Originally created 08/01/98

Surfing comes out of the water and to the people



HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. -- Surfing champ Kelly Slater may be a total babe but local hero Tom Curren rocks.

That's the word from this weekend's OP Pro Surfing Championship finals at the Huntington Beach Pier, where temperatures hovered in the high 70s and stiff sea breezes were turning waves to mush.

That's less-than-championship quality to those not fluent in surfing vernacular.

This is the only North American stop on this year's World Championship Tour for professional surfers. And the action in the water was only slightly more important than what was happening on the sand.

The buzz on the beach was the showdown between current world champ Slater of Florida -- a sort of Tom Cruise of the surf set -- and Orange County's own Curren, a three-time world champion in the 1980s who came out of retirement at 34.

"I came to watch all the hot surfers," said Yassi Amini, 18, who drove 21 miles from Mission Viejo with three girlfriends to spend the day at the contest. "But they look better in the magazines."

In the end, Curren beat the 26-year-old Slater in head-to-head competition on Wednesday. Yet the main action came when the two emerged from the water, their label-laden surfboards tucked under their arms.

Both gave impromptu news conferences on the sand before leaving to change out of their wet suits. Later, they returned to the beach to sign autographs.

"It's pretty cool," said Adam Goodman, 11, of Huntington Beach.

And that's what the OP Pro is really all about, said event director Ian Cairns, a surfing purist ranked No. 1 in the 1970s. He said the contest is among a handful of stops on the world tour where "we bring the surfers to the people." On the rest of the 11-event circuit, the surfers go to the best waves.

"Would I rather be in Indonesia where there's perfect waves? Sure, I would," Cairns said. "But Huntington Beach is the best bet for an urban surfing location."

Huntington Beach calls itself "Surf City, USA," as in the Jan and Dean rock classic, and earned a surfing badge of courage in the 1960s thanks to several Beach Boys hits. The town's also in Orange County, the heart of the lucrative surf industry, and it's where professional surfing was launched in the early 1980s.

After a two-year stint in Hawaii, the OP Pro returned this year to its original Huntington Beach location, bringing $150,000 in prize money with it.

But like most sports in the 1990s, surfing is no longer content to be just a sport. It has to be a "lifestyle event" aimed at the pocketbooks of surfers and wannabe surfers alike.

So OP, the Irvine apparel company that helped spread surf culture to the rest of the nation, built a $1.5 million tent city south of the pier, where it is sponsoring a two-week summer blowout.

It's a long way from 1976 when Cairns was surfing's biggest money-winner. He earned $8,000 the entire year. The OP Pro men's champion will take home $15,000. The winner of the Kahula Women's Classic gets $8,000.

"This is what we've been working for all our lives, to bring surfing to this level," said Cairns, wearing an Australian bush hat, shorts and flip-flops. "It's very satisfying."