Every time Billy Kemper needed a dose of inspiration during the Vans HIC Pro surfing contest yesterday, all he had to do was take a look at his surfboard.
There, in big, bold, black letters on the middle of his board were the initials A.I.
For Andy Irons.
"It kind of lit a match under my (butt); it really made me focus," said Kemper, who is 20 and from Haiku, Maui. "I wanted to do this for Andy. He’s been a hero to me my whole life."
Kemper made like Irons yesterday, winning the Vans HIC Pro in challenging conditions at Sunset Beach. The final day of the three-day competition was completed in wave-face heights of 10 to 12 feet.
The unexpected death of the three-time former world champion Irons on Tuesday cast a pall over the surfing world, but it also provided an emotional lift for several of the Hawaii surfers who advanced to the final rounds of the HIC Pro yesterday.
"For sure, hands down, this is the biggest win of my career," Kemper said. "And I just want to dedicate this win to Andy and his family."
It was the first professional victory for Kemper, who received $12,000 and a coveted spot in the upcoming Vans Triple Crown of Surfing for his performance.
"I was kind of on the bubble to qualify (for the Triple Crown), so now that I’ve won this I’m really looking forward to it," he said.
The 35-minute final was uneventful, as the waves at Sunset Beach became inconsistent late in the afternoon. "For Sunset, it can’t get any harder than that right there," Kemper said.
Kemper won the four-man final even though his top two waves received scores of 5.5 (out of 10) and 3.5 for a total of 9.0.
"We were struggling the whole time," he said.
Jack Perry of Australia placed second with a two-wave total of 8.35. Needing a score of 3.71 to overtake Kemper, Perry earned a 3.05 after paddling into a smaller wave as the final horn sounded.
"I knew I needed a small score, which normally you can get out here pretty easy, but it didn’t really break, so there was nothing I could do," Perry said.
Keanu Asing of Ewa Beach placed third. Asing, 17, is a senior in a home-school program.
"Just to make the final, I’m over the moon," he said. "It didn’t really work out for me in the final. I was kind of waiting for the bigger (waves), and it didn’t go my way."
Alex Smith of Kauai also could not find a good rhythm in the final and placed fourth.
The Vans HIC Pro was the final of four events for the ASP Hawaii 2010 season (the Triple Crown does not count toward the ASP Hawaii standings). Kemper was crowned the ASP Hawaii series champion.
The Vans HIC Pro is also considered the kickoff event for the famous North Shore surfing season. The next event on the schedule is the Reef Hawaiian Pro, Nov. 12-23 at Haleiwa Alii Beach. That will be the first of the three Triple Crown contests.