The US Open is again upon us. We’re talking almost 60 years of tradition here, as the megaton surf competition, in one form or another, has been on the Huntington Pier summer calendar since Eisenhower threw his neck out looking for Sputnik 1. You have three choices. Ignore it. Embrace it. Bitch about it.
You chose to ignore? Fair play. A classic move, actually. In the beginning, the standard response from most of your better surf media types to the West Coast Surfing Championships—which became the United States Surfing Championships, which more or less became the Op Pro, which became the US Open—was to give it a passing glance, or blow it off altogether. Bruce Brown never made it to HB Pier on contest day. SURFER didn’t bother in 1960, and in ’61 it kicked the contest to the back of the mag—three paragraphs, one photo, done.
That all changed when the Dana Point Mafia—American surfing’s powers-that-be—turned the event into an artillery piece for the Great Hodad Wars of ’62 and ’63. The hodad (or “pseudo-surfer,” “gremlin,” “bad element,” take your pick), like the 1950s-vintage commie, was more boogeyman than actual threat. The newborn surf industry’s thinking was that a “cleaner” sport equaled greater leisure-time market share, and the hodad demagoguing went all Joe McCarthy real quick. As a SURFER editorial put it, “They are nature’s inadequates, physically, mentally, morally,” who wanted only to “steal and destroy.” The hodad could be identified in the field, the magazine continued, by his “outlandish appearance and atrocious behavior,” his “long hair and baggy trunks,” and a vocabulary studded with “four-letter words.”
SURFER founder John Severson might argue the point, but I for one don’t believe that surfers as a rule were more hooligan-y then, say, your local high school varsity football team. And by way of pointing out the giant double-scoop of hypocrisy on behalf of the surf industry in the those early years, fix in your mind this now-cherished bit of 1963 surf lore: respected board-maker and SURFER advertiser Pat Curren, while participating in an official event of the lauded and well-decorated Windansea Surf Club, being hoisted from the window of a hired bus, drunk and nude, pissing his name on Coast Highway, on his way to an industry sanctioned contest at Malibu. Point being? If he’s on your team, he ain’t a hodad.
Anyway, for reasons valid or otherwise, all of a sudden events like the West Coast Championships were viewed not just as surfy athletic tests, but as a means by which the sport might “reinstate the good name of surfing,” and prevent “further decay in the surfing image.” The language became less tight-ass over the years, but the clean-it-up feeling remains. As I write this, middle school kids are hanging off Huntington Pier, mouths agape, lapping up Filipe Toledo’s punt-spray. They love the US Open. But they do not love it as much as the surf industry, whose deep regard for Huntington Beach surf contests stretch back to the hodad crusades of yore.
Bitching about the contest means you care enough to tune in, but also feel the urge to point out flaws and make suggestions—let’s tweak the judging criteria, for example, or what say we nuke Orange County. Once again, history is on your side. And your patron saint is a guy you’ve probably never heard of named Bill Cleary. A whip-smart, opinionated, well-traveled surfer living on Topanga Point, Cleary was the editor at Surf Guide magazine in 1964. Surf Guide at that moment was on a big roll, and that had much to do with the fact that Cleary himself was a force of nature. Knew the coast like the back of his hand (literally; he co-authored the gloriously detailed Surfing Guide to Southern California), and was both liked and respected by the major players of the day—including Mickey Dora, who considered Cleary the only honest man in a surf media field otherwise filled with lackeys and thieves. Put it this way: Surf Guide was the only mag that kept John Severson up at night.
Bringing us to the 1964 United States Surfing Championships. Four-hundred competitors, a big gnarly south swell running, spectators out in force, and a cameraman dangling off the pier in a what looked like a shark cage, shooting for Wide World of Sports. SURFER called it an “awesome spectacle.” Surfing Illustrated said it was “one of the best contests ever,” and proceeded to thank the lifeguards, and the City of Huntington, and the local police.
Bill Cleary was there too. He dug the thrills and spills, but brought the pitchfork out in the opening paragraph of his Surf Guide story, saying the USSC was “a miserable fiasco of disorganization.” Lost entry forms, mandatory use of helmets, erratic judging, stolen boards (damn hodads!), some hard-to-follow business involving the competition vests—Cleary marched his grievances out in orderly fashion, one after the next. He struck a conciliatory note on the way out, saying “the greatest lesson to be learned from this contest is that we must improve the standards and methods before surfing competition will ever achieve major stature in the sporting world.” But basically this was pissed-off, well-connected surf media figure calling bullshit on the Dana Point Mafia’s cherished event.
A dangerous man, in other words. John Severson, no fool, reflected for a few moments, pulled on the velvet glove, and had Cleary on the SURFER masthead within six months. Didn’t keep his balls in a vice, exactly. But Cleary’s days as a surf-world firebreather were over.
Still, the bell couldn’t be un-rung. Before hitting “Tweet” on your next #VansUSOpen poison arrow, fist-bump your heart and give thanks to Bill Cleary.
Indulge in some Huntington contest flashbacks below…