Surfers don’t really care what nickname you give their city. Just give them good waves, room to move and a couple of exhilarating hours of freedom.
But to the business-suit crowd, reputation is everything. And so for the last 15 years, a pair of California beach towns have been kicking sand at each other, both claiming the boasting rights of being the one and true Surf City.
In Huntington Beach, tourism officials struck first, in November, by getting the trademark “Surf City, USA.” That pinched a nerve up north in Santa Cruz, which this month directed its city attorney to seek a federal trademark of its own. “Original Surf City, USA” sounded good.
Deciding who really deserves the title is like trying to broker a peace agreement between SoCal and NoCal, the Dodgers and the Giants, the conservatives and the liberals.
Arguably, each city can claim a piece of surf glory. Each is on the ocean, and each has deep roots in the sport.
But that’s about where the similarities end.
In Huntington Beach, surfers stroll across a wide, sandy beach, paddle out and catch waves breaking off a sandbar. In Santa Cruz, they leap off a rocky cliff into the frigid water, ride ridiculously long waves, hoist their boards up a few flights of concrete stairs and trek half a mile back to do it all over again.
In Huntington Beach, surfers all seem trim and sun-kissed, so alluring that trendy clothier Abercrombie & Fitch has a camera piping live video from the pier into its stores. Santa Cruz surfers embrace the motto “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” and pride themselves on hitting the beach without stopping to look in the mirror.
There is one other major difference. For Huntington Beach, the moniker is about more than bragging rights; it’s about money. The “Surf City, USA” trademark -- approved by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a $335 filing fee -- is part of a high-octane marketing effort to exploit the city along the increasingly lavish Orange County coastline.
With a fancy new Hyatt, and another 500 hotel rooms on the drawing board, the city’s ambitions are to mature from “a sleepy beachfront community to a world-class overnight resort,” said Doug Traub, director of the visitors bureau.
That couldn’t contrast more with slow-growing Santa Cruz, a city that circled itself with a greenbelt to knock out suburban sprawl. Indeed, the gritty surfers exaggerate the risk of their shark-infested, icy waters just to scare away outsiders.
Still, word of Huntington Beach’s trademark traveled up the coast, where Santa Cruz Mayor Mike Rotkin said he fielded about 30 calls from disgruntled residents.
So Rotkin teases that there’s really no competition between the two cities and invited the “wimps” of Huntington Beach to a surf-off. He went on local TV, singing his own rendition of Jan and Dean’s famous “Surf City:”
“You think your pier compares to Steamers?
(Surf City’s Santa Cruz)
Just give it up and go drive your Beemers.
(Surf City’s Santa Cruz).”
The officials down south just smile, gleefully slapping “Surf City, USA” all over their tourist brochures and adding a warning note on their website to anyone who dares tread on their trademark.
Even Dean Torrence, of Jan and Dean fame, got in on the act. When the duo wrote their famous anthem “Surf City” -- which topped the Billboard charts in 1963 -- “none of us,” he said, “had Santa Cruz in mind.”
Torrence, by the way, lives in Huntington Beach and spent many of his teenage years surfing in the city. “I’m flattered that [Santa Cruz] is so uptight about it,” he said.
Neither city was actually mentioned as that fantasy land where there are “two girls for every boy,” though both are mentioned in Beach Boys songs: Huntington Beach in “Surfin’ Safari” and Santa Cruz in “Surfin’ USA.”
“Real surfers don’t care,” said Santa Cruz surfer Brian MacDonald, a 46-year-old retired dot-commer. “Or, if anything, they don’t want the name Surf City because it sounds kind of cheesy.”
Still, Santa Cruz boosters are proud of what they have.
“We’ve got more surf around here than they have in their little thumb,” boasted Harry Mayo, 81, a retired firefighter and one of the original members of the Santa Cruz Surfing Club.
Indeed, Santa Cruz’s Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point are considered world-class surf sites, where up-and-coming pros cut their teeth before packing their boards for Hawaii. They also claim proximity to Maverick’s, about an hour north in Half Moon Bay, a big-wave spot referred to by surfline.com as “one of the seven natural wonders of the world.”
The northern surfers shop at the local chain of organic New Leaf markets and attend UC Santa Cruz (“home of the Banana Slugs”). They include old-timers, teenagers and wealthy, middle-aged imports from the Silicon Valley.
Their backdrop is the historic Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster at the historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk -- an amusement park older than Disneyland -- and a quaint beachfront where, at first glance, it seems time stopped in 1972 with its mom-and-pop motels. The largest property in a town pushed against the Pacific by the Santa Cruz Mountains is the three-star Coast Hotel, with all of 163 rooms.
