Written By: Chris McLafferty
THE World Surf League (WSL) is in town..well townish. A bit over an hour drive south from LA – honestly not the most fun- in San Clemente. The Hurley Pro, event eight out of the eleven that make up the Samsung Galaxy Championship Tour for the men, and Swatch Pro, event seven of ten for the women, are the only WSL (the surfing major leagues – equivalent to the NFL, NBA, etc of their sports) championship events in not only California but the entire continental U.S.
Being completely honest the travel to Trestles starts to make you question your decision, especially when the day is overcasted with degrees that start with a 6 and you forgot your hoodie because you were planning a sun packed day at the beach. Parking isn’t found within mile and a half of the competition spot. The long walk isn’t the most enjoyable as you can’t see the potential pinnacle of your journey as you track along, the added weight of your bookbag, or whatever is accompanying your day long stay at the beach, makes for an even less rosy outlook.
It was clear though from when we first started trying to park at the normal Trestles parking lots that this was going to be a massive crowd. Every lot, every side street and development was taken for over two miles away – we know because FitBit told us and that was at 7:30 am, the competition wasn’t slated to start until 8. The minute you got out of the car the air filled with the surfing culture. Most people were carrying boards, cameras or riding skateboards all while wearing the latest from surf clothing: Billabong, Hurley, Rip Curl, etc and all carried positive vibes that radiated with positivity and anticipation for this yearly event.
Though the WSL isn’t as large as the the other leagues, it still has passionate fans that get starstruck and apparently also paparazzi. As we came up the VIP parking lot hill, an event surfer pulls in, a few videographers come running from the abyss to document his every step. There’s even fans snagging pictures of the surfers’ cars. Not what I was expecting from a league I have just recently found about it – I know you may be shocked to hear this but Ohio (where I recently moved from) doesn’t have a big surfer population. Even so, after I first started following the WSL about 2 months ago, it’s been hard to find fellow LA and OC residents to talk about it ‘with.
As we pass the parking lot, the fun of Trestles begins.
At the top of the mountain you finally see the climax of your journey in sight. You begin to hear the sounds – the sirens, cheers, slight audio of announcers. It’s still a ways away but at least you can see what this is all for. The path down is hidden fun in itself. As we get closer we’re caught off guard by a racing train flying by, most of which is blocked from the mass amount of greenery surrounding the walk through. We get to the tracks – no societal norm of crossing signs or flashing gates. Once over, the minor uphill climb blocks away all views of the world you left behind full of gridlocks, Starbucks and billboards with faces doomed for cancellation. The tall grassy areas further your escape and as the brush opens to the beach you can’t help but fill with exclusivity. You’ve found the hidden surf rave.
The waters are packed with surfers, like ants roaming their hill. Amateurs showing off, hoping to snag a deal, are accompanied by young kids and those who are just trying to connect with the ocean. The notion of figuring out whose turn it is or getting out of the way in time gives me anxiety with the overload of people in the water.
As we enter, it becomes more evident that the WSL isn’t some second tier league. The set-up and settings create a fun and chill atmosphere of comradery filled with lots of entertaining stops along the way. The signage markets their stars, which works to perfection as fans stop for photo ops next to their favorite surfer.
One of the youngest and marketable stars of the league is Hawaii native, John John Florence. JJF just has the look and charisma of a surfer. With blonde curl locks and effortless charisma, he has been the subject of a few films – none bigger than last year’s “View from a Blue Moon.” It was shot in gorgeous 4k and brought in big names like John C. Reilly (Step Brothers) to narrate and Jack Johnson to create an original song for the film, “Seasick Dream.”
JJF is far from the only star and not quite the biggest. That crown remains firmly on the bald head of Kelly Slater. Slater is a surfing legend, the God of Surfing. He’s easily the most recognizable name and figure attached to the sport, with even the landlocked center of the U.S. knowing the name. He’s won the tour a record 11 times including a streak of 5 in a row from ’94-’98. Since he really got started, he’s never been outside the top 10. That includes 22 straight years of excellence. He’s dominated a sport like no other athlete has nor seemingly ever will.
As we make our way to the beach, Slater is just about to begin his Round 3 Heat. Round 1 & 2 were held earlier in the week. Though it’s only about 9 am the beach is packed. As we watch the Heat before his finish, you hear a buzz take over the crowd. People start running all over, making noise, whispering, cheering, Slater is making his way to his ocean field where he’s reigned victorious so many times before, a three time champ here at Trestles – again a streak of dominance from 2010-2012.
