This isn’t surfing as I know it. For the past 15 years, I’ve lived on an island with a population of 6000, and a surfing population of 3. My travels are to countries not frequented by wave riders, places like India and Malaysia, where a surfboard is a novelty, little more than an afterthought – something you bring along because that’s what you’ve always done. I avoid cities and scenes in general, and surf contests in particular. I'm the guy two blocks down or 2000 miles away, surfing an abandoned peak or an undiscovered reef. If I really want to know what happened, I can always check Heats on Demand.
Yesterday, I was camping in the hills above Ojai. Tomorrow I’m flying to Alaska, where I’ll paddle to beaches that see more bears than humans. But today… today I'm at the Vans US Open of Surfing, and it is like nothing I have ever experienced.
Even the uneducated could see that Toledo was saving the event. Too bad he didn’t win.
Most pro contests have 11 day waiting periods, and require around a third of that to run. But the US Open is not most surf contests. There is a women’s WT event. A men’s QS 10,000. A junior contest and a Duct Tape Invitational. Skateboarding and BMX venues and a bizarre CrossFit-inspired exercise competition. An endless collection of vendors, and a hormone-addled horde of horny teenie boppers. The fact that it all goes down in just seven days means that the concept of a waiting period holds no water here. With a non-stop succession of heats scheduled months in advance, luck plays a big factor at the US Open. Event organisers hope for a lucky forecast. Competitors hope for a lucky tide window. Everyone else just hopes to get lucky.
As it turns out, 2015 was not the luckiest year ever for the US Open. While it hasn’t been completely flat, it’s come pretty damned close. The surf portion of the event was perfectly summed up by Carissa Moore’s quarterfinal heat against Bianca Buitendag on Thursday, where a total of five waves broke during the 30 minute clash. Although the two competitors were all over those five waves, most rides offered little more than a speed pump to lip bounce. Dream tour conditions it was not, and Carissa was upset at the buzzer when Bianca milked a waist-high left into the pier. The world title race got tighter, Carissa relinquished her yellow jersey to Courtney Conlogue, and no one cared because heats run in a lake are far less interesting than strips of fabric wedged between butt cheeks.
The US Open is everything that a purist despises, which is to say that it’s everything a college freshman loves.
On the men’s side of things, the only person who managed to make the abysmal conditions look appealing was Felipe Toledo – and that shouldn’t come as a surprise, since he’s arguably the best small-wave surfer of all time. A few minutes after his round 4 heat (in which Toledo had milked non-breaking ripples to the shorebreak and then chucked his patented full rotation air reverse onto dry sand), I overheard a phone conversation between a WSL employee and his nephew. Describing what he’d been doing for the past 30 minutes, the middle-aged, relatively new to the scene, more experienced with football than surfing photographer explained, “I’ve just been shooting some pictures of the guy who is going to win the contest.” Standing next to him, a local newspaperman who’d clearly never set foot in the ocean grunted his agreement. The moral of the story? Even the uneducated could see that Toledo was saving the event. Too bad he didn’t win. Once he fell out of the draw on the final day, it was hard to find the motivation to keep watching.
But the biggest surf contest in North America has never really been about the waves. In Huntington Beach in July, surfing is just an excuse to put on the festival to end all festivals, and while the action in the water varies from year to year – sometimes riveting, often downright catatonic – the action on the beach never changes.
This may not be surfing as I know it, but the rest of the world doesn’t care what I think.In the cult classic Dazed and Confused, Matthew McConaughey quipped, “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.” This might as well be the mantra of those lining Huntington Beach Pier as well. By the time the final horn sounded on Sunday,downtown HB had become a dermatologist’s wet dream. There was naked skin everywhere and most of it was decades removed from the travesty of wrinkles, cellulite, liver spots and melanoma. Fortunately for the seedy lot watching from above, with their beady eyes, oversized lenses, and complete lack of regard for decorum, leering at underage co-eds is not against the law. If it were, California would have a long list of newly registered sex offenders come Monday morning.
So what happens when 10,000 scantily garbed beach bunnies and roided-out brosefs take to the sand on a sunny Sunday in August? No riots (this year, at least), but lots of trash, and a fair amount of trash talk. Posturing, gawking and sexual innuendo. Sweat, noise, bikinis, hipsters and commercialism – oh yes, endless commercialism, because surf sells, and sex sells, and this is Southern California, this is Surf City, USA, the Sodom and Gomorrah of wave riding and the heart of the industry, the most superficial place on earth, where you are defined as much by the logo on your top as the silicone tits busting out of it. The US Open is everything that a purist despises, which is to say that it’s everything a college freshman loves. And for those who didn’t take Economics 101 when they were at school back in the Stone Age, college freshmen are the target demographic of those who sell t-shirts and buy ad space and sponsor festivals disguised as surf contests. This may not be surfing as I know it, but the rest of the world doesn’t care what I think.
Of course, at the end of the day, when the tents come down and displays are packed away – as sun-fried pre-adults stagger home to the noise pollution that is Justin Bieber, and those with connected friends or well-proportioned bodies boogie their way into industry after-parties – the surf contest that has become a circus is still just a surf contest after all, which means a handful of people walk away as winners.
Event organisers hope for a lucky forecast. Competitors hope for a lucky tide window. Everyone else just hopes to get lucky.And no, Felipe Toledo wasn’t one of them – he lost in the semis to Tanner Hendrickson. Japanese ripper Hiroto Ohhara won the men’s QS 10,000, while Johanne Defay took out the women’s event, climbing her way well into the top 10. Griffin Colapinto and Caroline Marks were the US Open Junior Champs, Justin Quintal won the Duct Tape Invitational, Ben Hatchel took down the skateboarding comp, and Dennis Enarson won the BMX. I have no idea who did the most Swedish ball sit-ups to win the fitness challenge. But the real winners? The sponsors. The vendors. The promotional teams, with their brilliant smiles and their life-proof phones and their ever-ready sign-up sheets for voluntary email lists. Vans. GoPro. Fiat. Jeep. Samsung. GShock. Verizon. Pacifico. The WSL. Cue product placement here. These are, after all, the reason the US Open exists.
In an essay about surfing, Tom Blake once asserted that Nature=God. But Tom Blake, bless his idealistic little heart, wasn’t hip to dogma of the 21st century beach culture. In the surf-gilded temple of consumerism, market share is God and the beach commentator his priest. Sell me my cleverly branded indulgences. Anoint me with the trappings of a pop culture run amuck. Baptize me in the waves of a top 40 soundtrack. Take me to church – I’ll worship like a dog with everyone else.