Over the years, California has made a number of important contributions to surfing: e.g., wine coolers, Gidget and the Beach Boys. But notwithstanding all the wine, women and song, the Golden State and its 47 contiguous neighbors stopped producing championship surfers after the mid '60s. Competition was un-cool. Who could get amped for anything so bogue?
Well, on Sunday, some 55,000 bronzed bodies, fully amped, spilled onto the sand at Huntington Beach, right there in the heart of Surfin' U.S.A., for the finals of the $55,000 Op Pro Championships. They came in no small part to see Tommy Curren—a 22-year-old from Carpinteria, Calif., who had won the world title five months ago in Victoria, Australia—restore some long-lost respect to Southern California surfers.
And they came to see the likes of Mark (Cocky Occy) Occhilupo, the 20-year-old Australian who had beaten Curren on a last-minute wave in a memorable three-heat final in the '85 Op. Curren, who had not lost in four contests on the Association of Surfing Professionals tour this year, was looking for a record 24th straight heat victory. Occhilupo was looking to even a score: Since the last Op, Curren had beaten him four times in a row. Both wanted the winner's 2,000 points, which was double the usual number awarded on the pro tour because of the Op's size and class. Curren took the Op in 1983 and '84, and it was an apt event for his first U.S. appearance as reigning world champ.
The crowds that turned out were enormous by surfing standards. And with the famed Huntington Beach Pier on the left and the bleachers on the beach, the surfers competed in a stadium setting unlike anything anywhere else in the world. "It's the crowd watching that helps my surfing here," Occhilupo said. "Even if it's my mother or sister down on the beach, I surf best when people watch."
MTV was there to shoot the pier. Moon Zappa watched a few heats, and so did Reggie Jackson. But the celebrity who was kicking up the most sand was Curren.
"What he's doing is futuristic type surfing," said Joey Buran, a retired Southern California surfer who was the P.A. announcer for the Op. "Two years ago it became obvious he was not only unique but Numero Uno. He is dominating. He's like the Chicago Bears' defense. Or the Mets. It will be two years before anyone can seriously challenge Curren."
"Curren has given American surfing a tremendous amount of respect," said Shaun Tomson, a South African who was the 1977 world champ and now lives in Brentwood, Calif. "For many years the U.S. was anticompetition. Americans were involved in the Woodstock generation: peace, love and happiness."
"At my local surf spot, they ripped me apart for wanting to compete," Buran said. In 1978, Buran was the only mainland American among the world's 30 best surfers. Last year nine Californians and two Easterners were in the top 30. The new wave has broken.
Much of the turnaround is traceable, ironically, to two Australians, Ian Cairns and Peter Townend; both now live in Southern California. Cairns is the director of the Association of Surfing Professionals, the tour's governing body. Town-end, the 1976 world champ, is the advertising director for Surfing magazine. Seven years ago the two Aussies went to work for the National Scholastic Surfing Association in Huntington Beach.
The NSSA teaches teenagers competitive surfing skills and also has a full schedule of events. NSSA members must maintain certain academic standards, a genius stroke of public relations for a sport so long associated with truancy and substance abuse.