Over the years, California has made a number of important contributions to surfing: e.g., wine coolers, Gidget and the Beach Boys. But notwithstanding all the wine, women and song, the Golden State and its 47 contiguous neighbors stopped producing championship surfers after the mid '60s. Competition was un-cool. Who could get amped for anything so bogue?
Well, on Sunday, some 55,000 bronzed bodies, fully amped, spilled onto the sand at Huntington Beach, right there in the heart of Surfin' U.S.A., for the finals of the $55,000 Op Pro Championships. They came in no small part to see Tommy Curren—a 22-year-old from Carpinteria, Calif., who had won the world title five months ago in Victoria, Australia—restore some long-lost respect to Southern California surfers.
And they came to see the likes of Mark (Cocky Occy) Occhilupo, the 20-year-old Australian who had beaten Curren on a last-minute wave in a memorable three-heat final in the '85 Op. Curren, who had not lost in four contests on the Association of Surfing Professionals tour this year, was looking for a record 24th straight heat victory. Occhilupo was looking to even a score: Since the last Op, Curren had beaten him four times in a row. Both wanted the winner's 2,000 points, which was double the usual number awarded on the pro tour because of the Op's size and class. Curren took the Op in 1983 and '84, and it was an apt event for his first U.S. appearance as reigning world champ.
The crowds that turned out were enormous by surfing standards. And with the famed Huntington Beach Pier on the left and the bleachers on the beach, the surfers competed in a stadium setting unlike anything anywhere else in the world. "It's the crowd watching that helps my surfing here," Occhilupo said. "Even if it's my mother or sister down on the beach, I surf best when people watch."
MTV was there to shoot the pier. Moon Zappa watched a few heats, and so did Reggie Jackson. But the celebrity who was kicking up the most sand was Curren.
"What he's doing is futuristic type surfing," said Joey Buran, a retired Southern California surfer who was the P.A. announcer for the Op. "Two years ago it became obvious he was not only unique but Numero Uno. He is dominating. He's like the Chicago Bears' defense. Or the Mets. It will be two years before anyone can seriously challenge Curren."
"Curren has given American surfing a tremendous amount of respect," said Shaun Tomson, a South African who was the 1977 world champ and now lives in Brentwood, Calif. "For many years the U.S. was anticompetition. Americans were involved in the Woodstock generation: peace, love and happiness."
"At my local surf spot, they ripped me apart for wanting to compete," Buran said. In 1978, Buran was the only mainland American among the world's 30 best surfers. Last year nine Californians and two Easterners were in the top 30. The new wave has broken.
Much of the turnaround is traceable, ironically, to two Australians, Ian Cairns and Peter Townend; both now live in Southern California. Cairns is the director of the Association of Surfing Professionals, the tour's governing body. Town-end, the 1976 world champ, is the advertising director for Surfing magazine. Seven years ago the two Aussies went to work for the National Scholastic Surfing Association in Huntington Beach.
The NSSA teaches teenagers competitive surfing skills and also has a full schedule of events. NSSA members must maintain certain academic standards, a genius stroke of public relations for a sport so long associated with truancy and substance abuse.
Curren is the most visible graduate of this program. But it has had other successes. Mike Parsons, freckle-faced, clean-cut and polite, is the Richie Cunningham of the tour and currently ranks sixth on the ASP points list. David Eggers, 16, is the youngest pro on the tour. Jeff (Chongo) Booth, the 1985 U.S. amateur champ, is a 4.0 student at Laguna Beach High, though he still cuts classes if the waves are inviting.
But Curren remains the idol of the young surfers, the so-called "gremmies." Says Cairns, "He has an incredible influence. The 11-and 12-year-old kids in the boys' division have career goals. They're bloody professionals."
Curren warily paddles around the riptide of success. "Curren has one thing on his mind: to be the best surfer on the water," Buran says. "It's been the one thing on his mind since he was 12."
On Saturday, in the second round of the Op, the champ faced Brad Gerlach, a 20-year-old Southern Californian who has finished second three times this year and who currently stands second in the ASP rankings.
Curren and Gerlach are radical opposites. Curren finished high school and was a star in the NSSA. He was married when he was 18. Gerlach was kicked out of high school (although he has since enrolled in junior college), dropped by the NSSA and is not particularly modest about his successes with women. (He says that the ability—and need—to memorize four new phone numbers a day has helped him pick up foreign languages when he is overseas.)
And while Curren is Terse Tommy, Rad Brad is brashly outspoken. Follow this stream of unconsciousness: "I trip over my feet when I walk. I can dance and I can surf. I can move to a rhythm. We dance out there. We defy antigravity situations. We ride the end of storms that rip up the earth and tear up houses. Then we come back on land and tell people about it. It's pretty neat. It's kind of like Atlantis."
Gerlach grew up around water. His mother, Cheryl, was a professional water-skier. His father, Joe, was a platform diver who defected from Hungary at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, where he finished fourth.
"I threw Brad off a high board when he was 14 months old," Joe says. "When he came up, he said, 'More,' before he had even taken a breath."
Saturday's spectators watched Gerlach battle Curren in the most anticipated heat of the day. It was close through three waves, each surfer taking two solid though unspectacular rides before Curren was dumped and Gerlach had a wave die on him. Then Gerlach, with priority to take the first wave, scrambled after another one that died.
"That was the mistake of the heat," Gerlach said. "I don't know why I did it. I just paddled into it. Maybe I was a little anxious." Curren followed on the next wave, a strong one, had two spectacular vertical reentries, and the heat was his.
On Sunday morning Occhilupo dispatched Tom Carroll, a two-time world champ from Newport, Australia, and Curren beat veteran Terry Richardson of Wollongong, Australia. Occhilupo lives in the coastal town of Kurnell. "Captain Cook landed there," he says. And for the waves to be good at home, "they have to be big."
The waves at Huntington Beach had diminished, and Occhilupo fell behind as Curren grabbed four waves to the Aussie's two in the first 15 minutes of their 30-minute heat. Then Cocky Occy danced over the water with two great rides. Their battle finally came down to a mad paddle race to the priority buoy for the last wave. Occy was there first. "By three inches," he guessed. Curren, with time dwindling, was forced to move toward shore and take a smaller wave. Occhilupo finished with a big ride and handed the American his first loss of the season.
Occhilupo met countryman Glen Winton in the finals. Winton, known as Mr. X because of his lack of public acclaim, had made several ASP finals but had never won an event. Occy easily took the first heat, and as the pair headed out to the pier for the final run, black smoke billowed behind the stands. Rioting beachgoers had overturned a police car and set it on fire. Occhilupo won a lackluster final heat that was somewhat overshadowed by the melee.
"I'm so gloriously happy," Occy said afterward. "And stopping Tom after what he's done was a bigger achievement than winning again."