“You have to do this contest with me next year...like it’s a joke, but it’s so serious.”
The words waft across the hot sand on the afternoon breeze, coming from one of the competitors in the Invitational Division. He’s on his phone, gabbing idly and vacantly watching the heat currently in the water. I stop to think for a moment. Is he praising the contest? On first blush, it seems to carry a dismissive tone, but when you stop to take it all in, the strangely shaped surfboards scattered along the beach and their often strangely shaped riders, the context leaves a bit more ambivalence.
“Do you want anything from 7-11?”
I’m trying to shake off a wetsuit, and with it, my annual terrible heat performance. The good news about being a shit surfer, while trying to photograph and report on the contest I’m also surfing in, is that I can pretty much guarantee I’ll only be in the water for twenty minutes of the contest every year. RJ is calling out to me, offering to grab anything I may need from the convenience store. I decline. The last I see him he is headed out of the parking lot, driving at a leisurely pace.
A few minutes later, the voice booming from the announcer’s stand is reminding people that the heat schedule has changed from what was initially posted. A traffic accident on the 5 has gummed up the only route for most competitors to reach the venue. Switches, swaps, and flip-flops have been done to try to accommodate surfers who are still en route.
If this sounds highly unusual for a regimented surf contest, it’s because this is a regimented surf contest in name only. This is the 3rd Annual Shaper Studios Self Shape Surf Contest. It’s the island of misfit toys, if all of the toys were surfboards. The people competing here aren’t fighting for points to qualify for anything at all. Most of us are enjoying scoring Seaside Reef in Cardiff with only a few other people out, even if the waves are hit-or-miss in any given heat. A few days worth of rain has everyone praying to the water quality gods that we don’t wake up the next day with rashes in strange places and infected sinuses, but despite any hemming and hawing (especially coming from the author) in the days leading up to the contest, no one ever really considered pulling out of the yearly event.
“A reminder that the heat schedule has changed…” the voice booms again, “...in the next heat…” followed by a list of names I don’t pay attention to, “...and RJ.” At this point, I realize that no matter how close the 7-11 is, he will not be making it there and back before the next heat starts. And sure enough, the next heat begins with only two of the planned competitors in the water.
At some point, RJ is flying down the beach in a singlet, longboard in hand. I’m not sure if it’s the heat he was supposed to be in, or the one after. It doesn’t matter – this is a contest celebrating doing things your own way, and traditional heat structures, much like the rails and tails and fin placements of the boards being ridden, are only guidelines to be bent and shaped into what works for the people involved. Rules are fluid – it’s only surfing after all. It shouldn’t be serious.
There are, undoubtedly, some seriously talented surfers taking to the water today. Cam Richards is back in the Invitational Division, along with a few other members of contest sponsor Vissla’s surf team. He’s riding a stubby twin fin, like last year, and just like last year he throws it above the lip several times despite the sub par waves in his heat. Jen Smith is also back to guard her Women’s Division championship: who knows whether she values it more than her world championship trophies.
Throughout the day, among the repeated sponsors’ shout outs and calls to clear freesurfers out of the poorly demarcated contest area, there’s a reminder: the after party will be tonight at the North Park headquarters of Shaper Studios. It’s really an unnecessary reminder, as the entire day is more party than contest: there is more time spent bullshitting than stretching before heats, more freesurfing than contest surfing, more time spent talking about asymmetrical surfboards than heat strategy. I can neither confirm nor deny that adult beverages were consumed on a California state beach, but it’s safe to say that competitors, significant others, and families were all enjoying a spring beach day that went from a cool, gray morning to a hot, windy afternoon.
When it was all said and done, it worked out the only way a contest celebrating having a good time should work out. A guy no one expected to won. A guy that nearly missed his heat because of a Slurpee and a Go-Go Taquito showed up to cross step his way through three heats and into a lifetime membership at the shop. And when it was all said and done, the evening ended with the Men’s Division winner and a shit surfer, who lost in the first round, laughing with drinks in hand, with little difference between them.
So the only question that remains is this: if the contest is a “serious joke,” is that a good thing or a bad thing? I’m not sure I agree with the assessment at all, but if it’s a joke, it’s the best fucking one I’ve ever been a part of.