Change in the Air at the WSL Big Wave Awards

New names on the podium include Billy Kemper, Ben Andrews, Francisco Porcella, Wilem Banks

By Marcus Sanders

  • In addition to Biggest Wave, Francisco Porcella snagged Best Dressed Big Wave Surfer, hands down. “You know that saying ‘Italians do it better?’ (I didn’t.) I had this suit specially made for tonight from an Italian brand.” Photo: WSL

A bunch of firsts tonight at the annual WSL Big Wave Awards. First time held at the fancy new Pasea Hotel on the water in Huntington Beach, which is smaller but more hip than the traditional venue at the Grove in Anaheim. (Surfers seem a little more at home on the ocean than near a ballpark, so there’s that.) First time the event actually started right on time. (Hey, live TV!)

First time the announcers were given teleprompters to read from. (Professionalism is important, sure, but many frequent XXL attendees missed having guys like Greg Noll up there making his classic off-the-cuff, un-PC jokes.) First time $350,000 was given out over the seven categories. (See note on professionalism above.)
Also, Shane Dorian did not win Ride of the Year, as he has three of the last four years. Billy Kemper, two-time Peahi Challenge winner, took the honors back to Maui for the first time. Kemper, who’d been nominated for this category twice before, was, uh, very thirsty and inspired after his win.   “I’m going to Vegas,” he said. “I have a helicopter on standby. And Shadow Company — me and my boys — are going to f++king Vegas. It’s time to celebrate.”

The award came at an especially good time for Kemper. “It’s hard to talk about, but the last few months of my life have been so difficult,” he said. “I went through shit I hope people never have to walk through — and I’m still walking through shit. So to win this — right now — is nothing but a dream come true.”

Did it feel like Ride of the Year? “I set my own goals,” he said. “And my goal, every year, is that I want to go out there and ride the biggest barrel of the winter. And I think I rode the biggest barrel at Jaws this year without a doubt. And Jaws is the most premier, best big wave in the world. There ain’t no wave in the world that does what Jaws does. So, to ride the best wave of the year at Jaws? I’m not a judge, but…I don’t care about making it to the playoffs, I only care about winning.”

“You can’t plan to go out and catch the biggest wave of the day. You just have to surf and do it because you love to do it and the rest follows.”
–Ben Andrews

Another first-time winner but multiple-time nominee is Ben Andrews, a quiet, commercial crab fisherman/charger from Northern California, who took home Biggest Paddle for his crazy Mav’s bomb. “It means a lot to be acknowledged among all the other guys who’re pushing it so hard,” he said. “I’ve been at it 12 years and this is my fourth paddle nomination.”

As for that wave? “It was a big set, you could see it coming from a mile away,” he said. “I made sure to get really far out there, and got far enough out to be in the perfect spot, and got a little chip shot in. I actually got in pretty easy, but the whole thing doubled up again — one of the scariest drops of my life. I closed my eyes for a few seconds, my stomach went into my throat. I did feel like I was gonna make it — except in the middle, that was 50/50. [Laughs.] You can’t plan to go out and catch the biggest wave of the day. You just have to surf and do it because you love to do it and the rest follows.”

Francisco Porcella was another newcomer to the XXL stage, and won Biggest Wave for that Nazare behemoth. “It’s a dream that’s been a long time coming,” he said. “Sometimes you go through some hard times, there’s setbacks — but if you really believe in yourself, Mother Nature will reward you.”

Did it feel like the biggest wave of the year? “When you ride those big waves you’re so concentrated on picking the right line it’s hard to know,” he said. “But that one took forever to get down. You know when it’s big when it takes a while to get to the bottom. I feel confident on a tow board; I love paddling, but when it gets that size and we bust ‘em out and I’m confident and felt good. That was something special — a wave that big and long doesn’t happen that often. I’ll never forget it.”

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