Every year around the time leaves start descending to the Earth and pumpkins begin ripening for their one night of glory, a New Jersey tradition detonates. It is known as the Smith Optics Garden State Grudge Match.
The Grudge Match has become the perennial title that New Jersey pros strive to attain, because with the belt comes bragging rights for an entire year. To win you’ve got to beat out the best 32 surfers from up and down the Garden State Parkway. The man-on-man format guarantees that every heat is crucial.
The surf this fall on the East Coast has been strange due to the El Niño year—a lack of hurricanes gave way early on to semi-nor’easters, which tend to be more predominant in the winter and spring months. And it was no different for the latest Grudge Match held on Monday, October 19th at the iconic Casino Pier in Seaside Heights. The same cold front that had just dumped snow on many parts of the West stomped across the United States and after days of rain and winds, graced the East with an October gift (see the photos in the above gallery of Long Island, NY for further proof that things were lighting up not just in the Dirty Jersey).
Being an on-call event, the Grudge Match is flexible and can wait till something actually pops up in the Atlantic. And in October you’re almost guaranteed at least one halfway decent swell in New Jersey. So it’s no surprise that contest director Rob Cloupe always seems to make the right calls, getting the best surf available for New Jersey’s finest to light up in. The Grudge is that last breath of fall before the bitterness of winter truly bitch slaps the Garden State.
Eight years in, the Grudge belt has been worn by New Jersey’s top dogs: Dean Randazzo, Frankie Walsh, Mike Gleason, Matt Keenan, and Sam Hammer. They’ve all got at least one belt to their names. And now Mr. Sam Hammer has got three of them; the most by anyone.
Lavallette’s Sam Hammer bested Ocean City’s Andrew Gesler in the glassy four-to-five-foot surf-filled final to keep the belt around his waist for another year—the first person to ever do so. After a bit of traditional next day dehydration, I caught up with Sam to get some play-by-play of the final and some specifics on another winter of glory and bragging rights for the champ.—Ryan Brower
How much were you looking forward to defending the belt this year?
No one’s ever defended a belt successfully. I wanted to be the first and I want to be the first three-time winner.
It means a lot to me. There’s so many guys in our state that are great surfers right now. Probably the best group to ever come out of New Jersey has been coming out over the past ten years. The majority of them compete in this event, so it’s a good test.
How was the surf?
It wasn’t quite as good as last year, but the Pier was still pretty good. It just always seems to turn on this time of year.
And it always seems like the Grudge gets the best swell of October.
Cloupe’s got a shamrock up his ass or something.
You guys were wearing booties, too?
Yeah, I don’t know if you needed them for 20 minutes, but you don’t wanna get cold, especially in a heat. You’ll just cramp up. I didn’t wanna take that risk. It wasn’t the water, it was the air. It dropped down to like 40 even though the water was in the lower 60s. A lot of times you have to run down the beach, your feet would definitely get cold. Just better to fight that off with the boots.
You racked in two 9s pretty quick and Andrew grabbed a 7 and then that big 10. How’d the final play out?
They don’t announce the scores, so you’re just guesstimating on what’s actually going on. I got one of my 9s my first wave, not even a minute in. I paddled back out and Andrew had priority and he took the first wave of this bigger set and it looked like it pinched on him. I took off on the next one and got a good little tube and a few licks.
Ten minutes into the thirty minute heat I had two 9s, so I felt pretty good. He got the 7 around the 20-minute mark. Then this one wave pops up and he had priority and went left, so I went right. If I had priority I would’ve went left, too.
I heard the cars start honking and it wasn’t for me, so I knew he did something. He was pretty pumped about it and he let me know he got a good one.
Gesler had to requalify this year and ended up winning the qualifier. It took you a couple years to finally snag one of these, so how bad do you think he wanted this one?
He wanted it bad. You could see it in his eyes. To play spoiler felt pretty good. Personally, I think him and Zack [Humphreys] are the two most deserving. He’ll get one sooner or later. Those are the two to watch out for in the future.
You’ve won three of these belts now, do you end up wearing them around all winter?
Yeah, I wear them every time I go check the waves. I put it on just to remind everyone [laughs].
They’re actually on my wall and they’re my prized possessions because everyone in the state wants one.
Does it get intense out there battling for the belt and bragging rights?
It gets pretty heated down on the beach and in the water during these because everyone wants to win so bad. It’s bragging rights throughout the entire state. Everyone’s got their Jersey pride and wants to win one over the next guy. Especially with Dean [Randazzo] around, everyone’s always gunning for him. We have big shoes to fill with him. When someone takes him out it’s always, “Oh good, Dean’s out.” It’s just a good feeling to have the belt still in my possession for another year.