The object of surfing is to stand on your feet and stay calm while being chased by a wave that has every intention of eating you alive. There are certain refinements beyond this, such as hanging both feet, all your toes and as much of your stomach as possible out over the tip of the board while going at full speed. After that, in the roar of big water, it really gets ridiculous.
Still, in recent years, more and more people have been getting better at surfing in these poses of grace and guts, and it was inevitable that one day they would all get together and surf each other unto the death. In the past two years world surfing events were staged in Australia and Peru, with results that seemed to prove there was a home-ocean advantage, and then last week the contest came to San Diego, where the sport had its best—and perhaps its first actual—world championship.
Funny how images change. Even the President of the United States took notice of the championship and wired greetings. Mr. Johnson did not exactly say, "Kowabunga! you guys," but he did say, "It is always heartening to see people from throughout the world meet in friendly rivalry and good fellowship," which is a pretty accurate translation.
California Governor Pat Brown issued the most stoked proclamation of his eight years in office, grandly announcing that, "The essence of democracy is no better reflected in any sport than it is in surfing. Surfing offers the individual a choice as free as the waves in the ocean." You can't beat receptions like that.
The entire scene began to draw such respectful attention from high levels that one nearly expected Ronald Reagan to slip into a pair of baggies and sneak down to the beach to shake hands all around. It was that way all week. Everybody was being very proper in his burnished new image, carefully explaining to everyone else that surfing is a strange sport whose players need a lot of sympathetic understanding. This is because some people still think surfing is entirely populated by gremmies and ho-dads. A few years ago, maybe. But not any more.
What happened to surfing was that the image-busters and beach-wreckers, who were never surfers anyway, simply dissolved, taking their knives, knuckles, bicycle chains and Iron Crosses with them. Surfing went straight, and here was the 1966 world championship being held right in good old southern California, with the place suddenly full of surfers from nine countries, all tanned and fresh-faced and glittering with bursts of white teeth. It was the week the sport seemed to come of age.
To be exact, it came of age last Thursday afternoon when a lanky, boneless lad named David Nuuhiwa moved out on the nose of his surfboard, blasting along the foaming edge of a seven-foot wave. The wave was collapsing fast behind him, crashing and roaring. Then Nuuhiwa suddenly arched his back and raised his arms and stood there like a fluid, copper-plated statue for 8.3 seconds—just soaring along. The crowd on the beach suddenly broke into applause and several people jumped up and down at the sight of it. Then, when it was over and Nuuhiwa had been swallowed up by the wave, everybody looked around, embarrassed, and they grinned self-consciously at one another. But they knew that they had just seen what surfing is all about. The whole thing was something new and special in sport—a fast game being played by bold new athletes.
From that point on the week was casual, which is fine. Surfers have never been known as particularly organized people, anyway—like, say, golfers, who will walk out of the clubhouse and expect to find the first tee right where it was the last time. The ocean moves around more, and surfers are people who spend a lot of time standing on beaches, wriggling their toes in the sand and looking out with hot eyes at the shore-breaks as they talk about the mystique of it all.
San Diego, playing the gracious host to teams from as far away as Ireland, South Africa and Australia, turned over the whole local Pacific Ocean to them from Point Loma north to the Windansea Cove, on the theory that somewhere each day the surf would be up. Then city officials named it officially "World Surfing Week in San Diego," donated $1,495 for a public-address system that would operate under sand and turned everybody loose.
It does not matter that the next few days were confused. For one thing, all the surf seemed to have gone to some other coast, maybe Maine, and every morning the committee would send scouts out into the 4 a.m. darkness to look frantically for waves. For another, the judges were struggling with the complicated scoring system. Competitive surfing is still a young sport and nobody is quite sure how it should be graded.
By Friday evening, with two big days yet to go in the contest, the point system made it clear that the new world champion had already been picked. Nuuhiwa had gotten the best ride, but anyone who studied the scorecards could see that Australia's Nat Young had won the most points—early and easily. Similarly, it appeared that nobody could beat Joyce Hoffman of the U.S. out of the women's title.
The situation created quite an inside crisis. Officials conducted some secret meetings, and decided, since the spectators probably were more interested in surfing than scoring anyway, that the contest would run through its normal paces and on Sunday the winner would be—surprise!—Nat Young.
The countries involved, figuring that one day all this will be straightened out, went along with the plan. Everyone arranged his face into a fiercely competitive look and the pretend contest went on as scheduled.
