The story goes that in the early days of surfing off of the pier in Huntington Beach, California, long before wetsuits were invented and woolen bathing suits were the only piece of equipment capable of combating the cold, jugs of cheap wine were lowered down from the pier on a rope to the surfers in the lineup.
A quick pull off the bottle and they were able to stave off the cold and catch a few more waves. But eventually the chill grew too much and surfers would retreat to the beach, huddling around black-smoked tire fires to bring their body temperatures back up to more normal levels. It was a dedicated crew of surfers, assembled from nearby beach towns like Long Beach, Seal Beach, Sunset Beach and, of course, Huntington Beach.
In 1959, a highly competitive group of pioneers came together to start the West Coast Surfing Championships, the predecessor for what today is well known as the U.S. Open of Surfing. It was grassroots, underfunded, simple and one of the only surf competitions in the world. Judging was based on length of ride and the difficulty of maneuvers performed on the 9 and 10-foot longboards that were the craft of the time. Donning helmets and numbered jerseys, it was part crash-course derby, part chest-pounding test of manliness.
Ultimately, it was a tall, dark-haired entrepreneur from Seal Beach named Jack Haley (nicknamed "Mr. Excitement" or "The Raven," depending on whom you talked to) who won the inaugural event. His claim to fame was that he shot the Huntington pier not once, but twice on the same wave to run away with the victory.
"It was new, it was different; nothing like it had ever been done before," told Haley, who died in 2000. "It was such an honor to be part of that event, and to win it. It seemed like it really set the standard for what was to come."
The following year Haley's younger brother, Mike, won the contest, and thus a competitive tradition was born in Huntington.
"The original goal was to put some kind of organization to surfing," explains Steve Pezman, publisher of The Surfer's Journal. "The California surf community at that point was disjointed, with each area having their own heroes and hotdoggers. This brought them all together and solidified surfing on the West Coast."
Fast-forward more than half a century later and a lot has changed. For one thing, the event’s name has been altered multiple times, from the originally-titled West Coast Surfing Championships to the United States Surfing Championships throughout the 1960s, then the Op Pro in the 1980s, before finally settling on the U.S. Open of Surfing, as it is known today.
But more than petty alterations in naming, the size and scope are beyond what the early competitors could ever have imagined.
Today the U.S. Open of Surfing is far and away the largest surf event on the planet. Drawing more than half a million spectators to the beach and attracting the top surfers from around the world. With an online webcast broadcast around the planet, millions more fans are able to access every minute of the action from the comfort of their homes or offices.
"They call it a circus for a reason," joked 11-time world champion Kelly Slater last year after winning the contest for the second time. “There’s a lot going on down here.”
In 2009 and 2010 history was made when local hero Brett Simpson, whose father once played professional football for the Los Angeles Rams, went back-to-back to win two consecutive Open titles.
"To have the support of all these amazing fans here in Huntington, what the organizers of this have been able to do here with this contest is remarkable,” said Simpson at the time.
Competitive surfing has obviously grown in leaps and bounds since Haley shot the pier in 1959. Today there is a $100,000 first-prize check waiting for the winner, and valuable ASP rating points that can drastically improve the chances of up-and-coming hopefuls trying to qualify for the World Tour. It also marks the final stop of the 2012 ASP Women's World Championship Tour. And it’s easy to get distracted, with skateboarding events and a concert stage keeping the party going on the sand.
It's estimated that the U.S. Open brings in over $21.5 million to the Orange County, California, economy -- $16.4 million for the city of Huntington Beach. And proof positive that things have changed considerably, you don't see a lot of jugs of wine dangling down from the pier mid-heat.
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