Narrowing down 50 years worth of competitive surfing in Huntington Beach to just ten moments is an impossible task. From the original West Coast Championship in 1959 to today, there have been so many stories, memories, and legends over the years here, they could (and should) easily fill a book.
Had we had room for a book-sized project, we surely would’ve also included many more remarkable events. Like Linda Benson’s domination of the women’s division in the early years, Corky Carroll’s numerous wins, Dave Parmenter’s drop knee longboard protest in 1988, Sunny Garcia’s epic performances, and Frieda Zamba and Joel Tudor’s unbelievable win streaks. Even just last year a historical moment was etched in the books with fourteen-year-old Malia Manuel winning the women’s final, becoming the youngest person ever to win the main event. While we couldn’t capture every incredible moment over the years, the fact that there were so many great stories to be told just underlines what a special event the US Open is.
Let us know in the comments below what your favorite Huntington moments are. And be sure to watch the main event of the Hurley US Open of Surfing LIVE on transworldsurf.com this week!
In The Beginning
Jack Haley Kicks Off The First H.B. Comp In Dramatic Fashion. Photo: PT Collection
The first year was 1959 and the official title for the big contest was the West Coast Surfing Championships. It began a tradition of holding the event on a late September weekend each year as that was when the big summer south swells would roll through. Some years it was pretty big, too. That first year we got lucky with good-size and quality surf at the same time. I was an eleven-year-old, wide-eyed gremmie and being at the event was like being in surf puppy heaven. All these big-name surfers from all over the world showed up. It was even better than being at a surf movie.
This was my first contest and I was pretty scared. Okay, really scared. There was a solid south swell running that I thought was about 50 feet. Looking back at the photos, I can see it was closer to six feet, but it seemed huge to me then. I was eliminated in my first heat and got to spend the rest of the weekend watching from the pier. I loved it.
The women’s division was dominated by Linda Benson, hands down the best girl surfer of her time. I surfed with her recently (50 years later) and she was still one of the best surfers in the water, man or woman.
In the men’s division, all the big names were right there in front of my very eyes. And the best of the locals were there too. Jack Haley and Sam Buell were standouts through the whole weekend. These two were the big brothers of Mike Haley and Denny Buell, two of the hottest surfers on the California coast. They, along with Robert August and Tim Dorsey, made up the Seal Beach surf royalty at the time.
On Sunday the surf was excellent, it was one of those beautiful fall days. Jack Haley had been using his local knowledge of the south side of the Huntington Beach pier to his advantage all morning. The wave that sealed the deal for Jack in the final was what started out to be a normal overhead peak a couple hundred feet away from the pier. As he dropped in the wave lined up nicely, and he turned off the bottom and took a critical high line toward the pier. He was in perfect trim as he sped through the outside set of pilings. Underneath the pier the wave backed off a little bit and he did a cutback and rode straight up the middle of the pier through a few rows of pilings. Then he turned back right and came back through the south side. The crowd went crazy. This was back in the days when shooting the pier was still a wild and crazy thing to do. Jack had not only shot it, but he had actually both shot it and then unshot it. It was a miracle.
Voilà! Jack Haley became the first champion. He went on to become a surfboard builder and owner of Captain Jack’s Restaurant in Sunset Beach and started things off in Huntington Beach with a bang that is still echoing today.—Corky Carroll
David Nuuhiwa’s Magical Noseride In 1966. Photo: Steve Wilkings
Noseriding, “an act of transcendent elegance and subtlety,” Matt Warshaw wrote in The Encyclopedia Of Surfing, was invented in 1951 by Dale Velzy. By the end of that decade, noseriding was considered the best thing since sliced bread, and it wouldn’t be until 1967 that the shortboard revolution effectively killed the maneuver.
