A sea of fans flood Surf City

For the next nine days, Huntington Beach will be a sea of bikinis and board shorts as an expected 1 million people flood the sand next to the pier to take part in the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing.

The world’s largest surf festival and contest kicks off Saturday at the epicenter of surf culture.

Article Tab: Finishing touches were being put on the Van's Welcome Center on the beach at Huntington Beach Friday for the start of the US Open of Surfing on Saturday.
Finishing touches were being put on the Van’s Welcome Center on the beach at Huntington Beach Friday for the start of the US Open of Surfing on Saturday.

By the numbers:

Event dates: July 10 – 28.

Number of surfers: 226.

Last year’s attendance: 1 million.

Number of booths: more than 100.

Today’s surf forecast: 3-5 foot.

Men’s prize: $100.000.

Women’s prize: $15,000.

Men’s junior prize: $4,500.

Women’s junior prize: $1,800.

Information: vansusopenofsurfing.com/live

Action sports fans will come from around Southern California and the world to get up close to the globe’s best surfers, lining the water’s edge and pier to watch their favorite athletes go head to head.

Others will be more interested in the famous skaters such as Ryan Sheckler and legends such as Steve Caballero hitting the lip of the custom-made concrete skate bowl, or the massive free concerts that pack people like sardines on the sand with the blue Pacific Ocean as the backdrop.

Of course, there will also be the people watching the sun-kissed beachgoers flaunting the latest beach styles while cruising around the dozens of booths set up in the 14-acre festival area.

Workers on Friday were hustling to put the final touches on building the city on the sand. The grandstands to watch the surf are set up, and the wooden walkways lining the sand were near ready for spectators to stroll along the maze. Flags and banners waving the Vans name were dotted everywhere around the new city on the sand.

The event will have a different look and feel than the past few years, with several major changes implemented by Vans, the new headlining sponsor that has signed up to put on the event for the next three years.

Doug Palladini, general manager and vice president of Americas for Vans, said the decision was a “no brainer” to sign up as the new sponsor after Nike stepped out after last year’s event. Vans started in Orange County in 1966, and has many ties to Huntington Beach including a new multi-million skate park for the public to be open this year.

“We’re investing in Huntington Beach as the epicenter of action sports,” he said. “We said ‘let’s do this.’ It gives us a chance to express our entire brand.”

Palladini said there are four components beachgoers will find on the sand: a mix of action sports, art, music and street culture.

With the surf, there’s the main competition that will draw more than 200 surfers from around the world. And they are also adding the Joel Tudor Duct Tape Invitational, a longboard contest that celebrates the classic style of longboarding.

Skate fans can expect big things. Vans looked around the world for inspiration on the type of bowl they wanted to use, and decided on a recreation of an old historic bowl inspired by the Skatepark du Prado bowl on the sand in Marseilles, France. The temporary, concrete bowl that sits on the sand is adorned with touches of street art. Vans is holding an invite-only contest with 30 world-class bowl riders to battle for $75,000.

The free music concerts will be on Thursday and Friday instead of the weekend, to help keep crowds at a reasonable level. Residents have complained in recent years that the crowds were near riot points. This year’s music line-up was announced this week and includes Modest Mouse, The Faint, Twin Shadow, along with Huntington Beach-native Matt Costa.

Vans hopes this year will be a more family-friendly event. The event producer IMG has doubled security, and there will be things to do with kids like movie nights showing newly released and classic movies such as “Goonies” at the amphitheater on the north side of the pier.

“A lot of homeowners headed to the hills during the U.S. Open; they wanted to get out of town,” Palladini said. “We want to change that, and make it a source of local pride. I want them to know their kids are safe on the beach. There’s nothing R- or X-rated at the event. It can really be a family atmosphere. We want people to bring their beach chairs and blankets down and bring that element back.”

But for those who do want to see the wild side that the U.S Open brings to town, there are plenty of parties happening through the week at local restaurants and bars, with well-known surfers guest bartending at places such as Sharkeez on Main Street, or a party at the Shorebreak that draws about 1,000 people. Then there’s the wackiness of the event such as a taco eating contest Sunday hosted by Chronic Tacos, which promises to draw Guinness Book of World Record holder Takeru Kobayashi, who has records for eating the most hot dogs. Last year, Kobayashi broke a world record by eating 106 tacos in 10 minutes.

