In photos, or even in video, the Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu is a beautiful sight, the blue water creating a sense of calm as the wave barrels toward shore. And the world’s best surfers, who easily dissect its most critical sections, make it look sensationally simple, giving the place a false sense of serenity.
In truth, it’s one of the most terrifying places in the world, as the wave detonates on shallow, sharp corral, making it a fitting final site for the World Surf League’s Championship Tour—a spot where world titles are won, and lost, and careers are made and broken, quite literally.
And this year the storylines run deep with at least six surfers in the hunt for world titles. But some of the best stories are in qualification, where young up-and-comers work to realize dreams of making the Tour, or veterans fight to keep their dreams as World Tour pros alive.
And Brett Simpson’s quest is as noble as any. The 30-year-old Huntington Beach, Calif., native has been on the World Tour for six years. He has won two U.S. Opens and is a gifted free surfer. But mostly, he has hung around the middle of the rankings during his career (he’s one of only three Californians currently on the CT) and this season, he’s barely on the cusp of staying alive.
After a third-place finish in Portugal, he chose to skip the Triple Crown and the final two Qualifying Series events of the year to concentrate on Pipeline. It’s essentially like cramming for a test the night before. But it wasn’t because Simpson procrastinated. He has been banged up all year, fighting painful bulging discs in his lower back. So concentrating on a solid Pipeline finish, making the semis or better, was the best option to solidify his spot on Tour.
“I’ve been dealing with this back issue on and off for the last two years,” says Simpson, who supports his wife and daughter as a Tour pro. “It’s one of those issues where it hasn’t had time to heal properly. I’ll take the epidural and get it feeling as well as I can—that part has been really frustrating. The season is non-stop from February through December and you don’t get much time in between to rest and let your body heal up. It’s a grind physically. It affects you mentally because you can’t get a lot of free surfing time to get better and push yourself.”
The Tour definitely batters the body, taking a huge physical toll. And the mental stress of having to re-qualify is also demanding. But Simpson has someone in his corner who understands the demands of making the cut. His father, Bill, played in the NFL for eight years, where he was an all-conference defensive back with the Rams and Bills. He had to live through the grueling training camps of pro-football yesteryear, long before collective bargaining protected players from the sometimes ridiculous drills implemented by old-school coaches before the final roster cut-downs in early September. But the elder Simpson feels like football was much more clear-cut than surfing, a game played between defined white lines with specific qualification criteria.
“He’s had a great career,” says Bill of his son. “It could end tomorrow and he’s done more in the surfing world than most could dream about. But it’s tough. In football, to determine your fate, you knew what you had to do: ‘I’ve got to beat that guy to the ball, the field is 100 yards long.’ For Brett to re-qualify, it’s been different, year-to-year. The first two years, [the ASP] cut down midway, depending on standings; you didn’t have a full year to re-qualify. [Now it’s the WSL], he’s never had the same rules over the last six years. Officials want to make it as fair as they can. On the other hand, sometimes they tip the scales too far. Plus you’re dealing with Mother Nature as your playing field.”
And as much as he likes watching his son surf, Bill Simpson has never been much of a rider of waves. Brett discovered surfing on his own. And pushed himself to get better. Bill is the first to admit he wasn’t on the inside of the surfing world. He didn’t work in the industry or get his son up for dawn patrol sessions or volunteer as a judge for NSSA events. Brett is a self-made surfer.
“A lot of kids started surfing at three or four years old,” says the elder Simpson. “Brett didn’t start to surf until 12. He was a great baseball and football player but he wanted to surf. He’d have his mom drop him off at the beach before he could drive. He had a plan and worked to make it happen. It’s been really fun to watch.”
And so all the dreams and hopes for one of California’s best surfers on tour comes down to Pipeline, the most ferocious wave on the planet. But as his father says, this is what these athletes live for. And the younger Simpson will be looking for a dropping northwest swell in the six-to-eight-foot-plus range so both Pipeline (the left hand wave) and Backdoor (the right) will be working, leaving plenty of options for the regular foot.
“Really, I just want to be in the moment,” Simpson says. “My dad and I like to exchange quotes and he has this one, ‘Be bold, be decisive.’ I like to have those one-liners in my mind. It helps me take away everything else and focus on the now.”
Editor’s Note — The Top 10 on the WSL’s Qualifying Series make the Championship Tour, while CT pros must finish in the top 22 to re-up for another year—or earn enough QS points to end in the top 10 of that tour.