But at Huntington Beach in 1966, longboarding was de rigueur, and amid the hordes of noseriding practitioners, seventeen-year-old Hawaiian David Nuuhiwa stood (no pun intended) in a class of his own. He was, Warshaw wrote, a “preternaturally gifted noserider, able to suspend himself on the tip for seconds at a time.” Many of Nuuhiwa’s peers considered the teenager to be quite special, even the world’s best. Contest judges did, too, especially during the final heat of the Junior Men’s division at the 1966 United States Surfing Championships at Huntington Beach Pier, when Nuuhiwa executed a long, classic soul arch that ultimately won him first place.
“I was on the beach getting ready to go out for the Men’s final when I saw him do it,” says fellow Huntington surfer Corky Carroll. “I was happy he was still in the Juniors.”
The “world’s best” notion rang particularly true a week later, during the World Surfing Championships in San Diego, when Nuuhiwa perched himself on the tip of his surfboard for an unprecedented 10.2 seconds. He didn’t win the contest (rival Nat Young did), but those two Nuuhiwa noserides left an everlasting impression, even if they were to be the swan songs of the era.
“David was the best noserider of that period,” says Carroll. “Those rides were the blazing-glory end to the noseriding era of the mid-60s. Shortly after that, the boards went short and everything changed. I guess you could say the one in San Diego was the one that put the ‘period’ on the period; the one at Huntington Beach was not as spectacular, but I thought it was more stylish.”
And so it can be said that noseriding died at Huntington. But 1966 was a long time ago, and this year the Noseriding Invitational is bringing back the spirit of Nuuhiwa—noseriding is once again up front, apropos for the king of Californian surf contests.—Michael Kew
Cheyne’s Backside 360
Op Pro, 1982. Photo: Balzer
What a way to bring pro surfing back to the Mainland. After a decade of no major events in Huntington (blame it on the 70s), the then-equivalent of the ASP, International Pro Surfers, and clothing brand Ocean Pacific teamed up to create the $35,000 Op Pro.
It had the crowd: a packed beach more than 30,000 strong. It had the weather: blistering temps, windless, “Indian summer” conditions, and decent south swell. And it had the attractions: all the best surfers in the world, including rookie Tom Curren, along with a lineup of talent on the beach in the form of the Miss Op Bikini Contest. Now all it needed was the magic to make it unforgettable.
And in the final of the first-ever Op Pro, in front of a roaring crowd rivaling a Stones concert, Cheyne Horan delivered that magic. Fellow finalist Shaun Tomson had been humming all event, but Horan—who had finished runner-up to the World Title three of the last four years—was equally in tune, disposing of fast-rising Curren in his quarterfinal heat. After a few big exchanges in the final, Tomson remembers sitting out the back when Horan took off on a seemingly harmless three-footer. “It was a smaller one and kind of a closeout,” says Shaun, “so I didn’t think much of it. I watched him pump down the line backside, flip the nose up above the lip … then the crowd just went into a roar. It was one of those moments where—as a competitor—your heart just sinks. Like, ‘Okay, it’s over.’”
Cheyne’s backside 360—the equivalent of pulling a huge backside air or rodeo flip at the time—didn’t just earn him the cash , a Dodge truck, and a temporary lead in the ratings. More important, it started the legend that is the Op Pro—a legend that lives on to this day.—Evan Slater
Occy’s Redemption At The 1986 Op Pro. Photo: Balzer
Rivalries are one of the most compelling aspects of professional sports. In the 1980s, Australia’s Mark Occhilupo and California’s Tom Curren were surfing’s prime example, drawing huge crowds just to see them duel.
Their early-1986 showdowns were legendary. In March at Burleigh Heads, during the final leg of the 1985–1986 ASP World Tour, they met in the semifinal of the Stubbies Classic, which induced major controversy because one of Occy’s best waves was grossly underscored by a napping judge. That wave would’ve put Occy into the final. But Curren won the heat and the event, and the judge resigned. A month later, on Easter Sunday at cranking Bells Beach, Curren earned his first world title by decisively beating Occy in the semifinal, in one of the greatest heats ever.
“I have to be his [Occy’s] fiercest rival, because we both want to win,” the new world champ told Surfer Magazine. “I respect him, I like him, but he is the enemy. And I don’t think that it’s a negative thing at all.”
