Much to everyone's surprise, the morning of the Quiksilver Ceremonial big-wave contest started off a little slow. Expectations were that yesterday we'd awake up to the thunderous sound of 15-foot sets marching across the reef of Punta Lobos. Instead, it was 8 to 10 feet, clean and glassy. Definitely not the ideal situation for a big-wave event. I guess forecasting isn't perfect after all.
Then again, by the time the finals rolled around, the sets were peaking in the 18-to-20-foot range and it was considerably more serious. And with an all-star cast in said final that included Santa Cruz's Peter Mel, Hawaii's Mark Healey and Jamie Sterling, and of course, Greg Long, it was most definitely on. But even with big-waves heavies crowding the sizable lineup, it was Chilean charger Cristian Merello that managed walked away with the top honors. Displaying local knowledge, a committed approach, and a sheer will to win, 27-year-old Merello conquered the heavy lefts with a level of comfort and confidence well beyond his years.
Merello was elated with his accomplishment on a number of levels. "Winning this event was really special for me and it wasn't just for me, it was for my mother, who is battling cancer and for the community of Pichilemu," he explained. "My strategy was to sit as deep as possible and wait for the biggest waves. I felt so comfortable out there and I've surfed that board so many times at this spot that I knew what to do and did my best. Now, I'm hoping to get an invitation to the contest in Peru so I can keep going".
Up until now, most of the surf world had never heard of Merello, but true to underground form, he has been charging the points of Chile for years. He's gained invaluable experience as Ramon Navarro's tow partner, and has now made amends for an early exit in last year's semifinal that saw him suffer a knee injury and a subsequent three months of rehab.
"I'm stoked that Cristian won because his mom needed it and it's good for his career," told the ever-humble Navarro, the godfather of Chilean big-wave surfing. "It was a close call between Gabriel and him, but most importantly, it's just amazing seeing the Latin American guys compete with the best big-wave surfers in the world."
Diego Medina, of Horcon, Chile, won the biggest drop of the day and the Waterman Award in Memory of Noel Robinson, which was voted on by fellow competitors. His wave was hands down the biggest wave of the day.
The community of Pichelemu and the other coastal cities of this region have had a rough go the past four months. This event, although brief, provided a well-deserved break and distraction from picking up the pieces of life after the earthquake and tsunami. It has been a long road to recovery, and they still have a long way to go, but optimism is in the air and the excitement of a hometown boy winning definitely added to the positive atmosphere. It's good to see the local boys doing well and the crowd getting behind them. And to add to the aloha just a little bit more, all of the finalists agreed to donate half of their prize money to aid in earthquake relief.
"It was a fantastic start to the new season," said Big Wave World Tour director Gary Linden, who was more than pleased with the day's events. "To bring a world-class event to a rebounding community with the surfers donating half of their prize money to the benefit of the local fisherman was a gesture in the spirit of the passion that is driving this tour. We do it because we love it and we want to share that feeling with the rest of the world."
With the first event of the 2010 Big Wave World Tour all wrapped up, the pisco flowing like water, and the basado providing a top-notch dinner, the day came to a perfect end. While some rocked out to a Doors cover band late into the night, a few of the competitors quickly re-packed their guns and headed up to Puerto to chase the swell. Surely, it's going to be bombing up there this weekend -- the biggest swell of the summer thus far, and with a good warm up under their belts here in Chile, the crew is ready for some giant beach break barrels.
1) Cristian Merello (Chile)
2) Gabriel Villaran (Peru)
3) Peter Mel (USA)
4) Jamie Sterling (Hawaii)
5) Mark Healey (Hawaii)
6) Greg Long (USA)
To further help the people of Chile, please go to the Save the Waves Foundation and learn how you can help.