Albee Layer is your 2015 Red Bull Unleashed champion after a string of spectacular displays carried him to victory at Surf Snowdonia in North Wales today. Hawaiian powerhouse Layer beat New Zealand's Billy Stairmand 3-1 in the final battle in front of a raucous, two thousand-strong audience.
After a long hiatus from the surfing arena, wave pool technology is very much back in the game, and the last three days of high performance surfing had the assembled crew of superstar talent buzzing about not only the state of things to come, but the situation as it currently stands.
"How good is this event going to be next year?" competitor Ian Crane was asked. "What do you mean?" he roared, "It's insane right now! Can I sign up for 2016 yet? After this year everyone's gonna want to come, I want to lock my entry in already!" Crane need not worry about his invite getting lost in the mail however, as he was one of the surfers who made the WaveGarden pool their own this week, though it was consistently Layer who looked the man to beat.
Not only was the pool a novel concept, the competition format was a refreshing break from the standard 30-minute-best two-waves heat scheme. The competitors and capacity crowd revelled in the man-on-man duel concept, which saw pairs of surfers go head to head, wave for wave, with a coin toss determining who surfs first. After each surfer has ridden a wave, the best score takes the points. Best of five waves wins, and once a surfer hits three wins the bout is over and the next pair hits the water immediately.
As opposed to traditional half hour heats, there are no second chances at Red Bull Unleashed, every wave counts and falling is a curse. "It's cool!" said keen spectator Jordy Smith, "you both have an equal opportunity, and there's no two ways about it, the best surfer always wins. You can't afford to fall so you really have to walk the fine line between pushing it to the limit and pushing it too far.
Throw in an audience 10-feet away and a DJ pumping out the surfer's chosen tracks, and you have a stadium-worthy spectacle. "The crowd's right above you, as close as you can possibly get to someone on a wave," said Smith, "some guys thrive off it, other don't. It's an arena for those who can feed off the energy of the crowd."
Layer was consistently the fan favourite, picking up on the nuances of the tricky waves early on and mixing up his manoeuvres to keep the crowd and judges entertained. His musical selections were as sharp as his surfing, and between his 80s metal and pop shuvits it was clear from the early rounds that Layer was the man to beat, despite being one of the bigger surfers in the draw. Aside from Layer and Jack Freestone the WaveGarden proved to be the domain of the lighter surfer this week, and Stairmand, Crane, Mitch Crews, Kai Hing, Ian Gouveia and Hiroto Arai were but a few of the fleetfooted ninjas who left their mark on Surf Snowdonia this week.
In the semi finals Layer had to come from 2-0 down to beat Crews 3-2 on his final wave, in what will be remembered as the best duel of the event. In the second semi final Stairmand accounted for Freestone 3-0, before rolling on to the ultimate duel with Layer, who carried the momentum of his epic win over Crews into a 3-1 defeat of Stairmand.
Sprayed with champagne on the podium, Layer, who notoriously does not compete, couldn't help but beam with pride. "I didn't know what to expect coming here," said the Maui local, "but it's been incredible. Surfing so close to so many people, music playing, heaps of energy in the air, to get the win is crazy. If more events were like this, I'd do them!" Say no more, see you next year.
Albee Layer (HAW) 3 def. Billy Stairmand (NZL) 1
SF1. Billy Stairmand (NZL) 3 def. Jack Freestone (AUS) 0
SF2. Albee Layer (HAW) 3 def. Mitch Crews (AUS) 2
QF1. Billy Stairmand (NZL) 3 def. Ezekiel Lau (HAW) 1
QF2. Jack Freestone (AUS) 3 def. Kai Hing (AUS) 1
QF3. Albee Layer (HAW) 3 def. Jayce Robinson (GBR) 1
QF4. Mitch Crews (AUS) 3 def. Ian Crane (AUS) 1
H1. Ezekiel Lau (HAW) 3 def. Alan Stokes (GBR) 0
H2. Billy Stairmand (NZL) 3 def. Leo Fioravanti (ITA) 1
H3. Jack Freestone (AUS) 3 def. Evan Geiselman 0
H4. Kai Hing (AUS) 3 def. Kalani David (HAW) 0
H5. Jayce Robinson (GBR) 3 def. Hiroto Arai (JPN) 0
H6. Albee Layer (HAW) 3 def Ian Gouveia (BRA) 2
H7. Ian Crane (AUS) 3 def. Mikey Wright (AUS) 2
H8. Mitch Crews (AUS) 3 def. Reubyn Ash (GBR) 1