Behind me, pure energy radiated from the skate arena, pulsing in rhythm with the clicks, clacks, and grinds of skateboard trucks on metal coping. Hundreds of fans sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the hot aluminum bleachers, hooting the skaters rocketing around the big concrete bowl. It sounded riotous. It sounded fun. But I wasn’t sitting in the skate arena. I was sitting in the surf section, along with a sparse handful of people. We picked at plates of catered food and stared out at the lifeless Pacific, which dribbled feebly against the Huntington Beach sand. There was a surf contest going on and some of the best surfers in the world were out there, but the only energy in those bleachers was that leaking over from the skate side of the scaffolding. With no waiting period, you surf what you can get, and that meant professional surfers standing in waist deep water during heats, clutching their boards, jumping into waves like children.You surf what you can get, and that meant professional surfers standing in waist-deep water during heats, clutching their boards, jumping into waves like children.
This years’s meager surf aside—obviously, there was plenty to do at Huntington Beach. Small surf got you down? The world’s best BMX riders and skaters were killing it all week. Wary of Four Loko-fueled teenaged mobs? Going just by last year’s press coverage and wide-eyed anecdotes, not to mention the total lack of any rioting, there’s been a whole lot less of the bawdy anarchy the event has seen in the past. Oh, there’s still been plenty of cover-your-eyes-in-shame adolescent naughtiness skulking its way all over the base of the Huntington Pier, but, having never been to the U.S. Open before, I expected much, much worse. The event’s act seems to have been significantly cleaned up.
So, on to the business-end, the finals day of surfing. Well, once the surf dropped to around belly-button high, there was no way in hell Filipe Toledo was going to lose. He does just fine in powerful surf too, but he’s a 100-pound ninja who’s been fitted with a space-age internal gyroscope by the Brazilian surf authorities, a device that keeps him perpetually planted above his tiny, always-rotating surfboard. It seemed unfair that keg-shaped Willian Cardoso had to face a buzzsaw like Toledo in the final, but then, Cardoso is the fastest-surfing keg the world has ever seen, even nabbing a 9.03 on a piddly left, the highest wave score of the heat. More shocking, he did so riding a normal-sized surfboard that looked like something you or I might ride.Toledo is a 100-pound ninja who’s been fitted with a space-age internal gyroscope by the Brazilian surf authorities, a device that keeps him perpetually planted above his tiny, always-rotating surfboard.
In the women’s Final, Tyler Wright proved against Steph Gilmore that it didn’t matter how you got to the inside section, it just mattered that you got there more often and with a smidge more board speed than your competitor. The women’s Final made me think about those out there in the surf world who wonder if a wave pool’s predictable and level playing field is the answer to the eternal question of “whither contest surfing?” (Answer: nope). Because essentially, each ride was the same. Take off, weak foam attack on the outside, the Huntington Hop™ to the shorebreak, and an end section float/whack. Same with the men’s event really, but the Toledo vs. Cardoso head had a touch more wave push.
Weak Huntington surf also makes you wonder: Where are the weird boards? The high-performance mini-sims? The stubby planks? The twinnies? You know, boards built to juice up tiny, shitty surf? Dave Parmenter famously rode a longboard in a wave-starved heat during the OP Pro in 1988, which, in retrospect, should have earned a point or two from the judges simply for ingenuity. In fact, the two questions most often overheard among surf industry types over the final weekend were: “When’s the Duct Tape Invitational happening anyway?” “And, you guys heading over to the Duct Tape?” Joel Tudor’s longboard contest was the most entertaining choice given the conditions, and had one of the competitors from the regular event taken a hint from the Duct Tape riders and paddled out on one of Tyler Warren’s bar-of-soap creations, the entirety of the surf audience would have fallen to their knees and given thanks.The lure of surf is plenty strong enough to bust through any walls of wave-starved boredom.
Despite the disappointing surf, despite eyeball competition from the repeatable, near-constant excitement generated in kilowatts by the finals of the skate and BMX events, the overwhelming majority of the thousands of inlanders and surfer wannabes at the Open weren’t clamoring into the Vans stores to refashion themselves as skaters and BMXers. They were there to be around surfing. The lure of surf is plenty strong enough to bust through any walls of wave-starved boredom. After decompressing and reflecting for a few hours, the most interesting thing I’m left with about this year’s U.S. Open was that it felt like a successful surf contest that hardly required surfing.