Following Bells, Curren won the Marui Japan Open in May, the Gotcha Pro in Hawaii in June, plus the Lacanau Pro in France and the Fosters Surfmasters, both in August. He’d boycotted the two South African contests in July, which meant all four 1986/1987 ASP season events he’d entered, he’d won. After Bells, Occy was seemingly left for dead.
Things changed at the Op Pro in Huntington Beach, a venue known for its Occy-Curren battles. Curren won the event in 1983 and 1984, Occy in 1985. “It was nearly automatic that Curren and Occhilupo would turn in the best performances of the meet,” Matt Warshaw wrote in The Encyclopedia Of Surfing. And 1986 was no exception.
Peter Drouyn, who invented the man-on-man heat format at the 1977 Stubbies Classic, had suggested to Op Pro contest director Ian Cairns the concept of a competitor’s priority in a heat being decided by paddling around a buoy moored in the lineup. It was precisely what Occy needed August 31 during his semifinal with nemesis Curren.
With three minutes to go, the drama grew thick. Both surfers caught waves in a two-wave set, rode them well all the way to shore, and began paddling back out. Their scores were basically equal—the heat could’ve gone either way. And since Occy had caught the first wave, he was about twenty yards ahead of Curren.
Whoever reached the buoy first would win the heat. Somehow Curren made up ground on the way back out, and suddenly the two were paddling furiously side-by-side. Paddling, kicking, and giving it their all, the crowd roared in excitement. It looked like they rounded the buoy at the exact same time, though Occy just barely ahead edged Curren out. With priority, he caught a bomb, advanced to the finals, and won the contest.
For Occy, it was payback, and, as surf writer Derek Hynd said, the paddle battle was “far and away the most exciting 30 seconds of non-waveriding ever lived in the modern game.”—Michael Kew
Op Pro, 1986. Photo: Balzer
It’s easy to look back and laugh now, as if it were a teenager’s rebellious phase. “Oh, you crazy Op Pro, what were you thinking?” But no one was laughing back then. What started as two girls’ little “flashdance” in front of some drunken Riverside dudes quickly turned ugly. The girls called for help from the police, the police were pelted by rocks and bottles, and things quickly escalated into a 5,000-strong riot that started by the boardwalk, migrated to the lifeguard headquarters, and finished somewhere behind the contest scaffolding. The end result: $250,000 in damages, two overturned cop cars engulfed in flames, a half-dozen other charred emergency vehicles, and a permanent black eye to the end-of-summer spectacle known as the Op Pro.
Granted, contest organizers did everything they could to keep the crowd away from the melee. “I remember a police officer coming to us as the riot was happening,” said then-contest director Peter Townend, “and saying, ‘Whatever you do, do not stop this contest.’”
So, even though Mark Occhilupo beat fellow finalist Glen Winton twice in a best-of-three format, they sent the competitors back out for another “showdown.”
Fortunately, none of the surfers were hurt and none were involved in the actual anarchy. But everything that made up the Op Pro—the top-level surfing, the massive beach-and-booze-loving crowd, the bikini contest—got caught up in the blame. Call it guilt by association. If it wasn’t for the two planes colliding over Cerritos on the same day, the mainstream media coverage could have been even more damaging.
Needless to say, the Op Pro was never the same. It was no longer held on Labor Day, alcohol was no longer an option, and the bikini contest became fully clothed. And for the surf fans who witnessed perhaps the darkest moment in pro surfing history, it remains burned into their memories as if it were yesterday: “The 1986 Op Pro—I was there, man.”—Evan Slater
Skeletor Stops Curren
Richie “Skeletor” Collins takes one for the O.C. Photo: Balzer
The year was 1989, and Tom Curren was celebrated like a God. He’d already won two world titles, and was in semi-retirement, but the Op Pro was one of the select contests he entered, and the fans were eager for a victory lap. He’d won the contest the year before and found himself in the finals again, up against Newport Beach upstart Richie “Skeletor” Collins. It was all but a formality that Curren would be getting doused with champagne on the stage by the end of the heat.
