"Tati West's surfing at Pipe confounds me. I imagined that she would be good at surfing steep reefs. But somehow, she is not. At last year’s Pipe comp, she mostly went straight."
New Year! New You! Welcome to Beachgrit’s on-again, off-again — and mostly off-again — coverage of the 2023 women’s Championship Tour.
Schedules, structure, deadlines: None of these things is what I do best! But I will try to show up here sometimes and talk about women’s surfing. I hear that’s what we do here at least once in a while.
Let’s start with a preview.
Who’s on Tour this year? And, can they Pipe or nah?
I am not here to reinvent things, because that sounds hard.
So, here’s a Power Ranking! Bottom to top! I’ll let you fill in your own jokes right here. I can see you thinking over there. I totally can. Rankings are based on Pipe. But while I’m here, I gave you some other stuff, too. I figured you wouldn’t complain.
20. Sophie McCulloch. At Haleiwa, Australian Sophie McCulloch surprised everyone with a come from behind performance to qualify. In a rough start to her rookie year, she injured her ankle in the backwash at Snapper a week or so ago. No specifics on the injury, but she’s got a boot on her right leg that looks pretty substantial. She might be back later in the year. Or not.
19. Johanne Defay. I loved Defay’s defiant post-heat comments at Trestles, where she finished third in the world. She tells it like she sees it, and we could all use a little more of that kind of thing in surfing. She’d like to see more lefts on Tour, and she’s right. Due to an ankle injury, Johanne withdrew from Pipe. She’s off crutches and doing rehab work presently. She hasn’t announced a return date, but I’d expect it to be comparatively soon.
18. Teresa Bonvalot. In Johanne’s absence, Teresa, 23, gets the wildcard. She tied Sophie McCulloch on the Challenger Series, but fell one spot short of qualifying on the countback. Teresa’s a goofyfoot and she represented Portugal in Tokyo for a ninth. She looks good in beach break surf and has some fab clips of Supertubos barrels. She checked out Teahupo’o last summer. She could surprise at Pipe, but the odds look steep.
17. Alyssa Spencer. Born in Pasadena, raised in Carlsbad, Alyssa Spencer, 19, was one of several women on the bubble of qualifying this past year. She’s a goofyfoot with a powerful style and smooth rail surfing. In 2022 she earned a wildcard to Bells where she went down to Carissa Moore in round three. Competing at her homebreak, Alyssa recently finished third at Junior Worlds after taking a board to the face. In Sophie’s absence, Alyssa picks up a wildcard for Pipe. Based on her clips, she looks good in the barrel and isn’t afraid of size. But Pipe is a whole other thing.
16. Sally Fitzgibbons. After failing to make the cut last season, Sally picked up a season-long wildcard for 2023. The call-up presumably came due to her partnership with Australian retailer Harvey Norman who also sponsors WSL Australia. Sally brings a joyful energy to competition that’s impossible to hate, but it feels like surfing is increasingly passing her by. I don’t see her winning too many more heats against women like Molly Picklum, Bettylou, or Caity Simmers. Good vibes and a big smile will only get you so far. At Pipe last year, Sally went down to Malia Manuel in a low-scoring round 3 heat. I wouldn’t expect this year to be much different.
15. Macy Callaghan. After finishing second in the Challenger Series, Macy, 22, is back on the CT after a year’s absence. A stylish regular-footer, she’s at her best on right points, and the old start at Snapper suited her far better than… Pipe. The current version of the CT calendar sure is a dreamcrusher. If she makes the cut, Macy is a good bet for J Bay. But she has to get there first. There’s some resemblance to Steph in Macy’s surfing, but without that special Steph magic. Looking at Macy’s clips, I’m not seeing a lot of lefts. Let’s hope Backdoor turns on for her. Certainly, she’ll be looking ahead to Bells and Margaret River.
