When Canada's first ever international pro surf contest hit the shores of Tofino last week, Peter Devries's best surf buddies said that Pete just might win it. But no one else seemed to take the Canadian challenger seriously.
Over 120 of the world's best surfers descended upon Vancouver Island's west coast for the O'Neill Coldwater Classic Canada -- part of the qualifying series for the Association of Surfing Professionals World Tour. Most of them had already competed in previous Coldwater events in Tasmania, Scotland and South Africa, working to accumulate precious points.
Only the top 15 will make the ASP Tour. The Coldwater Classic Canada was event number four out of five, so the pressure to surf well and to up rankings was on. For everyone but Peter Devries.
Tofino boy Pete Devries, 26, was born and raised on Chestermans Beach. "My dad was one of the first surfers here," he says. "He got me on a board at age 7, but when I was young I didn't have wetsuits for the winter. So I just surfed in summer until I was 13, when I finally could fit into a hooded suit. Then I surfed all winter, too."
Although international surfers must qualify for the Coldwater Classic, the ASP grants a limited number of "wild card" entries to local surfers. Devries scored one of the wild cards.
But the thought of competing against the world's best did not unsettle him. With no pressure on him to gain points, Devries had nothing to lose, but everything to gain. "I'm just going to try to have fun with it, and surf how I surf every day, just enjoy myself."
He explains Tofino's waves. "We don't have the best quality waves in the world - most of the time its really 'average,'" he says, but what the West Coast lacks in quality, it makes up for in quantity. There is surf every day. "And I guess growing up here, I've got used to our beach breaks."
Nothing to lose
Surfing those mushy beach breaks led Devries to start fooling around: trying some tricks, catching some air.
On day one of the competition, Devries turned heads when he scored the highest wave-score of the day. "I took off on my first wave and it turned into closeout, so I decided to go for an aerial manouevre called an alley-oop, and I landed it. I knew if I got some good air I'd get a good score."
Devries handily won his second and third heats as well, outsurfing world-class competitors including Hawaii's Dusty Payne, and series leader Blake Thornton from Australia. The field was now down to 24 competitors, from the original 144 who started.
And in Tofino, the locals started paying attention. Their boy was still in.
Round four was tougher on Devries. Australian/Irishman Glenn Hall, small and fast like Devries, and equally comfortable in the beach slop, took first place in the heat, and Devries just squeaked in to second place -- which is all he needed to do to stay in the competition.
Round five was a different format: two-man heats, with different rules as to who gets priority on the wave. It was Devries's first time surfing "man-on-man" but, in spite of making some rookie mistakes, he ousted 8th-ranked Frenchman Joan Duru.
Pete Devries had become the first Canadian ever to make it to the quarter finals of an international surf competition. Man-on-man again, he was slated to compete against Hall once more.
Hall, ranked 14th in the world, was hungry for a win; he needed to remain in the top 15 to qualify for the ASP tour. He was also the only surfer who had beat Devries in a heat here.
It was Saturday morning. Hundreds of surfers and spectators lined Chestermans Beach, in front of the house Devries grew up in.
Five minutes into the heat, Devries saw his chance for some air. Hovering in midair, high above his board as the wave closed out on him, he jerked abruptly to one side and bailed; landing on his board from that height would have snapped it. But three minutes later he carved three big turns on a right-hander, and from there he never looked back. Hall could not catch him.
Tofino becomes ghost town
With Devries now into the semi finals, Tofino townfolk poured out of the village and on to the beach. Locals walked away from their jobs, businesses simply locked their doors. By the time Devries finished making short work of Florida's Cory Lopez in the semi-finals, close to 1,000 people were on the beach.
Australia's Jay Thompson met Devries in the water for the finals, but Devries never gave him a chance. Within the opening minutes, Devries had scored two seven-pointers. Thompson rode out back, waiting for the big waves he'd need to match those scores. Then, with ten minutes left in the heat, Devries rode another wave right in to the white water, slashing and carving turns all the way, for a near-perfect score of nine out of 10.
There was still time on the clock, but it was all over. The roar of the crowd deadened the sound of the surf. Devries' surf buddies, who had never doubted him, ran chest-deep into the surf to collect him, hoisting him up on their shoulders and showering him with champagne as they carried him ashore.
Pete Devries has opened the world's eyes to Canadian surfing. "He is an amazing surfer," says Australian Glenn Hall. "He seems happy just to surf here, hasn't chased the world qualifying series. But he's as good as anyone in world."
Devries says that, although he has surfed in many places around the world, nowhere compares to Canada. "I've never found a surf destination where I'd want to live fulltime. There is something about the weather and the climate here, the changes in the wind and sea. It's an incredible place to be surfer."