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Board Meeting : Competition Draws 500 Surfers, Big Crowds and Storm-Stoked Waves

August 08, 1997|STEVE CARNEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HUNTINGTON BEACH — Many of them would have gone to the beach anyway, with record high temperatures inducing them to don their teeniest bikinis or baggiest baggies.

But others among the crowds are here to see the best surfers in the world compete this week in the G-Shock U.S. Open of Surfing.

Thanks to a Pacific hurricane, the 500 competitors are getting some of the best waves the event has seen in years. They, along with thousands of spectators and sun worshipers, have flocked here despite construction of a $12-million promenade at the Huntington Beach Pier, which eliminated 600 prime parking spaces, littered the area with rubble and filled the air with the sounds of jackhammers and backhoes.

But those problems didn't stop 19-year-old Azi Sharif of Irvine from enjoying the display of surfing power. "It's amazing just to watch" the competition, she said. "It makes you want to get better."

Some residents have grumbled about the crowd of 200,000-plus expected through Sunday, said Lyndon Cabellon, surfboard manager at Huntington Surf & Sport near the pier. But "a lot of the locals [are] pretty stoked: The world comes to Huntington," Cabellon said.

The U.S. Open and its precursor, the OP Pro, have been held in Huntington Beach since 1982. Some of this year's excitement is being provided by 8- to 10-foot waves from Hurricane Guillermo pounding the pier. But the combination of crowds, high surf and strong side currents has also created "a recipe for danger," said Ron Hagan, the city's community services director.

"On the one hand it's great for the pro surfers, but it's extremely dangerous for the people going to the beach just to cool off," he said. "If you're not a real strong swimmer, stay out of the surf."

There has already been one tragedy this week. A Long Beach man swimming with a friend Tuesday at Huntington Beach disappeared after being caught in heavy surf and undertow, officials said. There was still no trace Thursday of Mark White, 19, who was presumed to have drowned, Hagan said.

Lifeguards have made far more rescues than normal--more than 150 since Tuesday, said Lt. Michael Beuerlein of the Huntington Beach Marine Safety Division. Officials were concerned, too, about traffic congestion and the massive shortfall in parking spots.

"It is going to be a little inconvenient," said Rich Barnard, deputy city administrator. "But the true enthusiasts, I don't think that's going to stop them."

Most beach-goers were philosophical about the scarcity of parking spots.

"Come early," said surfer Steve Christian, 26, of Manhattan Beach as he prepared to compete Tuesday.

"It's going to get crazy this weekend," he said. "It's going to be so much fun."

Though some locals grouse about the mob scene, merchants are taking advantage of it, adding staff to help deal with the throngs and hoping they will spend money on surf gear.

Cabellon, whose shop is across Pacific Coast Highway from the pier, shrugged off the construction activity and parking crunch as "part of the growing pains. . . . It will be good, long-term."

Except for an hour or so when the fog halted the surfing competition, tanned and tattooed spectators Wednesday lined the pier, elbow to elbow, dashing from side to side to glimpse a great surfing run or an especially big wave.

The crowd, including many holding boards of their own, oohed and aahed over impressive displays and laughed in sympathy each time a surfer wiped out.

Sitting in temporary bleachers south of the pier, Cheryl Carter, 24, of Fullerton said she hardly noticed the beeping backhoes in the construction zone behind her. Her focus was on soaking up rays and picking up surfing pointers.

She offered this advice for everyone heading to Huntington today through the weekend: "Don't forget your sun block. Be prepared to wait for parking. And drink a lot of water."

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