14. Tati West. Honestly, Tati’s surfing at Pipe confounds me. She’s a goofyfoot. She grew up in Kauai. I imagine that she would be good at surfing steep, powerful reefs. But somehow, she is not. At last year’s Pipe comp, she mostly went straight. There’s been another whole year to figure this thing out. Maybe she has. I enjoy the cold-blooded killer vibe Tati brings to heat surfing. She’s the perfect villain, and the efforts of the WSL to avoid noticing her whole thing are hilarious to watch. She finished fourth in the world last year, but Tati’s path to the top five is more difficult this year. The draw is crowded with younger women hungry for success, and Tati’s competitive fire may not be enough. Prove me wrong, Tati. Get barreled at Pipe!
13. Caroline Marks. Last year was a strange one for Caroline Marks. After going out in the elimination round at Pipe, she announced she was taking a break from competition due to “recurring medical and health issues.” We’ve been left to wonder exactly what those issues entailed. Fair enough, there’s no rule that she has to tell us everything. Caroline returned in early summer to the El Salvador Pro where she finished third. In the final three events of the year, she made it to the quarterfinals each time. She’s ridden some beautiful barrels at Teahupo’o, and her more recent clips depict a more smooth and polished style than she showed in her first years on Tour. She’s been in California this winter, though, and Pipe rewards experience. At her best, Caroline is an insane talent, and this ranking feels far too low for her. Let’s see what she brings to it.
12. Courtney Conlogue. Last year at Pipe, Courtney sent it hard into closeout. That’s the main thing I remember. I had to look up the results and she went out in the elimination round against Gabriela and Luana Silva. Consistency has never been Courtney’s strong point on Tour. All the same, she’s put up some big results and she’s not afraid of size. I put her higher in the rankings than Caroline Marks. I’m not sure that isn’t a mistake. But Courtney has been out at Pipe in recent weeks getting some waves and I like her courage. She won’t hold back, but her chances look better at Sunset and beyond. Courtney will need all the results she can get; women like Bettylou are not going to go down easily when the cut comes around.
11. Bettylou Sakura Johnson. A fierce competitor, Bettylou used the rules at Vans Pipe Masters to punk Carissa out of the win. Well-played by her, that’s competition. By contrast, last year at Pipe, Bettylou never seemed to get it going. That surprised me. She went down in round 3 to Isabella Nichols, who scored a seven at Backdoor. With the experience of the Vans event behind her, I’d expect Bettylou to do better this time around. And that battle for the cut looks damn spicy. Someone is going back to the Challenger Series. Knives out.
10. Gabriela Bryan. I had high expectations for Gabriela at Pipe last year. She’s a powerful, talented surfer from Kauai. I figured, well, surely she will surf well at Pipe. Whether it was nerves or inexperience, she never looked super confident and went out in round 3. She scored a couple of nice Backdoor waves at the Vans Pipe Masters, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her go left. Just a girl, standing in front of the ocean, hoping for rights. Gabriela recently put up a clip in solid Sunset, almost effortlessly carving on a bigger board. If the waves turn on, she should be fun to watch there. She was the only rookie to make the cut last year. The draw looks tough this year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she did it again.
9. Brisa Hennessey. Over the past few seasons, Brisa’s surfing has grown on me. I’ll admit that I used to hate it. In the past, she looked flicky and twitchy. She’s stronger now and her surfing looks more powerful and polished. Girl can bury a rail. Her Pipe performance last year was nothing special with a lot of low-scoring waves. She left lots of room to improve. I’m more excited to see her at Sunset, if I’m honest. Brisa keeps getting better, and if it weren’t for Pipe, I’d probably put her higher in the rankings here.
8. Lakey Peterson. If Gabriela surprised me a bad way at Pipe, Lakey was the opposite. Did you think she’d do well there? I did not. In fact, Lakey made it through to the semis. She defeated Johanne in the quarters before meeting Carissa in the semis. No, Lakey was not going to beat Carissa and she’s unlikely to do so this year. But Lakey does the work. She’ll have a harder time this year — at Pipe and beyond. There’s a pack of talented women chasing her, and they’re getting closer all the time.
7. Isabella Nichols. Last year at Pipe, Isabella met Moana in the quarters. Isabella scored 7.67 as her highest wave score, but couldn’t back it up. Moana won the heat with a pair of fives. In her previous heat, Isabella beat Bettylou with a seven and a three. The backup scores eluded her. Isabella had a fairy tale season last year: She started the Margaret River comp well below the cut line and finished the contest as world number four. Isabella’s a stylish and dynamic surfer when she can find the waves that suit her. She’s a good bet to stay on Tour this year. If not, there’s always that engineering degree.
