RedBull Unleashed - breakdown
This weekend saw the inaugural edition of the RedBull Unleashed event take place at Surf Snowdonia in Wales. This contest was the first of its kind as it occurred in a lake, but not in any type of lake. This particular lake is home to the world’s first commercial WaveGarden, an artificial wave machine capable of producing perfectly shaped 3ft waves every 90 seconds.
RedBull invited some of the world’s best surfers to mix it up with a selection of the UK’s most high profile athletes. The result was an event that will go down in history. Here’s the full breakdown.
The format is completely different to a normal surf competition. In a traditional surf contest you get 20 minute heats in which surfers battle it out with or without priority rules to catch the best waves. Each wave is judged out of 10, and then the 2 best waves are kept to give you a total out of 20. Best 2 surfers out of 4 get through to next round.
The Unleashed format is entirely different. In order to work out the man on man match ups, the contest started with a seeding round in which each surfer had a go at 6 waves (1 left - 1 right - 1 left then 1R-1L-1R). The best 2 waves, which are scored out of 30, were kept to determine a seeding rank. Kalani David (pictured right) came out on top of this round with 55/60 total. The British surfer Reubyn Ash shone through as well with the single highest score of the contest: a 29.5/30. The four surfers at the bottom of the seeding list then get knocked out of the event.
In the qualifying rounds, surfers are matched up against the according seed (1vs16, 2vs15, (…), 8vs9). The qualifying rounds work very much like tennis. The surfers flip the coin to find out who gets to surf first, then battle it out wave per wave. Say surfer 1 gets to surf the first wave, which is a right-hander, then surfer 2 will have to surf the left-hander.
Whoever receives the highest score out of these first waves wins a point, and whoever receives 3 points first wins the duel and moves on to the next round.
Because every wave counts, this type of format leaves no room for error and so the performance was off the scale. It was pretty much the equivalent of watching 8pt rides plus all day long. The other thing that boosted performance was the predictability of the wave. As the surfers got more and more used to the wave through the rounds and practice runs they could start to unleash more radical turns.
However it was really the consistency of surfing that’s struck most people, and especially the surfers, throughout the weekend. In a traditional contest you’d see a lot of 2 and 3pt rides go down as the surfers take off on poor quality waves. In this type of event, every wave offers maximum potential for surfers to express themselves on.
The other thing that made the surfing look even more impressive was the fact that the spectators stood just feet away from the action. At a traditional contest, spectators have to stand on the shore often hundreds of feet away from the waves and so it is sometimes hard to understand what the difference is from one wave to another in terms of scores. At Surf Snowdonia, the surfers are so close that it is a lot easier for non-surfers to start understanding the ins and outs of performance surfing, allowing the sport of surfing to reach the wider audience a little more efficiently.
Surf Snowdonia is surfing’s first man-made arena. The temporary scaffoldings on either side of the pool allowed people to climb onto the middle pontoon and get right up close to the surfers. Not only did it mean that the crowds were cheering a lot more than normal because they knew the surfers could hear them, it also meant that spectators could have friendly chats with the surfers as they waited for the next wave to start rolling in. Imagine doing just that, then seeing them take off and tear a wave apart right in front of your eyes; not something you’d experience every day!
The crowd reached 2,000 people on Saturday and the mood was electric. The surfers got to choose their own tunes for when they were riding waves, which gave the public a glimpse into the personality of each surfer.
The athlete area was amazing. The surfers were very well looked after and all had their own sleeping pod each. There was a communal tipi area which had fresh fruit and Nutribullet mixers at the ready. There was also a ping pong table and an open air fire in the evenings, as well as bikes and longboard skates at hand for everyone to use when traveling between the practice side and the contest side of the pool.
Overall the atmosphere was incredible. Although a lot people who attended didn’t necessarily know much about surfing, they were able to enjoy the show and really get amongst it. All the surfers were buzzing on both the location and the contest itself, you could really feel it in the air that this event was something special.
Unlike traditional contests where they have their own area and are mostly separate to the public, at RedBull Unleashed the surfers were hanging out and watching the contest amongst the public, which meant people had loads of photo opportunities with the pros. There was also a signing session at the end of the event on Saturday which had hundreds of people queuing up.
The riders' impressions
One of the main highlight of the week was probably how stoked the surfers were on the event. World Tour resident Jordy Smith, who was skipping the Trestles event because of an ankle injury, couldn’t help but to fly over from the US to check out what was happening here in Wales.
"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. 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."
Although injured, Smith couldn’t help himself but to jump in the lake and catch a few on the rescue board.
"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 going to want to come, I want to lock my entry in already!"
Ian’s reaction is the perfect example of how everyone felt on site: just pure excitement. Out of all surfers, Albee would have probably been the one that was going to be the least impressed by it all. After all, he surfs 30ft jaws for thrills and punts some of the biggest airs in the world. Not only that, he also notoriously dislikes competition. But Albee was like a stoked grommet all week, and really fed off the energy of the crowd and the music to have fun and perform his best.
[gallery type="slideshow" ids="13036,13046,13047,13037,13038,13041,13042,13043,13044"]
Sprayed with champagne on the podium, Layer 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!”
For Animal team rider Alan Stokes, this event was the experience of a lifetime. Being able to compete against such high profile international surfers and have a good run at it was priceless. Stokesy really put on a show and was one of the crowd’s favourite. Here’s what he had to say:
"Wow that was rad... The event was better than I could have ever imagined. Redbull really took care of us as athletes, we had dinner in a medieval castle, stayed in awesome little pods right on the side of the wave pool and even had our own athlete prep areas to get ready in before our man on man battles."
"The evenings were filled with ping pong tournaments, great food and an awesome camaraderie and vibe amongst the athletes and organisers. It's something I've never felt before at an event. I think we all knew we were part of something special and historical."
"The format was more akin to formula one, and I was so stoked to make the top 16 after surfing a solid couple of seeding waves. The man on man format pitched me up against Zeke Lau from Hawaii. I won the coin toss and got the privilege to surf the first wave of the event, naturally I chose to go right and I felt the pressure lift as the first wave rolled towards me. I gave it everything I had, smashing the lip all the way to the stadium and spectators down the pool. "22.5, sweet my best score so far in the event" I thought to myself. Zeke took the next left and surfed brilliantly to better my score. Zeke's a big unit and as we each traded blows I knew it was going to be tough to match his power."
"After surfing 3 waves each Zeke had me on the ropes and on my final wave I went for broke, throwing everything I had at the last end section. Unfortunately I came unstuck coming down from an air and Zeke took a well deserved victory."
Here's a full gallery of this historical event. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for a short edit featuring some of Stokesy’s highlight waves throughout the event.
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