The Ocean Pacific Pro Surfing Championships open today in Huntington Beach with hopes that schedule changes and stepped-up security will prevent the rioting that broke out at last year's event.
Last year, on the final day of the six-day contest, a melee erupted in the crowd of beachgoers behind the contest grandstands. By the time the rioting was over, 40 people, including 10 police officers, had been injured; five city-owned police and lifeguard vehicles were destroyed or damaged, a lifeguard station was looted and at least 30 people eventually were arrested.
This year, both promoters and police are expecting an easier time of it.
"The riot wasn't really because of the surfing contest," said Huntington Beach Police Lt. Chuck Poe, who is in charge of policing the event.
"The people there for the surfing really had nothing to do with it. It was caused by large numbers of people who'd been attracted there--too much to drink and too many people."
"Last year, we had a skateboard ramp in the back (behind the grandstands), and in the past we had long-board and jet-ski and parachute exhibitions," said Joe Adams, the contest coordinator.
"This year, it's strictly surfing. We're back down to a serious surfing contest."
Promoters and police agree that the biggest factor likely to prevent trouble this year is the rescheduling of the event.
Last year, the contest extended through the entire Labor Day weekend, traditionally the last weekend of summer, and the rioting broke out on Sunday, Aug. 31. This year, the event opens three weeks earlier and is scheduled to fall on only one weekend day, Saturday.
"A lot of folks won't be here--they'll be at work," said Capt. William J. Richardson of the city's marine safety division.
The earlier date also avoids crowds of people who have fallen into the summer doldrums, Richardson said. "By the time you get to Aug. 31, people get kind of bored with the beach" and begin itching to provoke some excitement, he said.
Adams said another big change is that no live broadcast coverage is being allowed this year. Last year, radio and cable TV broadcasters were transmitting live updates from the contest and attracting people who would not otherwise have been there, he said.
"This event has always been targeted at serious surfers," Adams said. But last year, large crowds gathered who had no particular interest in the surfing events, he said. "What was going on in the back, those weren't serious surfers," he said.
Poe said there will be more police officers and equipment at the event this year in case there is trouble.
"Basically, we'll put extra manpower out there, and in addition we'll have undercover people working on the beach," Poe said.
The Police Department has purchased additional four-wheel-drive vehicles for patrolling on the sand during the event, he said.
City officials are predicting a smaller crowd than last year's, but promoters say there could be a larger one because of good weather, good surf and the large crowds Huntington Beach has been attracting during the recent heat spell.
Ocean swells are forming, and the surf will be "really good" for the first few days at least, Adams said. Morning fog, however, may cause some early-morning events to begin late, he said. Some events are scheduled to begin just after dawn.
Adams said that the best day of surfing for the casual spectator will be Saturday, the finals. The event also includes a two-day beauty contest--eliminations on Thursday and finals on Friday.
Both surfing and beauty contests will be conducted on the beach just southeast of the Huntington Beach Pier, where large grandstands, a stage and a judges' platform have been erected. There is no admission charge for any of the events, according to a spokesman.