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Surf City Having a Swell Time

U.S. Open of Surfing gets underway, with skateboard, volleyball, bike contests ahead.

July 22, 2006|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

Only days removed from the sweltering heat of Atlanta, Jim Mabes found himself with a front-row seat to the U.S. Open of Surfing. As he watched surfers glide and crash through the choppy waves at Huntington Beach Pier, Mabes looked bewildered.

"You can't see anything like this in Atlanta," he said, relaxing in a beach chair next to his wife and two teenage daughters. "It sort of looks like NASCAR on water. Guys driving these boards, looking for the best wave to get the most points."

The crowds were relatively light Friday, the first day of the 10-day event that is expected to attract 400,000 fans watching 500 world-class surfers chasing $185,000 in prize money.

Next week, BMX bike, skateboard and volleyball contests will be added to the mix. With big-name sponsors, vendors, concerts and a surf film festival, Surf City's midsummer event has the look and feel of a family-friendly beach party.

Just 25 years ago, the contest consisted of a few hundred surfers, a couple of banners and a wobbly grandstand on the south side of the pier.

The event's darkest day came two decades ago when a riot broke out during the competition, then called the Ocean Pacific Pro. During a wet T-shirt contest, hundreds of youths went on a rampage -- burning police cars, pelting officers with rocks and bottles, and storming lifeguard headquarters.

To prevent future violence, several changes were made to the event, including the elimination of bikini contests and alcohol.

"It's an entirely different scene now," said Mike Kingsbury, an event spokesman. "We're marketing a sport, not a T&A show."

Dave Harris of Huntington Beach recalled watching footage of the riot while living in Hawaii. "I remember thinking, 'I'm glad I'm not there,' " said Harris, who watched son Jason compete Friday in the junior division. "It looked ugly."

But Harris said he likes what the event has become: an action sports festival of sorts.

"With the professional biking, skateboarding and surfing here, it's showing younger kids they can go after their dreams," he said. "They can actually make a living doing something they love."

Of course, for a Huntington Beach resident, the event has its drawbacks. "I don't like the crowds," Harris said. "It pretty much shuts the town down for a week. But at least the crowds are controlled now. It's a lot more of family-friendly environment. There's no alcohol.

"There's even cops on ATVs writing tickets for smoking on the beach now."

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