year to be inspired and to admire; to watch my favourite surfers go to battle for the most coveted title in NZ Surfing, and to also watch the emerging talent that appears year after year. Back when I began this streak, I kicked around with a pretty core group, and together every year we showed up, competed, caught up with long lost faces, had some hell laughs, and then of course in between I also worked. Most of those guys have since moved on, but back then we used to have a wager at the start of the championship. Round one could be completed so you could analyse who was showing best form, or who had improved out of sight, but then you had to name four surfers that you thought would go on to make the Open Men’s Final, considered the pinnacle of the event. These days I must confess that there are junior finals or even the Open Women’s that are nearly as damn exciting to watch. But anyway, back to task, we could also pick one wildcard, and whoever ended up closest at the end of the championship with the most named surfers in the final was the winner and the others had to pitch in for a big bottle of Jim Beam (which we all shared anyway on final night). Since then I still find myself playing this same old game like some sort of ritual in honour of my departed bro’s, who by the way still ring me in the first couple of days to see who’s doing what and who I reckon are the picks. For seven days for the last 23 years my Na- tional Championships goes something like this. Be at the beach by 6:30 (depending on location of course - down in Dunedin it would be 5) setting up to shoot the free-surfing prior to competition getting underway, then by 8AM it’s all go, and I will not leave the beach all day! Don’t ask me how I relieve myself, let’s just say the late and great Jerry Collins and I have a similar technique employed. By 5PM, after 30 heats of nonstop action, I may go get a feed, rally up some troops and then go and shoot some free surfing until dark then head back to my nest, download all the images, send out media, and finally hit the sack about 11PM at the earliest. This is then repeated each day, becoming ground hog day for the following six days. I don’t blink and I watch every move, in hope of nailing that one golden turn every few heats, and preserving a moment and memory that in future years will be remembered as history of NZ Surfing. No one see’s more of the action than I, especially up close through the big lens, so very quickly I get a good take on who is gunning for the title and who is showing promise to carry the mantle of champion into the next generation. Here’s my personal take on this year’s championships. NB: It may alter from the actual results, as the judges were 500 metres away staring into a burning glare most of the time!
While conditions for the championships were very under par, what Piha does offer every time this championship is held here is actual waves! In a week-long event if you were to look around the country during this week nowhere could have offered waves every day for seven days, and Piha never lets us down on that front. Piha is also considered the birth place of modern surfing in NZ, where two travelling American surfers Bing Copeland and Rick Stoner introduced the first fibreglass malibu’s to NZ waters, and has held the championships 12 times over 54 years, second only to Gisborne.
Heading to Piha for this year’s championships had a rather hollow feeling about it, good mate and possibly our best surfer ever, Mr Maz Quinn, had only days before made it official that he was hanging up the rashy and calling it quits on his competitive career. To have witnessed what this man has achieved both on and offshore in the greatest proving grounds of world surfing were great moments for myself, to know that he would no longer be gracing these events was met with some sadness, yet at the same time great respect for what he had achieved. Ever since the 80’s reign of titles by the legendary Iain ‘Ratso’ Buchanan, who matched an icon of our sport Wayne Parkes at 5X consecutive titles, that had been not only the record but the benchmark that all champions aspired to beat. This had been a massive goal of Maz’s early in his career and he swiftly rung up 4X titles and looked well on his way to eclipsing the record, when his run was halted. In stepped Billy Stairmand of Raglan with a brand of fast, loose and exciting surfing. Billy was out there on the world stage competing on the qualifying circuit just as Maz had, and this kept him razor sharp! And while some surfers snubbed the National Champs this meant a huge amount to Billy and he always returned home for a run at the title in prime form. In 2016 down in Dunedin, with both surfers on 4X titles, Maz and Billy went blow for blow in the final. All week long Maz had looked un-stoppable but he went missing in action
in the final and Billy grabbed his fifth and most importantly, record equalling 5X titles to sit alongside some illustrious company. So, upon leading into the championships and witnessing the form and training that Maz was in, it looked a done deal that he was gonna come out swinging and give that fifth title a crack. Instead he came out and released a statement, that through his entire career he had always told himself that when the fire in the belly was no longer there, it was time to walk! And we respect that and honour the 27 years of competitive service and entertainment you have given to our sport, you are a true champion. So, with Maz gone, there was much debate on who could stand in the way of Billy the Kid, taking his 6th Crown and also the mantle of GOAT! In 2016 upon winning his fifth there was much conjecture, when it came to comparisons of winning five spread out titles Vs five consecutive titles. This was a fair call, in sport it is much harder to remain at the top year after year with everyone gunning for ya blood. But if Billy could take his 6th that would indeed place him in his very own category. So, to get back to playing my own personal game of “who’s ya finalists” on the first day of the event, I chose Billy, the everconsistent JC Susan, junior Elliot Brown after his barnstorming round one performance and of course local Elliot Paerata Reid as my finalists, and Sean Peggs as my wild card. And by the final day I was pretty stoked to get three of my picks in the four-man final. What I didn’t see coming was Taylor Hutchison’s mature performance, but more about that in the Dark horse category. For an athlete to perform to their best, they must