"I can hear the waves at night," says Owen Wright. "It gets me so excited when I hear the swell picking up, and you wake up in the morning -- and it's huge. You just want to make sure you wipe the sleep out of your eyes before you head out."
Wright slumbers mere yards from the famed reef at Pipeline when he's in Hawaii. And while the entire North Shore, the whole island of Oahu, and the island chain are special, there's nowhere quite like Pipe.
Wright and the rest of the ASP World Tour will go to battle with not only each other, but surfing's ultimate humbler this week, as the season finishes in all its glory with the Billabong Pipeline Masters In Memory of Andy Irons.
"It's a bit of a frantic scramble to catch waves really. It's so crowded, but if you're lucky enough to catch one, it has the potential to be the best wave of your life. I guess that's the lure," says Wright. "The paddle is really easy, it doesn't break in the channel and the whole way out you're looking into some of the biggest best barrels you have ever seen. You just can't paddle fast enough to get out there to get one."
Wright has been speed paddling all season. After completely owning the ASP Junior ranks and then receiving 2010 rookie of the year honors, Wright absolutely caught fire this year, meeting Kelly Slater in three epic showdowns in a row -- first in mind-bending Teahupoo, then winning in fairly mind-bending New York (the day of the year in Long Beach) and finally in strategic Lowers ramps. And whether he was manning up against the best in the world or bone-crushing bowls, Wright showed that he's not afraid of much.
Wright currently sits in second place. Now, as we all know, Slater wrapped up his 11th title in San Francisco (a couple times actually). But the Slater coronations pre-Hawaii have become common. And for those who put surfing's superhero on a plane of his own, Pipe makes a great host for the battle for No. 2.
Of course, Slater will be in town. He's got six Pipe Masters to his credit. He was last beaten in the finals by current No. 3 Taj Burrow, who just won at Haleiwa. And no one is hotter than John John Florence (No. 35) right now, who grew up with Pipe as his backyard playground. Florence can just about taste the Triple Crown. The defending champ, Jeremy Flores, has already withdrawn. Mick Fanning is back in Australia recuperating from a bulging disk in his neck. CJ Hobgood and Adam Melling are both in for Pipe as first alternates after being shuffled out midseason.
The big news is that the ASP, which picks two additional wild-card slots, has chosen the next surfers in line in the One World Rankings -- California wunderkind Kolohe Andino and Brazil's Willian Cardoso.
"As the Pipe Masters is an expanded field, ASP was also awarded two additional wild-card spots to fill," explained the ASP's Dave Prodan. "We committed one of these to next in line on the ASP World Rankings and said that if a surfer was in a good position to win the Triple Crown, we would consider awarding the remaining spot to them -- so we could avoid a situation like last season when Julian Wilson was second in the Vans Triple Crown rankings after Sunset Beach, but wasn't seeded into Pipe."
The ASP refined this new ruling to state that if a surfer was not in the top three slots in the Triple Crown after Sunset, the wild card would just go to the next in line. Since Santa Cruz's Nat Young is in fifth, he won't get bumped into the Pipe lineup. The surfers' union not only voted that Andino and Cardoso are fitting recipients, but that they will get qualifying points from Pipe.
"That's a huge gesture from the surfers, considering that Kolohe's and/or Willian's performances could effectively knock one of the established surfers out of the top 34 qualification," added Prodan.
Right now, Alejo Muniz, Miguel Pupo, Adrian de Souza and Patrick Gudauskas are all injured, but have yet to officially withdraw. Those wild cards will be picked by Vans and Billabong, the sponsors of the Triple Crown and Pipe Masters, respectively. As Prodan points out, there's still a chance for Nat Young.
But while much of pro surfing's elite has been clashing in tiny Haleiwa and shifty Sunset for the Vans Triple Crown title, Owen Wright has been in Teahupoo getting his share of shelving lefts before Pipe.
"I love the Triple Crown and the prestige it carries," Wright says. "However 2011 has been a long year for me. The later half of the tour especially, had a lot of events back-to-back. I was exhausted with competing, so I was happy to stay home, hang with my family and go on a surf trip with my mates to Teahupoo."
What he got was perfect late-season Tahitian 10-footers with just his friends out.
Is this some Slater-inspired strategy? Let's not forget that Slater bagged J-Bay this year for a week of heaving Cloudbreak, and then won Teahupoo. Perhaps Wright just got all the draining lefts he could under his belt rather than fight for average surf at Ehukai Beach Park? Either way, now he's focused back on Pipe.
Wright has definitely seen some horrors there. The Hawaiian water patrol keeps a close eye on every drop. Sunny Garcia made several trips to the hospital from the Pipe Masters in 1992.
"When I was 15, I watched a guy go over with the lip on a 12-foot wave, I can still see it so clearly in my head. There's so much talk about that wave and how dangerous it is, but I never listened to it, I always focused on the positives of the wave like getting the chance to get the best wave of your life. I normally stay out there for hours, I love surfing waves like Pipe," says Wright.
Expect to see everyone in the water at Pipe on Wednesday, getting reacquainted with the reef. There's a little warm-up swell expected before a significant northwest fills in through Thursday, Dec. 8 to start the Pipe Masters that continues on Friday. Unlike the Reef Pro Haleiwa, which waited through nine lay days, we will likely see the Pacific unload from the get-go.