Welcome To The Jungle: Notes From The U.S. Open Front Lines

Call it whatever you will, “Surf City” or “The Jungle,” as Transworld’s dubbed it this year. But to a newbie, it may as well be Mars. For a week every July, Huntington Beach is like nowhere else in the world. That time is now, as the 2008 Honda U.S. Open of Surfing presented by O’Neill is in full swing.

The U.S. Open, which is like surfing’s Super Bowl to the droves of fans that flock here, builds like a swell. It fills in gradually, but very steadily, and by the end of the week, it reaches macking proportions. So as you’d expect, like any big swell event, there are a lot of people walking around in shock, gawking at the spectacle. And there are just as many folks running wild off the adrenaline.

You’ve seen the pictures, right?

Thousands and thousands of scantly clad citizens of all backgrounds navigate the labyrinthine grid of countless venders (one minute you might find yourself getting your favorite surf star’s autograph, another you could wind up with some stranger spray painting various decals on your skin, and so on), skate sessions on the Soul Bowl, motocross demos, music and fashion shows, and Transworld’s Jungle at the core of the it all.

Oh, and there’s also a surf contest. A really big and important surf contest, showcasing the best in Men, Women, Juniors, and Longboard divisions. How many other surf contests have you been to with a huge jumbo tron screen on the pier, broadcasting the action as it happens?

Competition’s hitting full stride as we’re deep into the heats sheets and Round Three. There’s also a nice peaky south swell in the water. Even though there’s a good wait in between sets, it’s good for Huntington’s shifty beachbreaks and windy afternoons (the morning heats have been the money draws so far for prime conditions).

It’s still early and anyone’s game, of course, but standouts in the marquee Men’s included a strong showing from the California contingent, including Pat Gudauskas, Taylor Knox, and hometown heroes Timmy Reyes and Brett Simpson. “It’s my homebreak, not a lot of people get to have a competition at their homebreak,” said Simpson. “I’m just doing my everyday thing out there,” says Brett. “Sometimes I think too far ahead. You have to imagine what you want to happen, but you also have to let things happen naturally.”

Floridian Cory Lopez (remember, even though Cory currently lives in California, he’s still an East Coaster from Florida, just ask him) came out of the gates running, while Hawaiians Roy Powers, Kekoa Bacalso (who successfully shot the pier and even detonated two huge backside slams afterward on the north side), and Torrey Meister all posted strong showings.

Ever wonder how it feels to be a teenager on surfing’s biggest stage? “Nervous, is the first thing that comes to mind,” said Big Island prodigy Meister, with a laugh. “My strategy has been to just catch waves early. That’s why I was sitting off the side a little. I don’t like hassling for waves much, unless I have to. There’s more chance of getting good waves when you’re sitting by yourself than if you’re sitting with three other guys.”

One of the “other guys” in Torrey’s heat was fellow Hawaiian Sunny Garcia (who was surfing with purpose and power but left disappointed as he didn’t get the scores he needed). So was there any island rivalry in the water? “Um, I hope not,” Torrey said, shifting a little bit. “Sunny has always been one of my favorite surfers. It’s an honor to be in a heat with him. I have all the respect in the world for him.”

Anyway, that’s only the beginning of the action. The best is yet to come, and tomorrow’s events kick off bright and early. We’ll see you on the beach. —Mike Fish