Watching the Winter Olympics reminds me of my love/hate relationship for surf contests. And while I have only worn a competitor’s jersey twice, both times strictly for fun, I have been a cog in the contest wheel several times — only once as a contest judge, but several times as an event commentator.
The first and last time I judged a surfing contest was at Black’s Beach in 1979. Hosted by the Australian clothing company Stubbies, the event was among the first to trade cash for waves in Southern California. Surfers from all over the state arrived to compete for four days in decent waves ranging from 2 to 4 feet.
California was still in the throes of an anti-competitive era, and localism was very much alive at places like Black’s and Windansea, the beach to the south, where outsiders could be welcomed with flattened tires or worse. I had seen minor forms of localism before, mostly in the form of shouting and an occasional fistfight, but this was the only time I had ever seen a weapon drawn to deter the invasion of a surf spot. The report was that a sniper was on the cliff with a .22 rifle and about to open fire on the beach when Newport Beach competitor Lenny Foster walked forward and grabbed the gunman by the throat before he dropped the gun.
That sort of thing doesn’t happen any more. There are no surfers paddling out into the competition area in protest of a surf spot being roped off for private gain. And I have not heard of any angry anti-contest graffiti or broken windshields. No, surfing contests are now a fact of life, and people either compete in them, watch them or surf somewhere else.
While I enjoy a good surf contest from time to time, I am still unsure how I feel about them. In the amateur ranks they seem to be good for families and character building as parents and children gather to watch one of their own ride waves for points. Contests teach persistence, discipline and sportsmanship. On the other hand, they are noisy and clutter the beach with flags, speakers and scaffolding. They also encourage conformity, something that seems to defy the core of the surf experience. Finally, I can’t find justification for closing a section of a public beach for a select group of surfers and their sponsors.
Still, all objections can be set aside when I turn on my computer to watch the finals of something like the Pipe Masters where the best surfers in the world get blown out of Himalayan-sized tubes in a display of grace under pressure that would not otherwise be witnessed.
It’s been nearly 40 years since Stubbies came to town and ushered us into the world of pro surfing. In that time, there have been hundreds of surf contests and California has crowned men and women World Champions on longboards and shortboards, along with several local runners-up. They, their sponsors and the spectators have been the winners. Some of the local non-competitive surfers, on the other hand, have been the losers. As for the rest of us, we both win and lose each time a contest plants a flag in the sand at one of our local beaches.