The two were adversaries made for a movie: Curren was understated and introverted, he let his super stylistic surfing do the talking. Collins was young, brash, and opinionated, sported a defiant Mohawk, and showed up for the finals with a bright yellow board. Though he was supremely confident and grew up just five miles south, at head-high, glassy Huntington peaks, a bookie would’ve given you a hundred to one odds on Collins and then snickered as you walked away.
However, Collins was also the most competitive surfer on the planet, at one point saying he only surfed for competition. And to top it off, he was obsessed with beating Curren. “My biggest thing,” says Collins, “was I always wanted to beat Tom Curren. Back then it was Tom Curren this and Tom Curren that. When the heat draw came out I studied every person I was going to run into. We videoed their heats and picked them apart, including Curren’s, because I wanted him in the final. He was on one side of the draw, and I was on the other.” In front of a 100,00-plus crowd, he would have his chance.
As the final got underway, Collins wasted no time, snagging a right and blasting the lip on the outside, zigzagging to the inside where he belted another lipper, clearing showing he was not intimidated. Curren followed up on a left with a stylish backhand snap, but couldn’t connect it to the shorebreak. Collins had gotten the best of the first exchange and was already out the back stroking into a beautiful overhead left. He flew down the line and attacked the lip with a perilously late floater, disappearing behind a violent whitewash spike. In a show of pure determination, he emerged from the whitewash, threw a fist pump, and somehow managed to weave through the flat spot where Curren couldn’t and finished off with a strong end hit. The crowd screamed its approval.
In the consistent conditions, they battled wave for wave the rest of the heat, trading the lead, hardly ever getting a break to sit and rest in the lineup. The commentators had literally screamed themselves hoarse as the heat drew to a close. By the final minute, Collins was out in front. But Curren had made a career out of summoning waves in the final seconds of heats, ripping them to shreds, clawing his way out of impossible holes.
As the final seconds ticked down, like magic, a set approached on the horizon—Curren was in position. The beach too rose up as the crowd got to its feet, screaming in anticipation. Collins heart had to sink, seeing the set rear up. Curren paddled, but the wave went fat, and though he scratched hard to get under it, California’s golden child wasn’t able to catch it.
Collins had done the impossible, in perhaps the most exciting Op Pro final in history. “You couldn’t have asked for a better way to beat the best surfer in the world at his own contest,” says a still-elated Collins. “It was the best feeling in the world.”—Casey Koteen
The Wild Child Goes For Broke
Brad Gerlach’s Floater From Hell. Photo: Balzer
In 1991, most of the surfers on tour at the time wore short-cropped haircuts and surfed like trained robots, pumping-out three-to-the-beach half turns and surfing for points, not for the fans— Brad Gerlach was different. The Gerr’s act was all flair and his focus, while based on winning, was pure performance—making him a fan favorite. Going into the Op Pro in 1991, having just won the previous event, The Gunston 500 in South Africa—The Gerr was on a roll.
After carving and slashing his way into the semi-finals, Brad met up with a fierce competitor and bitter rival, Skeltor a.k.a. Richie Collins. This All-American duel was flow vs. function, good vs. evil, hippie vs. jock—and the crowd at the pier was electrified with surf fever. It helped that the waves were pumping and dare we say, threatening? Overcast skies, massive closeout sets, and generally calm Huntington Beach seeing solid six-foot sets grinding through the pier.
“This was when I was in full on performance mode,” Remembers Gerlach. “I loved to perform in front of a large crowd and I was really feeding off the crowd. I wanted to get them hyped. I wanted to show everybody I was better than Richie Collins. I was leading the ratings and I felt pretty confident at the time. I was going for it.”
“Going for it” was an understatement. In the midst of a wave-for-wave slugfest, Richie Collins set the precedent with a 9.0, seemingly sealing the win, and The Gerr was pissed. “Taking nothing away from Richie—I really didn’t think his wave was a nine,” recalls Brad. “That floater came from me being pissed that Richie got such a high score.”