In the water, one of the exciting things about this year’s event is fans get to see a broad range of the world’s best surfers, said Association of Surfing Professional spokesperson Robert Shadley.

The world’s best women surfers will also be in the event, including Santa Ana’s Courtney Conlogue, who won the event in 2009. She is ranked fourth among the world’s top 20 women surfers. Unfortunately, with the postponement of the Roxy Pro because of lack of swell last week, a women’s world champion won’t be crowned at the U.S. Open this year.

On the men’s side, there’s a mix of surfers such as Kelly Slater, who holds 11 world titles and is among the oldest surfers in the event at 41, along with Huntington local Kanoa Igarashi, the event’s youngest competitor at 15.

“They could surf in the same draw, and it’s cool to see promising talent from the next generation surfing alongside some of the sport’s icons,” Shadley said. “The talent pool is really deep, and I think anyone in this year’s event could prove to be really deadly. With the U.S. Open being such a prestigious event, surfers are going to be really hungry to put in their best performance.”

Among those hungry for points is San Clemente’s Tanner Gudauskas, a 25-year-old who a few years ago won the junior event. Growing up in Orange County gives him a bit of an edge over many of the other competitors who come from around the world to compete. Not to mention the moral boost from his family in the grandstands cheering on him and older brother Pat, who is also in the contest.

“For us, competing in the U.S. Open has been an honor,” Tanner Gudauskas said in an interview with ASP. “It was something that we would always ask our parents to take us to when we were kids just so we could get autographs and see our favorite surfers in real life. So to me, it would be a huge deal to do well. The circus that surrounds the event just seems to heighten the surfing and pushes the level. I’ve always had a blast when competing in the event and had a couple of really special moments competitively here.”


1994: The U.S. Open of Surfing was created in 1994 after the OP Pro struggled financially in the early ’90s, never rebounding from a past tarnished by images of a beach riot in the mid-’80s. Those images include police in riot gear, cars in flames and chaos on the sand. The OP Pro would be a warm-up event with 410 competitors, then the second week the U.S. Open of Surfing would bring the best surfers into town for the first World Tour event on the mainland since 1991.

A young Kelly Slater, 22 at the time, would show up with the rest of the best 48 surfers on the World Tour, along with the 16 best women. Slater the year before had just wrapped up his stint with “Baywatch” and was being followed around by crews of the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

Back then, viewers could buy tickets for seats to watch the event – $20 to watch the last days of the Op Pro and the U.S. Open finals. But ticket sales were lackluster, drawing 30,000 fewer fans than the 200,000 projected.

1995: A big showdown happened in 1995 in a final with Rob Machado winning a close – and now historic – heat against Slater in front of nearly 50,000 fans. His prize: $14,000, a bit smaller than the top prize offered the past few years under Nike’s reign: $100,000.

1997: The event was pulled off the World Tour list, meaning the big names became less frequent at the event each year.

2003-2008: The event was named Honda U.S. Open of Surfing, and included non-surf events such as freestyle motocross, volleyball and poker in the festival area, creating a circus-like atmosphere. In 2007, wackiness hit the sand before the surf contest as 100 steer and 25 horses showed up under the pier as a joint promotion with the OC Fair.

2009: Hurley came on as sponsor, paving the way for parent company Nike. The event focused on surf, skate, art, fashion and music. The event was upgraded in status to an ASP 6-star Prime event, and along with a $100,000 purse, the event became a stop for most World Tour surfers looking to earn valuable points. A big swell with 15-foot surf had crowds pumped, and surfers performed at their top level. It was a fairy-tale story for Orange County, with Huntington Beach’s Brett Simpson and Costa Mesa’s Courtney Conlogue winning first place.

2010: Nike – parent to Hurley – took over title sponsorship but kept a big presence of the surf brand, along with sister company Converse. Weezer performed in 2010, and in 2011 MGMT again brought near-tipping-point crowds. The crowds continued to hit nearly 1 million during nine days. World champion Kelly Slater won his first US Open title in front of tens of thousands of surf fans.

2012: The U.S. Open had the same look with Nike/Converse/Hurley as the previous year, with an increased focus on social media and brand interaction. Two big retail shops were built on the sand, and the Walk the Walk fashion show was eliminated. The city enforced restrictions on the concert series, and smaller bands were brought in, with no headliner on Saturday as in previous years. Still, crowds continued to swell, and the world’s best surfers still showed up.

2013: Vans steps in to sponsor the U.S. Open for the first of three years.