A Pipe Prelude

© Ryan Miller

Predictions made on the eve of a world title showdown, and the twilight and dawn of a dozen careers.

In its 43 years of existence, no other surfing contest has touched our nerves like The Pipeline Masters. Held at a wave that still forms the base on which all other waves are judged, it resonates on an existential and technical level.

Can a surfer die at Pipe? Well, yeah. Malik Joyeux was a professional surfer from Tahiti who became a player in the lineup. He died on a six-foot day. The 1983 Pipe Masters were held all the way through a dramatic low-tide and two local entrants Chris Lundy and Steve Massfeller were all but scalped on the reef.

Now let's zoom in on on the action. It isn't hard. This is a wave that is part-reef, part-shorebreak. The best seats in the house? They're free. Just stroll down from Ehukai Beach Park and park yourself in the sand. Maybe you're going to be looking into the barrel, maybe you want to catch the Backdoor rights action. Or somewhere in the middle.

This year's event is going start on the buzzer, December 8, I'm guessing. A north-west swell, maybe six feet.

Kelly Slater must win the event to have a chance at winning the world title. But if Mick Fanning finishes third or better, it's his. If Kelly doesn't win, it's Mick's.

The careers of Brazilian Miguel Pupo, Californian Pat Gudaskaus, Australian Yadin Nicol, Hawaiian Dusty Payne and Floridian Damien Hobgood are also on the line. Squeeze through two heats and they're safe. Lose to a Hawaiian wildcard in round one or two, and it's back on the qualifying series.

© Brian Bielmann

Who to watch?

John John Florence: The kid who grew up in a shack less than a hundred footsteps from where you paddle out will win. And as a consequence of his dominance, Mick will become the world champion for the third time. The most remarkable things, or at least one among the many remarkable things about John John, who only turned 21 six weeks ago, is that he has simultaneously taken the best-surfer-in-the-world title from Dane Reynolds and the best-surfer-at-Pipe from his one-time tormentor Jamie O'Brien.

Mick Fanning: Forget history. Mick's game is as flawless as it can be for someone who catches 50 waves a year, tops, at Pipe. The reality of the 2013 tour climax is that Mick could phone in sick and still win the title.

Kelly Slater: Eleven world titles and six Pipeline Masters victories. It counts for something doesn't it? What's more instructive is that Kelly hasn't won at the Pipe Masters since 2008. This isn't his year, although big, clean waves will suit, should they come, and remove the element of chance that ruined the back half of his year. Six feet and under and the chance of hitting a pothole either in the form of a wildcard or wave-starved heat is too great.

Ezekiel Lau: Zeke more than won Sunset, he owned it. A big strong natural-footer, Zeke will be driven by a home wave and home crowd advantage. But no contest comes bigger than the Pipe Masters. The pressure here can squeeze the life out of any man. Zeke's challenge is to master his emotions.

Josh Kerr: Now, this is the real wildcard. The real dark horse. Josh Kerr, from Coolangatta, where the waves rarely exceed four feet, has an innate ability in barrels of any size. Fiji? Tahiti? Hawaii? Josh has all the skills of the very best wrapped up in a juvenile style that tends to create an impression that his game is undeveloped. They aren't. Josh could win this. Can you imagine a John John-Josh Kerr final in 10-foot drainers? Put it there on the wall of the hall of fame.