Southern California is an amazing place. Consistent waves, beautiful sunshine, and scantily clad women are a few of its many positive attributes. Itís a place where looking good is everything. If you canít demolish a wave and finish it off with an air reverse youíre a kook. And if youíre a kook, good luck getting a wave. Kids in Cali generally live at home for as long as possible due to excessively high rent, and the fact that all they would eat is fast food without their parents cooking for them. They drive around in beamers, and have brand new boards and clothing. As summer heats up the kids wait in anticipation for the arrival of all their surfing heroes who come to compete in the U.S. Open of Surfing.
I was in HB (Huntington Beach) for the US Open of Surfing this July. The waves and the weather were typical for summertime in Southern California. Small on-shore closeouts and beautiful sunshine persisted for the majority of the event. Upon my arrival the water was 75 degrees F, the warmest HB had been in 15 years. You can imagine how nice it felt slipping on a pair of trunks, and paddling out into head high peaks, coming from my full suit in Canada. The waves were fun, but the crowd was intense, and getting worse with every arriving pro. The south side of the HB pier looked like a war zone. Hungry WQS (World Qualifying Series) warriors from Brazil and Australia finding the best way to snake you in preparation for their heats; Locals and Cali pros dropping in on everyone because itís their country and their waves; Swimmers, body boarders and weekend warriors lined up across the inside section making it impossible to ride a wave to the beach. After a few days of doing battle I decided to paddle down the beach to the closeouts at tower 5. At least I could relax, and try to get my game on in the two-foot closeouts. It makes sense why all the surfers on the WQS are improving as fast as they are. Even when theyíre free surfing itís like theyíre in a heat because theyíre surfing with the guys they compete against. They donít want an opponent to see them surfing poorly, so they all do battle, pushing the standard of surfing higher with every session.
The U.S. open of surfing is a nine-day extravaganza with the style, feeling and atmosphere of an X-Games event. Thereís skateboarding and bmxing going on in the Ďsoul bowlí along with hundreds of sponsor tents promoting new products to the massive crowds. As the surfing portion of the contest whittles itís way down to the round of 64, where the top WQS pros face some of the best surfers in the world from the WCT (World Championship Tour), the scene in HB becomes more and more outrageous. From surf fans hungry to see their idols, to families on vacation, to girls trying to show off their figures for the boys on the beach, to crazy locals wearing longhaired 80ís style wigs, and the smallest thong youíve ever seen. This contest has the attention of anyone and everyone in California as well as the rest of the surfing world.
By the beginning of the US Open the swell had deteriorated to 1-2 foot faces, and the constant North West wind created the worst bumps Iíve ever seen on a wave. If you went right there would be a huge lump at the bottom of the wave to hop over. After navigating through your bottom turn youíd look up to see three lips about to break in different spots. If you went left the wave was a bit cleaner, but it would bend towards the beach. You could either surf the bend, or hop over the bump onto the next bending peak where you could attempt a turn. The wind had also created an up welling of cold water. The water temperature dropped from 75degrees F to 60 degrees F in two days, so I was back in my full suit and boots. Oh well, at least I felt comfortable.
The juniors were up first. Itís hard paddling out in a heat when the conditions are so bad because anything can happen. You can either find some good waves with open faces, or you can get closeouts. Good preparation and heat strategy helps, but luck is the most important thing to have on your side in those conditions. I waited out the back for the bumpy, waist high sets while my opponents caught the smaller cleaner waves on the inside. I was hoping to get a few moves out the back on the bigger ones to get a few scores. After surfing my first three waves I was feeling frustrated and disappointed. All I could hear on the loud speaker was Peter Devries, Canadaís only surfer on the WQS. His friends call him Canadian bacon in HB. When they finally announced our scores at the end of the heat, I surprisingly had a few high fives, and was in position to advance to the next round. Unfortunately, the rest of my heats followed a similar fashion. Small on-shore closeouts persisted until I was knocked out of the contest.
Rob Machado and Adriano de Souza provided early round entertainment in the menís division for the surf fans of HB. Due to their late entries both surfers were denied their regular seed, and were forced to start in the first round. They both dominated their opponents, and Machado, former winner, made the semi finals before being ousted by eventual winner, Cory Lopez, and, the world champ, Andy Irons.
The top WCT pros are amazing to watch even in a closed out south swell at HB pier. The final day of competition started with a barrel fest in the ľ finals. Cory Lopez, and Rob Machado somehow managed to backdoor the walled peaks, and sneak out the front before they closed, setting the pace for the final day of competition. Taj Burrow was destroying everything he touched. He would catch a 5.0 and turn it into an 8.0 by connecting every turn perfectly and by sliding his tail off every lip. Andy Irons was completing huge closeout floaters and punctuating his moves with the power and flow only the world champ has. After watching the ľís it was easy to see that Lopez, Irons, And Burrows were a step above the rest. The semi-finals followed suit. Taj carved his way to the finals with the highest heat tally of the event, and Andy and Cory disposed of their opponents in a similar fashion. The fourth finalist was Bobby Martinez, one of Californiaís WCT hopefuls for 2004. Bobby scored an 8.5 to knock Ben Bourgeois out of the transfer spot with 25 seconds to go in the 2nd semi-final. He executed a big backside snap and a massive method air in what he later stated as, ďThat was the best moment of my life.Ē
The final was a bit of a disappointment. The northwest wind decided to blow throughout the 35minute heat, turning clean head high reforms into the bumpiness of the previous week. Cory caught the finals first good wave and ripped it for an 8. Taj, Andy, and Bobby struggled for wave scores over 5. Cory had Andy and Bobby comboed (needing a combination of two rides to take the lead) for the majority of the heat, but Taj still had a chance. With 5 minutes remaining Taj was sitting out the back farthest to the south with a set approaching. He took off on the first wave of the set, and Cory locked into a cleaner, bigger second wave. He ripped it all the way through the pier and finished it off with two backhand cracks going right on the north side. Time ran out on his opponents, and Cory Lopez became the 2003 U.S. Open of Surfing champion. He raised his arms in victory to the cheers of the enormous crowd swarming the beach and pier.
The performance level of the top surfers in the world is astounding. They have all improved so much since last yearís event, itís hard to see how they can get much better. Within five minutes of the final horn I was hurrying away from the circus to the safety of my friends house. I love Southern California, but with a crowd of 85, 000 people on the beach over the weekend, I was ready to come back to Canadaís uncrowded beaches. By the time the 2004 U.S. Open of Surfing comes around Iíll be ready to go back. Iím already excited to see if the performance level of todayís top proís can be raised any higher.