After Richie’s nail-in-the-coffin score, Brad channeled his anger into what was to be known as the gnarliest floater attempt ever. In the waning minutes of the heat, a big set charged into the arena on the south side of the pier. The crowd began to buzz as Brad clawed his way into the biggest wave of the heat. He got to his feet. The massive crowd gasped and as if in slow motion, The Gerr’s animal instincts kicked in and he showed his claws—carving off the bottom into a near-vertical snap. As Brad hit the lip, the wave pitched and using forward momentum, Brad grabbed his rail and free-fell two stories into oblivion—Icarus flew to high.
“I remember when I can up the crowd was going nuts,” laughs Brad. “I was going so fast that my forward momentum threw me off my board when I hot the water. I was bummed I didn’t make it, cause I know I could have won that contest—but at the same time, the crowd getting that psyched felt so good—it didn’t matter that I lost.”
At the end of the day, one of the robots won the event, but the real highlight of the 1991 Op Pro was Gerr’s floater—a near make that made history.—Chris Coté
Slater Jocks Beschen
The Controversial Slater/Beschen Final Of 1996. Photo: English
There have been a number of surf rivalries that have entertained the masses over the years in Huntington Beach. Perhaps the most heated display came courtesy of California’s Shane Beschen and Florida’s Kelly Slater, who finished the prior year ranked second and first in the world, respectively. However, the two had been battling it out since 1986, when Slater pipped Beschen at the U.S. Championships as groms.
Halfway through the 1996 season the two were neck and neck, Slater had three victories, Beschen had two, and after scoring the first perfect heat in ASP history (the previous high heat score was held ironically enough by Slater), Beschen was on a roll and looked capable of knocking Slater off his pedestal. The tension was even thicker since two years earlier at the U.S Open Beschen had soundly bested Slater to win the event. In August of 1996, the pair found themselves in the finals again, and Slater was determined—perhaps too much so—to get the better of Beschen this time.
Shortly into the 30-minute final, in tough conditions before a crowd of more than 50,000 people, both surfers paddled for their first wave—the same wave. It was somewhat of a peak, a wave friends might’ve split. Slater appeared to be paddling furiously for the left, so Beschen went right. Unbeknownst to him, Slater had quickly turned around and gone right, behind Beschen, striking him with an interference call.
“He snaked me when he saw me paddling for that wave,” Beschen told the Los Angeles Times. “He did it on purpose. I think it’s pretty clear that he was using the ruling in his favor. And even though there isn’t anything illegal [in what] he did, I still think it was wrong and still pretty [expletive]. I didn’t even realize I was called for interference until after my second wave.” When Beschen heard the interference announced over the PA, he blew up, splashing the water in anger. In a word, he was pissed. But it was a legitimate—if devious—interference.
Beschen, who would ultimately be judged for his two top waves instead of his top three, earned a respectable 16.75 points in the heat, finishing behind Slater, who earned 21. All said, it wasn’t a pretty victory, and Slater actually apologized to the crowd after he accepted his trophy.
“I’m not happy to win like this,” Slater told the Times. “This is not the way you want to win, but this is the way it went. We both made our choices.”
In some ways it marked the final chapter in their rivalry, as Slater went on to win his fourth World Title that year and continued to dominate throughout the decade, while Beschen began a slow slide down the ratings.—Michael Kew
Piling At The Pier
Rochelle Ballard goes up against the H.B. pier—and wins. Photos Courtesy of O.C. Register
The often-voiced complaint about competing in Huntington is the lack of surf. But in early August of 1997, no one was complaining. Hurricane Guillermo was kicking hard as a Category Five hurricane off the coast of Cabo headed northwest, pelting the entire West Coast with huge surf.
By August 8, H.B. was pumping with double-overhead-plus conditions, and the women’s division of the U.S. Open was in the thick of it. For Hawaiian charger Rochelle Ballard, double-overhead California surf was not a problem. What was a problem was the giant, barnacle encrusted pier pilings in the middle of it all. Up against Pam Burridge in the semifinals, with time winding down Ballard got the first wave of a set that ended just south of the pier. She attempted to paddle back out through the rest of the set, but behind hers there was an even bigger wave that reared up and broke far outside, catching her in the worst possible place: next to the pier with a huge whitewash rumbling toward her.