Unfortunately the waves aren’t quite as excited to see Slater as we are. They give him and his competitor, Australia’s Jack Freestone, nothing to work with in the first 10 minutes calling for a reset of the heat. Each heat gets 30 minutes for the surfers to show off for the judges. Five judges sit above and…well judge obviously, the surfers run. The highest and lowest score are tossed and the average of the three middle scores determine the score for that wave.
After the restart (which happens if there is 10 minutes of inactivity to open the heat) the waves start to warm up to the surfers and the fans who are anxiously waiting to see the supreme of their sport perform live. Slater doesn’t disappoint, his first wave goes solid – towards the end of which he decides it’s time to go airborne, smashing into the white water coming down and falls…or at least everyone thought so, a second or two Slater emerges from the white to a furious applause and general disbelief from the announcers.
That’s another aspect that makes these events so amazing. You can hear announcers and color commentators. Unlike most sporting events, where you need to bring a radio to experience the play by play, the announcers are there the entire time – speculating, analyzing, interviewing, informing you on scores, priority and more. It’s an added bonus that takes the live spectating experience of this sport a bit higher. Check it out in the video below that I took on the beach for Slater’s next wave, an 8.0. Experience a taste for yourself (do yourself a favor and fullscreen it)
At the end of this heat, one which Slater would easily walk away as the winner, the fans would lose their minds. As Slater exits the water, close-by on the beach you’re sitting and enjoying the event on, fans go running towards him. Snapping pictures, selfies, getting autographs and just trying to get a closer look at their favorite athlete. The announcers even notice, “The whole beach moved to where he is exiting the water.” It’s not just kids and photographers, but everyone. As you look around the beach you see a melting pot of demographics. There’s young kids with their parents in their surf gear. Young couples and those over 65. Everyone was accounted for.
And it’s easy to see why. It has that real chill day at the beach atmosphere. Trade out cramped seats in a stuffy arena for a vacation hobby of towels, picnics and relaxed personal bubbles. And the costs are incredible. The event is free, you can bring your own food or drink – though if you forget there is a small vendor with hog dogs, burgers, drinks and more for reasonable prices. Here prices run at like $4 at max for food, compared to $7 hotdogs at your hometown ballpark. It makes it very family friendly. Kids getting antsy? Walk around the beach, go in the water, you can even sign them up for free surf lessons courtesy of the Hurley Surf Club.
It also helps you can make a whole day of it, as opposed to most sporting events, this could run for about seven or eight hours, at which point you can actually go out into the water and surf yourself. Imagine being able to play a game of catch on Dodger’s Stadium after a game? Though even if you don’t surf, there’s lots to do.
Inside the Hurley Surf Club they offer big screen TVs for the replays, surf gear and WSL jerseys. The jerseys are actually pretty sick with a mesh feel, the surfers name and number on the back in the color of their nation. Due to the WSL organizing nations back before 1959, Hawaii is counted as it’s own – making JJF’s a gnarly green and black. The jerseys are affordable as well (a running theme in the WSL), running about $60 from the source.
The WSL has done a great job of branding in becoming the antidote to some of the pre-mentioned cash grabbing leagues that seem hell-bent on pushing away families and fans. It makes it extremely easy to follow along with all the events which are free to watch on the website or their killer app – which is shocking considering this event is one of only eleven to take place and it offers a unique opportunity to see all of the best competing against each other at one time. Online it gives you access to view all the heat scores, watch highlights and heat recaps all in an easy functioning layout. Its stars are easily accessible as they make their way through the crowds before and after entering the water, which all seem genuinely interested in interacting with the fans.
Maybe that’s why it’s closing in on leagues like the MLB that don’t seem to be connecting with the younger social media heavy generation. Unscientific proof comes in the social media numbers. The WSL has 5 million likes on Facebook which leads “Big 4” NHL who is only carrying 4 million and close to the the MLB’s 6.5 million. For reference the NBA leads all leagues with 31 million and the NFL with 14. Though twitter numbers tell a different story, MLB’s twitter keeps that 6 million while WSL has less than a million. Some of that may come from the WSL’s appeal across multiple nations across the world.