But Thursday had been the best day. It began when the contestants poured into La Jolla Shores Beach. La Jolla Shores is a settled, neatly rich community with a geriatric golf club, a couple of honest-to-goodness tearooms and several white-haired people walking rheumatic dachshunds. Into this serene setting came the lively ones, breathing vigor. There were such notables as Hoffman, who is blonde and 19 and the best woman surfer anywhere; Nat Young and Midget Farrelly of Australia; Paul Strauch and Jock Sutherland of Hawaii (which had its own team); France's national champion, Jean Marie Lartigau, the pride of Biarritz; plus Mike Doyle, Corky Carroll and Nuuhiwa, of the U.S.
"This is the World Series of surf, baby," said one official.
In spite of the scoring complications, the idea of picking a world champion is simple enough. The judges, all surfers themselves, sit on the beach in folding chairs, their bare feet dug into the wet sand, and watch the action. So they could successfully grade everyone, they sent the surfers into the sea in heats of five each. At the toot of a horn the competitors had 15 minutes to surf, catching any waves they chose. All their rides were judged, and the five highest scores counted.
By midday it was clear just how tough the competition would be. The surf rolled in fast, three-foot breaks (a wave is measured from its trough to peak), punctuated with an occasional four-footer. Each wave had a tendency to collapse, leaving the surfer knee-deep in roiling foam.
"This is tough," said Corky Carroll, a tousled blond with surfing bone spurs on each leg, which make him look like he has four kneecaps. "You've got to do something out there to impress the judges. I mean, you can't just stand there and look dumb."
Suddenly the surf stopped. The scouts, prepared for this sort of thing, found it had popped up sharply at South Mission Beach, with biting rollers five and six feet high that curled over neatly at the top.
The judges folded their chairs, a moving van was loaded with boards, a caravan of cars and one rumbling bus started up, and the world championship headed off to South Mission. There, in the slanting afternoon sun, with surf hammering against a stone jetty, the contest took on many of the daring aspects of a rodeo. In came Strauch, pouring through a five-foot surf with his back to the breaking wave, foam churning up around his shoulders, yet somehow riding the thing, swinging easily back and forth. Then Young, a strong lad whose stomach muscles look like interlaced fingers, began catching waves in his own Australian way: riding them to the top of the shoulder, his eyes full of spray, looking quickly along both sides, then standing and powering his way through.
Nuuhiwa, hump-shouldered, relaxed, a rider who does not care to share waves with anyone else, sat aloof, farther out than the others, staring moodily at the sea. Sensing something in the water nobody else could see, he suddenly wheeled around and began paddling furiously toward the beach. The wave swelled under him, and just as it began to break he leaped up, stepped out to the nose of his board and posed, his back to the curl, like a matador turning his back on the bull. The temptation is strong to look over your shoulder and see what the wave is up to. Nuuhiwa didn't. He arched, balanced and relaxed, and rode the wave until it finally caught up, swirling first over the back of the board, then climbing around his ankles and pulling him off into the soup.
The championship was now revolving around the opposing styles of such leaders as Nuuhiwa and Young, a battle of watery boxers against sluggers, and this was the high point for those who prefer finesse. Nuuhiwa, who stands in an easy, hips-forward attitude, always looking, even on land, as though he is poised for flight, is the best boxer in the game.
"This whole thing is much more than hot-dogging," he says. "You must try to blend into the wave. You match the wave's movements, you become part of it. There is a feeling of poetry; you feel it inside you. It is a form of, say, dancing. I don't dance on land, but I dance out there."
Young, whose coach describes him as a reformed 18-year-old hell-raiser, leads surfing's other school. Its motto is Charge! "I have just one theme," Young says. "I respect the ocean, all right. But I want to beat it. I don't want to blend in with anything. I think the surfer should be the master. A lot of them strike fancy poses instead of getting involved with the wave. I pick my wave and nothing else matters. Style is only 10%. A good surfer should be able to ride anything. With the Australians, a wave is a wave.
"When I found out I had won the contest too early, I offered to throw away all the points and surf against everybody all over again, winner take all. But they preferred we keep quiet about it."
Through it all, the beach grew steadily more crowded with golden, tanned, tender young things—the girls the surfers call bubble-gummers, long, blonde hair to their shoulders, big eyes and little bathing suits, with slogans on them like "This Seat Is Taken" and "Remember the Mann Act."
By Sunday afternoon it was over. Nat Young, the charger, had his champion's trophy. Joyce Hoffman had hers. And Kathy Lacroix, of Jacksonville, Fla., a member of the U.S. East Coast team, had the right words for the whole week. Swinging her hair around and flashing a smile that could stun a man across 40 feet of ocean, she said, "Like, I mean, isn't this really nice? I mean, oh God, they're all so nice to us here in San Diego and they are taking care of us and all. I mean, I think they have finally realized that surfers are people."