Surfing stars catch waves at Huntington Beach competition's opening weekend

Alana Blanchard competes at the U.S. Open of Surfing on July 21, 2010.
Alana Blanchard competes at the U.S. Open of Surfing on July 21, 2010.
Courtesy of U.S. Open of Surfing

The men, women and teen athletes competing at the U. S. Open of Surfing descended upon Huntington Beach to show off their boarding skills at the opening trial competitions this weekend.

Thousands of fans camped out near the pier under beach umbrellas. They crowded on the pier overlooking the competition and filled the grandstands, hoping to catch a glimpse of top surfers on their boards.

Sunday marked the second day of a marathon nine-day event for the athletes who are competing for cash prizes totaling $350,000.

The pressure is still on for surfers to show off more than just the fundamentals of wave riding. Surfers will also be rated on aerial maneuvers.

“Nowadays, everybody’s got their bag of tricks,” surfer Matt Pagan of Westchester said after winning his heat Sunday afternoon.

“You still need to have your fundamental surfing like they had back in the day, and if you can mix that with your bag of tricks, you’re golden.”

Surfing legends Brett Simpson, Rob Machado and Kelly Slater were expected to draw crowds to the men’s professional competition, but many of the visitors came to enjoy the view.

Frank Lougher, 50, of Huntington Harbor, used to surf in the 1970s, but the real estate manager is OK with being a spectator this time.

“I’m not gonna get hurt watching,” he said.

The weekend's relatively calm waves were disappointing for a few competitors, but many knew to stay hopeful.

Paul Southworth, tanned and sporting a long braided grey ponytail, watched several trial heats from his spot on the sand.

“I wish these boys had some bigger waves,” Southworth said. “Only Mother Nature knows about that. We have a whole week here that lasts till next Sunday, so anything can happen.”

The 60-year-old father from Sayulita, Mexico, said that his kids have been surfing since they were 3 and 5-years-old. His son, Dylan Southworth, was in the competition, but both sons are champion surfers at the junior level.

“These kids are great. They’re rippers,” Southworth said, noting that many of this weekend's competitors, like his children, started when they were small kids.

The bright sun beat down on beach-goers and surfers alike. At times, athletes patiently floated on their boards close to the pier, waiting for a suitable wave as the minutes of the competition ticked away.

Organizers believe they will draw more than 500,000 visitors for the nine-day competition, but stress there’s more to the event than just surfing. The U.S. Open will offer other entertainment, even highlighting other sports between this weekend's events and the Open's final day next Sunday.

They were still putting the finishing touches on a 20,000 square foot temporary exhibition arena that will host BMX and skateboarding competitions.

White exhibitor tents stretch along the pier, selling souvenirs and offering games. Weezer and Switchfoot will be among the featured musical acts for the concerts set to begin Tuesday, Aug. 3.

Michelle McKinley, 24, of Glendale, has been surfing for 10 years, but on Sunday, she was enjoying the view from the shoreline. She knows it’s about timing to see surfers at their best.

“We like to see them pull off the good waves,” McKinley said, adding that sometimes surfers catch the best waves toward the end of the run in the final days of the competition. That’s what happened at last year’s Open, she said.

“You want to come out and see as much as you can,” McKinley said. “It’s all about luck sometimes.”