No doubt, the biggest news about the WSL’s 2018 CT schedule was taking Lowers off the tour and replacing it with Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch. While virtually no one was looking, the powers that be also made a few waves on the QS side by reinserting Florida’s Sebastian Inlet into the lineup.
The Florida Pro will run January 18-24, featuring a Women’s QS 6000 competition and a Men’s QS 1500 comp. It will be the first pro event held at the storied First Peak in seven years – a place where a who’s who in East Coast surfing earned their stripes during the heydays that started in the late 1960s and ran through the 90s.
Mitch Varnes, Director of the Florida Pro, says he’s hoping the weeklong event will reinforce the area’s prominence as a world-class surfing destination. He knows the recipe for success, serving as Founder and Director of the Sebastian Inlet Pro, which ran from 2005 to 2011. With strong support and encouragement from Eric Garvey and his team at the Space Coast Office of Tourism, Varnes says the time was right to shine a light on the Inlet again. “Given many of the most accomplished East Coast pros are from here, and that our area bills itself as a ‘small wave surfing capital,’ it’s only fitting we have the most prestigious WSL event on the East Coast,” he says. “We are accomplishing that this year.”
Varnes says the 2018 Florida Pro is capped out at 64 top male competitors and 96 of the world’s best female surfers. Serving as contest director for both the men’s and women’s events will be former CT shredder and Sebastian Inlet trailblazer Matt Kechele.
In addition, the Florida Pro will conclude by hosting a Champions and Icons non-WSL sanctioned event featuring an impressive cast of the sport’s masters. Space Coast native and 2001 World Champ CJ Hobgood helped pull the pieces together for the legends paddle battle. Hobgood knows exactly how deep the surf culture runs in the area and is excited to see its resurgence, as well the return of high-level pro surfing at a wave that has helped groom arguably more world titles than any other. “There’s a whole different generation that’s coming up that needs the same platform we were given to succeed on the world stage for a long time,” he said.
According to Varnes, there is a stellar field of committed iconic surfers, including Kechele, CJ and Damien Hobgood, Ben Bourgeois, Shea and Cory Lopez, Gabe Kling, Todd Holland, Paul Reinecke, David Speir, Barron Knowlton, Josh Kerr, Jimmy Hogan, Peter Mendia, Wes Lane, Scott McCranels and Shane Beschen.
Below the surface of the Florida Pro contest is the groundswell to restore First Peak to its past glory. Sand restoration projects in the early 2000s altered the flow and topography around the jetty enough to erode the revered wave’s A-frame. The First Peak Project is alive and gaining momentum and the Florida Pro can only help bring more attention to the cause.
“While First Peak isn’t what it was a decade or more ago, it still has its moments, and it’s not to be ruled out,” Varnes says. “Second and Third Peak can still be and often are as good as ever.”