Making The Call: ‘Go’ or ‘No Go’

Every morning, Triple Crown contest director Bernie Baker makes the crucial call that affects thousands of people, especially pro surfers

Friday - November 24, 2006
By Lisa Asato
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On this day at Haleiwa, Baker found the waves too small for surfing
On this day at Haleiwa, Baker found the waves too small
for surfing

The words “El Nino” can make Bernie Baker cringe. As contest director of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, the weather phenomenon churns up notso-swell memories of the inaugural 1982 season, which saw “13 days of flat ocean” and eked by on “really, really small waves just to be able to get through it.”

Just how small is “really small”? “Sunset, 1-3,” Baker says, laughing. “My nerves are still a little shot from that year.”

So when weather forecasters and others like University of Hawaii oceanographer Roger Lukas tip off the organizers with ” ‘Guys, I think we’re coming into an El Nino’ - that’ll rattle our cage faster than anything,” says Baker, who’s 55 and has worked alongside Triple Crown executive director Randy Rarick from the start.

For the record, we’re in El Nino conditions, and Baker’s not so rattled. Things are looking up as the series, under way through Dec. 20, expects better waves toward the end of its run. Already the OP Pro Hawaii at Haleiwa’s Alii Beach Park saw 3- to 5-foot surf earlier this week, where “wavelets” the week before had Baker joking he was “looking out over an ocean that is so flat that if I stare long enough I can see San Diego.”

Running today (Nov. 24) to Dec. 6 is the second of three contests - the men’s O’Neill World Cup of Surfing and women’s Roxy Pro at Sunset Beach.

Baker shares a laugh with Lia Colabello and Faith Wenzel of the Triple Crown administrative staff
Baker shares a laugh with Lia Colabello and Faith
Wenzel of the Triple Crown administrative staff

The series concludes Dec. 8 to 20 with the men’s Rip Curl Pro Pipeline Master at Banzai Pipeline and the women’s Billabong Pro Maui at Honolua Bay.

In its 24 years the Triple Crown has become the world’s premier surf series, offering points toward qualifying for next year’s World Championship Tour and $700,000 in prizes. And Baker has one of its toughest jobs - judging wave conditions for the best possible surf and making the call by 6:30 a.m. whether the day’s show will go on.

“(Bernie’s) the one in the morning who makes the decision that it’s a ‘go’ or ‘no go,‘so his decision can make or break the career of many pro surfers,” Rarick says. “People either love it or hate it depending on what decision he makes.”

It’s a task that has Baker rising at 4 a.m., with a cup of tea, to study weather and surf forecasts and National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association readings from a buoy about 375 miles northwest of Oahu. He looks for things like a pattern of rising wave heights that could indicate dangerous surf conditions halfway through the day.

“We don’t put anyone in harm’s way,” Baker says, describing ideal conditions for Haleiwa as 4-6 feet Hawaiian scale west and northwest swells; Sunset, 8-10 from the same directions; and Pipeline, 9-12 west swells.

“We’re trying to get the competitors in the final day of competition the very, very best surf possible,” he says of the three to five days of competition within the 10 to 14 days set aside for each contest.

“Some years that can mean everybody gets great surf every day or some get great surf and some don’t. ... There is no perfect scenario because in the end Mother Nature makes the call.”

When the call is made, Baker and Rarick

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