Though one drawback to the events is the difficulty in planning. The competition is open for twelve days and you may not know which day they’ll actually be competition. If the waves aren’t cooperating, then day one could amount to no action at all with the competition not starting until day two. Typically the call comes first thing in the morning, around 7:30am but they may be waiting to see how the waves progress so you might not get very much advanced time to plan your visit. They generally have a good idea based on forecasts and analysts that come via Surfline, but it is something you need to keep an eye out for.
Unfortunately while I was there, the woman’s competition had the day off but the men’s were able to keep your focus all day long due to some extremely exciting and suspenseful action.
Besides obviously the stars like JJF, Slater, and more, the fans typically push love to the local surfers. Guys like Brett Simpson & Kanoa Igarashi (Huntington Beach), but it doesn’t get more local than Tanner Gudauskas & Kolohe Andino who grew up right here in San Clemente.
Andino was the first up of the locals easily winning his heat to move onto Round 4. His first wave of a 7.17 got the crowd to get real loud as they cheered him on to victory. Though to be fair, the crowd gets behind anyone out there impressing, favorite or not. Igarashi was eliminated from competition in Round 3 after being beaten by Australia’s Josh Kerr. How the elimination process works seems complicated but it’s very simple. Think of them as clusters.
The first cluster consists of Rounds 1, 2 and 3. Round 1 starts with twelve heats of three surfers. The winner of those heats move onto Round 3, getting a Round 2 bye. Now the Round 2 heats consist of the surfers who finished 2nd and 3rd in Round 1. They now enter Round 2 heats which only contain two surfers. Win and you move onto Round 3, lose and you’re eliminated.
The next cluster consists of Rounds 4, 5 and the Quarterfinals. Same exact concept. Round 4 starts with four heats with three surfers. Winner moves onto the Quarterfinals, 2nd and 3rd places go again in Round 5 which will act as an elimination round for the loser with the winner moving onto the Quarterfinals which is another elimination round.
Winner of the Quarterfinals move onto the Semi-Finals, the two winners of the Semi-Finals face off for the Finals. Obviously the higher your place, the more points you get towards the season standings.
This is why Round 3 was just a massive round of excitement. Fan favorites and locals were in some intense battles. Current season leader (and owner of the Yellow Jersey that comes along with that title) JJF was up against Simpson in a heat many expected him to win as he tried to continue his path at #1 to win his first WSL tour. Unfortunately for him and his fans, it never seemed like he got in sync with the waves. As JJF went down, shock and awe swept the beach that we wouldn’t be seeing another heat of of the leader and fan favorite. Especially happening just the next competition from which he won the Yellow Jersey (previous wearer and #2 Matt Wilkinson went down the day before in Round 2).
The shock and excitement of Round 3 wouldn’t end there. Last year’s winner at Trestles, Mick Fanning would go down as well in Round 3. As would #4 ranked Adrian Buchan in one of the most exciting heats of the day. Buchan was down with a two wave set rolling in. He grabbed the first and jammed it to a 8.43 – the highest of the heat. But before he could celebrate, his competitor Alex
Ribeiro snagged wave two and rode it to a…9.0 taking the win.
Not without its own suspense, Jadson Andre held a small lead, just a 5.91. With 10 seconds on the clock. Jadson had priority (who has the right to catch the next wave) but couldn’t quite catch the wave to close out Italo Ferreira. Ferreira made a quick snap adjustment to steal the wave. Making a sick jump twist in the air and finishing with a quick hook, Ferreira came to shore flexing believing he had just snuck one out. A minute goes by as judges assess the wave…5.73, .14 short of his comeback.
As you can believe the judging can come under scrutiny which was on full display during the tightly contested elimination heat between #3 Gabriel Medina and local Gudauskas. Gudauskas had the lead as a late wave came through. Medina gave it his all impressing the announcers, the fans, the analysts…but apparently not the judges. They awarded him an 8.30 sparking a mass controversy (still being discussed today) and a quick exit of Medina from the location.
With the highest ranked surfer still alive being #5 Jordy Smith, this could be a wild, chaotic end.
With only three more events coming up, who will win the title is a toss up making the next events a must see.
Make sure to check out the rest of the competition most likely starting tomorrow, Monday Sept 12th at 8am – free on WorldSurfLeague.com. Where you can also sign up to follow your favorite surfers and even play fantasy.
I’ll close this up, the way the event closed up. With a live performance from KROQ band Saint Motel live at the WSL: Hurley Pro at Trestles.