Surfing: Trio ride world dream

By Tony Baker

The call it the Dream Tour. But it's a bit of a nightmare trying to get in.

The king of world surfing, Kelly Slater, was crowned as the 10-time ASP world champion in the idyllic location of Puerto Rico, after claiming victory in the 2010 Rip Curl Search Event. But for every king, there are thousands of pretenders to the throne. Some never make the step up to surfing royalty.

The world tour holds events at destinations including Fiji, Hawaii, South Africa, Tahiti and Europe - and is aptly named the Dream Tour, thanks to the world-class waves and conditions the 32 tour surfers enjoy.

But those wishing to join that elite 32 must compete in a gruelling international qualifying series, formerly known as the WQS - and nicknamed 'The Grind'.

It is held in often average waves at locations across the continents. Instead of 32 surfers battling it out, often WQS events will have up to 250 competitors, all fighting to gain valuable points.

Only two New Zealand surfers have made it onto the world tour - Ian "Ratso" Buchanan in 1987 and Maz Quinn in 2001. Both made big impressions on surfing back here in New Zealand but their presence on the world scene was short-lived.

This year, three Kiwi surfers - Jay Quinn, Billy Stairmand and Richard Christie - are chasing their dream; to qualify for the Dream Tour.

They call themselves the "Suitcase Surfers", because they live out of their suitcases as they pursue more permanent accommodation in world surfing ranks.

They have a way to go - it will be a minor miracle if any qualify for the world tour this year - but they are taking New Zealand surfing to the world and creating a lot of interest as they go.

They have a self-titled website where they post regular blogs.

It acts as a one-stop-shop for the three surfers in terms of sponsorship coverage and self promotion. They say the family that plays together stays to-gether, and nothing could be truer for these three.

They lift each other up in victory and support each other in loss, a dynamic that has been missing in past Kiwi campaigners. It is exactly that which makes the Australian and American contingents such a strength, sheer numbers rallying countrymen to victory.

Just last month 21-year-old Raglan surfer and 2010 national champion Billy Stairmand surfed his way into the semifinals at the prestigious O'Neill Cold Water Classic event held at the iconic Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz, California. In front of the American Surfing World magazine and up against some of the world's best professional surfers, Stairmand blew nearly every competitor out of the water with his fluid, powerful style - only to come unstuck via a paddling interference in the semifinal.

Listening to the banter of the commentary team, including past world champion and Australian surfing legend Peter Townsend, and local Santa Cruz icon and Big Wave Hero Peter Mel, there seems to be a lot of interest in the Kiwi boys.

"Wow, this Stairmand kid really surfs with a maturity well beyond his years," Townsend said.

Said Mel: "Yeah, they call themselves the Suitcase Surfers, I've never heard of them before but these Kiwi boys sure can surf."

Leading the charge is former national champion and second-year WQS campaigner, Richard Christie of Mahia. The dynamic natural footer has had an impressive 2010 and is currently ranked 61 in the world. Christie is an explosive young surfer who has made a name for himself as being a progressive aerialist.

Among other accolades, he was voted into the finals for the Waves Magazine Black Knight Awards in 2008, where the creme de la creme of New Zealand and Australian surfing talent is showcased.

Christie's achievements this year include a third at Lacanau in France, and a flurry of solid top 16 results in other events. He has the best chance of qualifying for the Tour but, at 61, still has a long way to get to the 32nd spot guaranteeing a place in the Dream Tour.

Christie recently beat World Tour surfer and arguably the best aerialist in the world - Australia's Josh Kerr - in the quarter-finals of the Canada leg of the O'Neill Cold Water Classic series that set the benchmark. Kerr went on to win the event, but the fact one of our own beat one of the top 10 surfers in the world at his own game shows why the Suitcase Surfers are becoming better known.

Stairmand is in his maiden year on the WQS. Starting out 1000 in the world at the start of 2010, he has clawed his way to 70. His highlight was his WQS victory in Spain in August.

The emotional haka that Quinn and Christie performed for Stairmand as he reached the shore before hoisting him onto their shoulders and carrying him to the podium make it clear that the Suitcase Surfers have a bit extra.

Gisborne's Quinn is the younger brother of Maz and has been competing on the WQS for nearly a decade. He is currently ranked 106 in the world. The 2001 ISA world junior champion has had the best year of his WQS career, with his biggest achievement in 2010 a second at the Relentless Boardmasters in Cornwall's home of surfing, Newquay. Quinn is the oldest of the pack, and no doubt the guide along the WQS trail.

The Suitcase Surfers are in Hawaii this weekend for the last two legs of the WQS. The Reef Hawaiian Pro is being held at Haleiwa in Oahu, followed by the O'Neill World Cup of Surfing at the infamous Sunset Beach on Oahu's North Shore.

- Herald on Sunday

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