Knowing that a trip through the pier was inevitable, she turned toward the beach, with a Hail Mary plan to catch the whitewash and navigate her way through the pilings. Instead, the whitewash blasted her violently forward, past the first set of pilings, but head first into the next row. The whitewash was so powerful it actually lifted her up above the barnacles on the piling.
“I was unconscious for a few seconds,” remembers Rochelle. “I’m blown away that I didn’t pass out, though. I think it was just adrenalin that kept me from passing out.”
She made it to the beach with Burridge’s help and was immediately met by paramedics, strapped to a stretcher, and rushed to the hospital. On the ambulance ride over she learned that the previous wave had given her the score she needed to advance to the finals. It was scheduled to be held later that day, but postponed for the next day.
As horrific as it all looked, apart from a nasty lump on her forehead and some scrapes, Ballard wasn’t badly injured. Still, she was instructed not to surf the final by the medical staff. She wasn’t planning on it, but the next morning she turned on the TV and saw an impassioned newscaster talking about her incident, as well as stories on other people that had been seriously injured in surfing accidents.
“That really motivated and inspired me,” she says. “I thought, ‘You know what? I’m doing this contest.’”
Not only did she do the contest later that day, she won it.
As if that wasn’t a good enough encore, at the next stop on tour in Lacanau, France, Ballard hit her head in the exact same place on a shallow sandbar. Sharp, spidering pain shot through her head and neck, putting her on the sidelines for a few hours. She finished the contest anyway … and won.—Casey Koteen
Rob Machado’s sacred sandbar. Photo: Straley
In purely geographic terms, “Rob’s Peak” is easy to put your finger on: it’s the very south edge of the contest area at the U.S. Open. In reality, it’s more myth than a physical location.
There are basically two options for competitors at Huntington; surf the pier bowl, just south of the pier, where there are short rights that wedge up a bit more than the surrounding beachbreak, and longer, but mushier lefts. Everyone in their right mind chooses this option. It’s consistent, you can split peaks, and paddle out quickly next to the pier. Or you can roll the dice and go south in the hunt for Rob’s Peak, the fickle sandbar where many a competitor has been completely skunked.
The origins are sketchy, as well. No one seems to know when it got its name or who named it. But Rob knows exactly when the idea clicked for him. It was 1991, the year he won the Op Pro Junior in booming surf. “The current was so gnarly,” says Machado. “You would run up the beach two lifeguard towers south and paddle out and hopefully catch two waves before you got to the pier, and then come in and run all the way back up the beach and paddle back out again. That was the beginning of it for me, I was over the pier.”
That year the surf was huge. But in following years, Rob continued frequenting that same spot during the comp, with few other takers most of the time. It was an advantage not having to jockey with other competitors for waves. But a major disadvantage that the sandbar was almost always less consistent and the waves flatter faced than the pier bowl.
Flat faces and inconsistent sets? Not exactly the recipe for making heats. But where others would dig rail in frustration, with his nimble frame and lightening quick transitions, Rob could weave through the slow spots and hack apart any sections that popped up. Ultimately, the proof is the results, and Machado’s U.S. Open resume has plenty of them. He’s been runner up three years, and has won the event three times as well. From his first victory in 1995, to 2001 where he actually got a barrel for a perfect ten in an early round heat, to 2006 when he surfed from the trials all the way to the top spot, he’s been the most dominant surfer in modern times at the main event of the U.S. Open.
The most perplexing thing about Rob’s Peak is the fact that it often turns on just for him. “There have been some funny moments,” says Machado. “I’ll sit there and watch two or three heats go down and not a single wave will break over there. Then I’ll go out and catch two screamers all the way across. And then a guy in a heat right after me will paddle out there, and it will just go flat. I guess you’ve just got to believe.”—Casey Koteen