The locals are schooled in Santa Cruz surfing lore, tidbits they may have picked up at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, where such guys as Mayo gather on Friday afternoons to spin yarns about their surfing days before World War II.
Just about any surfer can spout the story of how surfing came to town.
“It was a couple of Hawaiian princes surfing at the Rivermouth in the 1800s,” said Dave Gardner, 34, a teacher-artist-vegetable peddler. “They weren’t even drilling for oil in Huntington Beach yet.”
And they idolize local legend Jack O’Neill, inventor of the modern wetsuit. Never mind that his headquarters are now in Orange County and that he’s just as much a part of the Huntington Beach surf scene as he is in the north.
In Huntington, he has a star on the Surfing Walk of Fame on Main Street, across the street from the statue of legendary Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku and the Surfing Hall of Fame. And the O’Neill logo is plastered over the oceanfront windows of the surfboard shops that overlook Huntington Beach’s pier.
Then again, just about every major surf brand -- including Quiksilver, Billabong and Hurley -- is represented in Huntington Beach or elsewhere in Orange County. With the big-name labels opening showrooms and massive warehouses and relocating their business operations, O.C. is considered the mecca of the surf industry.
Competitive surfing is also at home in Huntington Beach, which has 35 to 40 competitions a year, including the headlining U.S. Open of Surfing.
“What do they have in Santa Cruz? The Cold Water Classic?” mocked Randy Hollowell, 19, of Huntington Beach. “And that got canceled last time because they didn’t have any waves.”
Millions of Americans have known of Huntington Beach’s waves for decades, with its surfing contests legitimized by ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” In fact, the city was host of the first U.S. Surfing Championship in 1959, two years before anybody had even heard of the Beach Boys.
Year-round, the water and air are so much warmer in Huntington Beach that Steve Pezman, publisher of the Surfer’s Journal, says a Santa Cruz surfer who hit the waves in Huntington “would think he’d died and gone to Hawaii.” The waves, though smaller, are more consistent year-round.
Huntington’s beachfront looks more like Hawaii than does Santa Cruz’s, too, and not just because of the palm trees.
In 2003, the Hyatt opened a 517-room luxury hotel across the street from Huntington’s eight miles of beach. In the next few years, officials estimate, 500 more beachside rooms will be added at three new hotels.
Unlike the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, which focuses mostly on local history, Huntington Beach boasts the only International Surfing Museum, a treasure trove of surf memorabilia, photos and old boards.
The city’s marketing minds are busy devising ways to capitalize on their new trademark by rolling out an array of Surf City, USA products, such as T-shirts, bumper stickers and maybe even a beach-cruising bicycle. They already offer a “Surf City” credit card, and their 2005 visitors guide prominently displays the trademark.
Some don’t understand the civic competition.
“It’s kind of a nonevent as far as the surfing community is concerned,” Pezman said.
“Culturally, both places have earned a piece of the title. Both places have solid credentials. I wouldn’t rate one over the other.”
And for some folks, it’s just a matter of perspective.
“Surf city? Yeah, I’ve heard of it,” said Santa Cruz visitor Albert Vasallo, who lives in Miami. “I think it’s up in Hollywood ... Hollywood Beach, Florida.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Who owns bragging rights to the title ‘Surf City?’ The battle continues between Santa Cruz and Huntington Beach, as the Northern California city considers trademarking its moniker as ‘Original Surf City, USA.’ A look at the cities’ surfing scorecards:
*--* Huntington Santa Beach Cruz Water Low 50s Low 50s temperature to low 70s to low 60s Winter swell size 6-12 feet 10-18 feet Famous The pier, Steamer Lane, surf spots the bluffs Pleasure Point Surf statues Duke Kahanamoku, ‘To Honor ‘Ultimate Challenge’ Surfing’ Population 195,000 56,300 Piers 1,853 feet long, longest 2,745 feet long, longest pleasure pier drive-on pier on the West Coast on the West Coast Surf mates Squid, urban runoff Sharks, sea lions Surf apparel Quiksilver, Surftech manufacturers Billabong, Hurley, most others Access to surf Stroll across sand Leap off a cliff School Golden West UC Santa Cruz mascots College Rustlers Banana Slugs Tournaments U.S. Open O’Neill of Surfing Coldwater Classic Hotel rooms 1,850 1,530 Businesses named for ‘Surf City’ More than 30 6
Sources: Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitors Council, Surfline, Huntington Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau, city of Huntington Beach, Golden West College
Graphics reporting by Kimi Yoshino