not only be in peak physical and technical form, they must have it all calmed and ready in the top 10 inches, in the head. Talking to Billy early on, I sensed much sadness and loss, the last few weeks had been heartbreaking for the bloke, he had parted ways with his long time major sponsor leaving him without financial backing for 2017, and had also lost his mum after a long battle with cancer. Yet Billy was here doing what he does, trying to get through this dark time as best as he could by surfing. His earlier heats were slow and local wonder boy Elliot PaerataReid grabbed the billing as favourite after his impressive performances, and kept this form right on through to the final. While any of finalists would and could have a legitimate shot at the title, especially in these conditions that Piha had served up, the final day was 2-6 foot and strategy and the ability to adapt within the 25-minute timeframe would determine your fate. Elliot knew the line-up better than anyone, so Billy tagged along joining him on the outside bombs. While these offered some scoring potential, being out the back offered slow scoring and the chance of being caught by a wide set and pinned in no man’s land for the entire heat. However, the move was a worthy risk, latch onto one of those runner bombs and big scores would fall, which is exactly what dropped in the first few minutes of the heat for Billy when a 9.53 was delivered, first nail in the coffin! With Taylor putting in some epic work on the inside, Billy adjusted his strategy and headed in to get a piece of this action and when he stroked into that last wave with only a minute remaining, he milked it all the way to the sand and just stood there waiting, knowing he had done all he could. Then if there wasn’t a dry eye on the beach, Billy raised his hand pointed to the heavens in dedication to his mother, and the tears, champagne and elation flowed! The 30-year record had been broken, Billy had just become the 6X Champ and stamped himself in the history books as the ‘Greatest Of All Time’. With a group of his best mates and fiancé all in support they carried and cheered him up the beach. There was one more fitting moment about to go down; Ratso, the man whose record Billy had just broken, was there waiting at the edge of the dunes, having watched the entire show with nothing but respect and admiration for the lad, and being the legend that he is Ratso exchanged a few words, shook hands and then handed out a massive man hug.
The Dark Horse:
While I had Sean Peggs in my mix as my wildcard, he did not disappoint, you see if Peggsy had been actively competing in recent times I’d have had him as a finals pic for sure, yet he had been travelling and taking on a new career in recent times so recognising his pure talent and consistency he was my pick. The one I did not see coming was Taylor Hutchison, giving credit where it is due Taylor has for years lead the pack in the grom comps, and is one of the most consistent surfers going, he also in 2016 represented NZ at The ISA World Champs, an event that would have grown his confidence immensely. In competition surfing and being restricted to 20 minutes, strategy is everything; get that right and you are more than half way to progressing through each and every heat. Taylor’s strategy heat after
heat was bang on, and he not only chose the correct formula, he executed it with precision. With two minutes to go in the Open final Taylor had one hand on the trophy and as the seconds ticked down an upset was in the making and it looked as if Taylor was gonna rain on Billy’s parade. It was only through years of international competitive experience and being heat savvy that Billy stole the lead on his last wave. Yet Taylor’s time will come and this is not the last we’ve seen of this name.
If you’ve ever been to Piha and attempted to get out the back on days like those which the championship saw, you’ll know just how hard it is. Catch a wave and you may as well forget trying to get back out; that wave must be utilised to its maximum, made count and then another lap taken. In years gone by you could always count on the circulating rip in the southern corner of South Piha which effectively creates the form of the infamous Piha Bar. In recent years, there has been a mass of sand migration breaking off in slugs from the 8 million cubic metres of sand deposit down near the Manukau Harbour. These slugs of sand move north filling in the beaches of the West Coast, while it is great to have sand at a beach, in this case many of the banks that were previously iconic have filled in and no longer show their expected form. In Piha’s case, while this has created great banks up North, the rips that surfers utilised to conveyor belt themselves out the back are no longer what they once were. For competitors at certain times of the comp this meant the only way out was through a cave like crevice which stretches 60 metres through Camel Rock and out into the lineup behind the breaking waves. While locals and regulars take it in their stride, the pathway can seem treacherous and intimidating, but many a surfer that utilised the Keyhole during the week, advanced while others were being held inside paddling their hearts out.
The Elation and support:
No matter what division it is I’ve always fascinated by the elation that sporting success brings, and how each athlete handles that. Some go quiet, some scream and yell, then there’s the quiet claims of a light fist squeeze, and the polar opposite fist pump to the heavens. For years NZ Surfing events kept the final results secret until prize giving, which was sometimes days later and the emotion and elation of a win was lost. I personally campaigned for years to see this changed, and thankfully we now get to witness and go along on the ride with each and every victor, to see their friends and families revel in the moment with great pride after years of sacrifice and dedication.
Each and every Nationals unearths new talent that simply shines and it wasn’t that long ago that some of the guys that filled the Open final slots had shown great promise in the U14 divisions at this same event. The talent we would witness in these junior divisions we know that in 5-10 years’ time will be the masters and future of our sport. Not since a young grommet named Bobby Hansen way back in 96 as a long haired cheeky micro grom of 11 years old,
The ability to adapt his game plan quickly and surely delivered Billy his sixth and record setting title.
This one’s for you mum!