Sam Hammers The Competition At The Smith ‘Garden State Grudge Match’

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Former Garden State Grudge Match winner Mikey Gleason. Photo: Jacoby

Sam Hammer Hammers The Competition At The Annual Smith ‘Garden State Grudge Match’

New Jersey’s best surfers battle it out in the annual Seaside Heights contest; Sam Hammer comes out on top for his 4th Garden State title.

When it comes to New Jersey surfing, it’s Sam Hammer’s world. Everyone else is just living in it. At 31, Hammer solidified his reputation as New Jersey’s preeminent surfer winning his fourth championship belt at the Smith Optics Garden State Grudge Match.

“We were making a joke on the beach. We might have to tell him he can’t surf for a few years and let a couple of other guys win this thing,” Rob Cloupe, the contest organizer, said.

“It’s the most fun event ever,” said Hammer, a Point Beach High School graduate and Lavallette resident. “It feels great. It’s an honor.” “This is really his event, he’s won it four times now and he’s been in the finals three other times,” Cloupe added. “It’s really his title to lose.”

New Jersey powerhouse and Garden State Grudge Match semifinalist Mikey Gleason. Photo: Jacoby

New Jersey powerhouse and Garden State Grudge Match semifinalist Mikey Gleason. Photo: Jacoby

In its nine years, the Grudge Match has become the most prestigious surfing contest in New Jersey. The 32 best surfers in state are hand-selected to battle it out each year for $3,500 in cash and a year’s worth of bragging rights. “This is kind of a grassroots event,” Cloupe said.

The annual event is held each October at Casino Pier in Seaside Heights. Rather than having a set date, the event is an on-call contest, where organizers wait for ideal surf conditions before calling the competition.

Hammer’s road to the belt included some of the day’s best rides including two perfect scores— the first in the event’s history.

In his semifinal heat against his friend and former Grudge champion Mike Gleason of Long Branch, Hammer disappeared deep into a large, churning barrel and was able to reemerge miraculously, drawing a combination of gasps and cheers from stunned onlookers. “The first 10-pointer was one of the best I’ve ever gotten [in the Grudge Match],” Hammer said. “It just stayed open.”

In the final, competing against Mike Ciaramella, Hammer found his way into a tube again, clearing the section before doing two massive turns.

Despite having victory over the younger surfer firmly in hand, Hammer continued to push the pace, nearly getting washed into the pier pilings when he attempted to take off deep and late on a large set wave. Ciaramella, an 18-year-old from Avalon, was making only his second appearance in the Grudge Match and his first in a Grudge final. He was eliminated in the semis last year.

“I just kind of went into that heat thinking about having winning, I wasn’t too worried about winning,” Ciaramella said. The young surfer impressed many in attendance, punctuating his contest performance with fast, fluid wave riding.

A testament to the wide broad spectrum of surfers the Grudge Match sees, Ciaramella surfed against Long Branch’s Keith Noonan, who is more than twice his age, in the semi-finals. The 40-year-old tore through many younger surfers on his way to the semi-final showdown including defending Grudge Match champ Zach Humphreys of Margate.

Hammer’s taking of the title is the latest chapter in a storied rivalry between surfers from New Jersey’s northern beaches and its southern beaches. “It’s kind of the underground rivalry,” Cloupe said. “I don’t think that will ever go away.”

“It’s friendly, but there’s always a little bit of jawing going back and fourth,” he said. Shortly after the win, Humphreys congratulated Hammer. “It’s back in North Jersey,” Hammer said.—Tom Dunphy