Dozens of black wetsuits appeared along West Cliff Drive over the weekend. Surfers stretched their limbs, waxed their boards and fearlessly jumped off the cliffs, all for their love of surfing waves.
The surfers came to Santa Cruz with the O’Neill Cold Water Classic. It was hard to miss, located along Steamer Lane with bleachers set up for spectators, as large red banners bearing the O’Neill wave flew and music blasted over the ocean.
The O’Neill Cold Water Classic has been Northern California’s largest professional surf event in Santa Cruz for over two decades. Locals and visiting surfers compete for the title of Cold Water Classic Champion. A $250,000 prize purse is awarded at the event, as well as an extra $50,000 for the series’ crowned winner.
In the past two years, the prize money has gone to Australians. The event is sponsored by Philips O’Neill Headphones, Sierra Nevada, Dream Inn Hotel & Aquarius Restaurant.
Nineteen-year-old Brazilian Miguel Pupo not only won the O’Neill Cold Water Classic in Santa Cruz, but won the overall Cold Water Classic title and $90,000. There was a great sense of community and respect when Pupo was announced champion.
Sitting on the bleachers, spectators commented on the event.
“They tend to have bad luck around this time of the year,” a man said to his son. “They should do the contest deeper into winter when the waves are bigger.”
Professional and amateur surfers competed in hopes of winning the champion title and a grand prize of $40,000. Between Oct. 26 and 30, spectators gathered around along the cliffs to watch the show, many with cameras or binoculars.
It was a diverse crowd, ranging from older spectators and young families with babies to high school kids. In spite of the beautiful weather, there was one important problem on everyone’s mind: lack of waves.
Early Thursday morning there were no waves, so the competition changed locations to Waddell Creek, just up Highway 1 North.
Josh Kerr, a professional surfer from Australia who currently resides in San Diego, prepared for his heat by watching his buddies surf at Waddell Creek.
“It’s a bummer we had to move from Steamer Lane to Waddell Creek,” Kerr said, “but there were no waves. It’s just not the same vibe here. It’s been a really fun event regardless. There’s been a lot of excitement around it — it’s something we all look forward to.”
Kerr has been surfing his entire life, but became professional 10 years ago when he was 16. He is currently sponsored by Rusty.
“Friggin’ sets going off! This is the best set of waves we’ve seen in about two weeks,” the announcer yells.
At the surf competition, the announcer used words like “barrel,” “stoked,” “sick,” “dude,” “whoa,” “gnarly,” “ripping” and “beat.” For someone not involved in the surf community, it may sound like another language.
Early Wednesday morning, local boys dove into frigid water at 7:30 a.m. in the hopes of being chosen to compete in the contest. Whoever won was named the “wild card” player. Two local boys won the wild card and competed yesterday, but were out of the competition. One left with $750 while the other left with $1,000.
Although the title “Cold Water Classic” is appropriate for Santa Cruz water temperatures, UC Santa Cruz student and surfer Brett Hardy said, “The water actually tends to get a little warmer in the winter months due to an upwelling. It’s pretty strange.”
Professional surfer Kerr said surfing at Steamer Lane is a special treat because everyone gets to stand along the cliff and watch the surfers. It’s rare a crowd can be that close to the action.
Each surfer had a heat, a designated time slot where a few surfers compete to get the best waves and scores given by judges.
Thursday’s, Friday’s and Saturday’s heats were surfed at Waddell.
“The boys were going nuts out there, just crazy,” the announcer said. “It was a really last-minute decision to move locations, but it had to be done.”
Zach Schank, a local high school surfer, watched the heat with a look of inspiration in his eyes.
“It’s incredible seeing the pros surf,” Schank said. “I wanna see a local win. Rat Boy (Jason Collins) is my favorite. He’s a real Santa Cruz pro.”
Schank said he surfs all the time, every chance he gets. He enjoys attending surf competitions because he gets to see the best of the best compete.
Standing at the score board, local Ardon Lockyer reviewed the results from this heats this week.
“It’s a great event, anything that brings people together helps the community,” said Lockyer, who lives down the street from Steamer Lane.
Drew Kampion, a former editor of Surfer, as well as Surfing Magazine, was signing his latest book at the event. The book, “Jack O’Neill: It’s Always Summer on the Inside,” documents the life of Jack O’Neill, owner of O’Neill Surf Company and inventor of the modern surfing wetsuit.
“Without O’Neill you wouldn’t have globalization of action and water sports,” Kampion said. “The invention of the wetsuit opened up 90 percent of the world to surfing. Before it could only be done in specific locations by a small niche of people, but the wetsuit changed all that.”