No California wave could be that big, but still it grew, and as it did a dwarfed surfer floated up its face, five feet, 10 feet, 13 feet to its curling peak, and suddenly he stood erect, sliding into the yawning trough, a surfboard Astaire now, turning, switching feet, lost in what could have been a costly dream. This was a contest, and the judges could no longer see him. Still he rode. Other top surfers were nearby, and all wanted the biggest first prize in surfing history, $1,500 donated by Smirnoff vodka. "I just forgot everything," Charles (Corky) Carroll said later. "I was really stoked." For 22-year-old Corky Carroll nothing, not even the $1,500, which he won anyway, was worth more than being stoked.
"Taking off on a wave like that is like starting a downhill in skiing," he said. "Nothing else can be going through your mind. If you think about prize money or the price of surfboards you're through." True, but if someone didn't think about such things Corky Carroll might be suffering behind a desk somewhere, very unstoked. Surfing is a business as well as an art, and only one branch is conducted on a board; others, like surfing journalism, equipment and fashions, make the idyllic life of a top professional possible. In 1967 Corky Carroll won Surfer magazine's Most Popular Surfer poll; last year he won 10 contests, only one for money—$400—but raked in another $28,600 from endorsements, mostly of surfboards and Jantzen swimwear.
Smirnoff's International Pro-Am offered a total purse of $4,350—like the first prize, an alltime high for a surfing contest. Nowadays most surfers are health food nuts, but few complained about being sponsored by a vodka firm. Robert Scott, 42, the meet director, president of the Western Surfing Association and a doctor of medicine, justified the tie-up quite easily. "I wouldn't like to see a cigarette company sponsor a meet," he said, "but alcohol is a form of food, an adjunctive, a vasal dilator. I have wine with all my meals."
A Smirnoff representative explained his company's role. "Surfing is in the same position as snow skiing 25 years ago," he said. "We're looking for promotions relating to such trends, and as the sport grows so will our participation." There were some dubious looks. "We're emphasizing that it's no longer fashionable to be drunk," he added.
Still, by the meet's final day, had Smirnoff provided, even the surfers would willingly have been unfashionable. To put it mildly, there were problems. The contest was held at Santa Cruz' Steamer Lane, where there is a shoreline of 15- to 20-foot cliffs. The night before competition began, someone pushed the judges' stands over a cliff into the boiling surf, following them with a VW bus. The next day a spectator tripped and went the same route. In the first hour of professional competition at least six custom-made boards were destroyed when they were driven by the surf against rocks at the base of the cliffs.
Then things really got bad. The waves almost disappeared, those competing at the time refused to continue and Dr. Scott was faced with the first strike in surfing history, led by Corky Carroll. That night, following an earthquake in Alaska, the Coast Guard issued a tidal wave alert for the Santa Cruz area and Dr. Scott had an extra glass of wine. He is an ardent surfer himself, and four months ago he sold a house and gave up a lucrative practice in Gilroy, Calif. to be nearer good surf. But now he yearned for trees and farms. And the worst was yet to come.
The last morning's competition was moved 25 miles south to Moss Landing, but in less than an hour the wind shifted and the surf became blown out. Everyone tried to leave at once and the Highway Patrol had to be called out to untangle the traffic jam on the road back to Steamer Lane. Before the meet ended, five surfboards were stolen from two Hawaiian surfers. And thieves weren't the only dissidents. Several local surfers weren't giving up their favorite spot just because of a contest. Time and again they created confusion in the judges' stands, where glare had already hindered surfer identification. Finally, Dr. Scott sent out a squad of bullyboys.
"Freedom fighter!" one yelled to a townie, "10 guys are waiting for you on the beach."
"I'd rather be a freedom fighter than a goose-stepping pig," the townie retorted. "Surfing is a free man's art," he said later. "I just want to be able to ride waves."
The most serious trouble, however, originated on the judges' platforms; truly objective scoring is nearly impossible in surfing. There are basics, like doing turns and cutbacks and not falling off, but, of course, no two waves are the same. And at Santa Cruz there was this thing about adding scores. Three or four times, mistakes in addition were made, and with $1,500 riding on each one there was much screaming.