Tom Curren made a promise to his wife and newborn daughter last year--he would sit out the Assn. of Surfing Professionals world tour and spend more time at home in Biarritz, France.
But Curren made one exception.
He packed his boards last August and came to the Huntington Beach Pier with hopes of winning his fourth Op Pro championship.
There's something about the Op Pro that attracts Curren, and the crowds, to the pier every year. It's become the largest surfing event on the U.S. mainland, overcoming controversy and a riot in 1986.
What keeps Curren coming back?
"Huntington has a peculiar wave," he said. "You have to do a lot of maneuvers in the shoreline and in the break."
Curren's ability to carve the shoreline waves has helped him win three Op Pro titles--1983, '84 and '88. He barely missed a fourth last year, losing to Richie Collins of Newport Beach in the finals.
Collins said California surfers have an advantage in competing on familiar waves at the Op.
"I've been surfing Huntington since I was 8," Collins said. "For me, it's like jumping out of bed and getting up in the morning. It's that easy.
"I like that (Huntington) wave a lot. The Australians hate that wave; that's why they're doing bad here the last few years."
Strangely enough, it was an Australian, Ian Cairns, who started the Op Pro. He ran the contest until 1986, when he returned to Australia.
Cairns wanted to surround a surfing contest with a stadium-like atmosphere, so he built grandstands near the south side of the pier.
Fans could also watch surfing from the pier before it was ravaged by storms in July, 1988, and closed.
The pier area had been the site of the now-defunct U.S. surfing championships for more than 20 years.
Cairns' ideas proved to be a success. More than 20,000 fans attended the first Op Pro.
But in 1986, the increasing crowds at the Op turned dangerous. The men's finals were overshadowed by a riot on the beach behind the grandstands, a disturbance that many called the worst in Orange County history.
"In retrospect, it forced us to make changes that made the event better," said Bonnie Crail, vice president of marketing for Ocean pacific. "We refocused how we marketed the event. Instead of advertising on rock radio stations to come down to a big party on the beach, we have ads promoting it as a legitimate event."
A year-by-year review
of the Op Pro:
1982--An estimated crowd of 20,000 watched Cheyne Horan of Palm Beach, Australia, and Becky Benson of Haliewa, Hawaii, win the first Op Pro titles. Horan eliminated Shaun Tomson of South Africa. Benson, who hadn't surfed competitively in three years while studying at Brigham Young-Hawaii, made her comeback a successful one.
1983--Curren beat Joey Buran of Carlsbad in the men's final. Santa Barbara's Kim Mearig defeated Liz Benavidez of Hermosa Beach in the women's final.
1984--Curren again was the big story, defending his title. Frieda Zamba of Flagler Beach, Fla., won the first of her three women's Op titles.
1985--Political tensions mounted in late June, when several surfers, including Curren, Martin Potter and two-time world champion Tom Carroll, boycotted the South African segment of the tour. They sat out the three contests in protest of that country's policy of apartheid.
"It was working on my conscience," Carroll said. "It's always been very depressing. There just doesn't seem to be any human rights there."
But all three were back on the tour by the time it reached Huntington Beach. Mark Occhilupo of Australia denied Curren a third-consecutive Op title by rallying on the last wave for the victory. Jodie Cooper of Australia edged Jorja Smith of San Clemente to win the women's championship.
1986--Occhilupo's second consecutive title was overshadowed by the riot.
Hundreds of youths pelted police with rocks and bottles, raided a lifeguard station and set fire to six police cars. Eight people were injured and more than 100 police officers were called to stop the disturbance.
Just how the riot started remains a mystery, but a Times reporter covering the finals gave this account:
\o7 A young man ran into the surfing competitors' area, shaking his head. Although police later gave a different account, the man said three girls had slipped off parts of their bathing suits in front of a crowd of men. And when police approached to arrest the three, a fight broke out. The brawling swept south across the beach and larger groups of people ran to confront the officers.
\f7 Meanwhile, nearly 20,000 fans were unaware of the violence behind the grandstands as they watched Occhilupo beat Glen Winton in the finals. Zamba defeated Pam Burridge of Australia for the women's title.
Contest officials may have prevented the disturbance from becoming worse than it already was. The announcers told the fans that an additional heat was needed to determine the winner when, in fact, Occhilupo had already won the first two in the best-of-three series.