6. Steph Gilmore. There’s Good Steph and there’s Bad Steph, and it sure does make this whole rankings thing difficult. Good Steph is going to get shacked out her mind at Backdoor, especially if the conditions are clean and playful. Frontside, Steph has no problem at all getting barreled, and beautifully. Going left, well, who needs to go left anyway. Bad Steph, meanwhile, will stare at the horizon and wait for waves that never show up. Bad Steph loses heats that she can readily win. Good Steph won a world title at Trestles from the last seed. Which Steph will show up this year? There’s enough talent in the draw these days that Steph can’t afford to give anything away. The Olympics should focus her mind wonderfully.
5. Caity Simmers. Yes, yes, I just put a rookie higher in the rankings than the eight-time world champion. This is probably a mistake. Over-exuberance. Too much coffee. But every once in a while, a surfer comes along who is uniquely talented and so far, there’s every indication that Caity is one of them. At 17, she manages to combine the cool insouciance of John John Florence with the dynamism and creativity of Dane Reynolds. It’s impossible to look away. Last winter was her first time surfing on the North Shore, and she lacks experience at Pipe. In the long run, I’m not sure it’ll matter. The open question is how well competition engages her. Can Caity weld a killer instinct to her talent? If so, she might just be unstoppable.
4. Tyler Wright. Tyler had one of the waves of the contest last year at Pipe. She took a high line on a steep Backdoor barrel. You can hate the claim if you like, but she deserved to celebrate that one. An 8.33, the wave came during Tyler’s semi against Moana. She couldn’t back it up, and Moana won with a 7.67 and a 6.33. Tyler’s only other wave in the heat was a beauty of a Pipe wave, but she straightened out of it. It was the kind of wave that would have either won her the heat or sent her into the reef. She chose not to chance it. It’ll be interesting to see how Tyler’s surfing evolves as she faces pressure from the hungry women coming on Tour. She has the talent to vary the formula. Does she have the motivation? If not, Bettylou and Molly are coming for her lunch money.
3. Molly Picklum. Back in December, Molly won the Vans Pipe Masters and $100k in prize money. She said she figured she’d buy a house somewhere. Along the way, Molly nailed some sweet Backdoor barrels and went on a beautiful disaster of a closeout at Pipe. Molly charges, no question. After missing the cut last year, she tied Caity for third on the Challenger Series. Honestly, the next few years of women’s surfing look so good if all these women stay healthy and motivated. Last year at Pipe, Molly lost to Johanne in round three (6.67 + 6.27 v. 7.17 + 4.00) Get that back-up score, girl!
2. Carissa Moore. Widely considered the best surfer in the world, Carissa didn’t win the 2022 world title. That has to smart. If she’s losing sleep over Trestles, she isn’t showing it. Instead, Carissa has gone to work this winter. A perfectionist, Carissa is always working on something. Never satisfied, she believes she can always improve. Right now, her project is Pipeline and the results of her work are starting to show. Her performance at Pipe last year was nothing special. Carissa knows she can do better. Her challenge for this year is not letting Trestles get into her head. To surf her best, she has to let go. For someone who needs to feel in control and to do it perfectly every time, that might be the biggest challenge of all.
1. Moana Jones Wong. She’s the Queen of Pipe, and no one looks ready to steal her crown just yet. Certainly, Moana’s wave at Da Hui Shootout in December was one to remember. The comparisons to Gerry Lopez come easily. She’s stylish and smooth, and more importantly, Moana knows how to read the wave like no one else in the women’s draw. True, she could go from deeper. And, the judges weren’t blind to that truth last year. Look at her single wave scores, and they were not has high as some of her competitors. But Moana could put together a complete heat, and last year, no one else could. At least, not yet. They’re coming for Moana, for sure, but the rest of the field still has some way to go to catch her. If that is, the waves are good. Let’s hope the waves are good.