Despite small waves, conditions at the Huntington Beach Pier were "awesome" Sunday for surfer Rick Miller of Seal Beach.
It's a good thing he caught the waves while he could. Beginning today through Sunday, the sets will be off-limits to anyone except contestants in the U.S. Open of Surfing, the biggest qualifying event in the country.
"The water is 64 degrees," Miller said, carrying his board after surfing a few sets. "The swells are a little weak, but it's still fun."
More than 600 men, women and children take over the beach for the week, vying for $100,000 in prize money. The event also includes the inaugural Philips Fusion, a sports, technology and music festival.
"It's good for business," said Ken Hope of Huntington Beach. "Last year, the big complaint was shutting down the beach because of the contamination. That really hurt the economy. What better way to bring it back than to have a nice competition like this?"
Business is already appreciably better at Jack's Surfboards on Main Street, said general manager Ikira Fukada. The big item is the official surf contest, white T-shirt, which goes for $17.95.
But the U.S. Open is less about shirt sales than about surfers and their quest for fame and glory. Or at least a sponsor.
Robbie Olsen from Scream Line clothing Sunday eyed the surfers, hoping to spot a comer not bearing a logo.
"It's like a baseball team," Olsen said. "You're out scouting for young prospects, someone who's going to place in the future."
Last year, Huntington Beach hosted back-to-back, weeklong competitions, the U.S. Open and the Bluetorch Pro.
But the Bluetorch Pro event was dropped after the Assn. of Surfing Professionals voted in December to give Southern California one week to host either a World Championship Tour (WCT) or World Qualifying Series (WQS) event.
Ian Cairns, vice president of events for Irvine-based Bluetorch, chose the more inclusive U.S. Open, a WQS event. There will be more than 600 entrants in men's, women's and junior divisions and plenty of talent. Thirty-three of the top 44 men's surfers in the world, according to the WCT standings, are expected to compete.
"We like the idea of the U.S. Open having 300 entrants in the men, giving lots of local surfers an opportunity to compete," Cairns said. "We have a very high level of talent, but every young [surfer] in the world, particularly in Southern California, can have a crack at them."
Cairns said the loss of a separate Bluetorch Pro event shouldn't affect attendance, which averages about 100,000.
"The important thing is this is still on, and it's the centerpiece of summer in Surf City at Huntington Beach," he said. "The event is going to be as big, if not bigger, than ever."
The surfing competition also includes the $5,000 U.S. Open of Women, the $5,000 Billabong Junior, and long-boarding and women's bodyboarding events.
The U.S. Open offers more WQS points than any surfing event in the mainland United States this season. Participants include defending U.S. Open and reigning world champion Sunny Garcia of Kauai, Hawaii; Taylor Knox of Carlsbad; Pat O'Connell of Laguna Beach; C.J. Hobgood of Satellite Beach, Fla.; and Keith Malloy and Tim Curran of Ventura. Women include Holly Beck of Palos Verdes, the current national amateur champion, and Julia Christian of San Diego.
The beach festival will also include the $45,000 Phillips Soul Bowl, which features competition among top skateboarders, in-line skaters and bicycle stunt riders.
Junior surfing competition begins today and the men's and women's trials begin Tuesday.
On Saturday, the women's semifinals are at 9:30 a.m., followed by the finals at 2 p.m. The women's bodyboard finals are at 1:30 p.m.
On Sunday, the men's quarterfinals are at 9 a.m., followed by the semifinals at 11:30 and finals at 1:30 p.m. The junior finals are at 12:30 p.m. and the long-board finals at 1 p.m.
Competition begins daily at 7 a.m. Admission is free.