In 2006, Orange County’s Huntington Beach officially became Surf City in the U.S.A. For two years, Huntington had been in a protracted legal battle with Santa Cruz, another California surf town, for official recognition as the nation’s surf capital.
Two years ago, the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing made headlines, but for all the wrong reasons. On the evening of the final day, the crowd erupted into riot: breaking store windows, tearing down street signs, slamming into storefronts and tipping porta-potties. This forced change to regulations by authorities; eliminating concerts, less vendors on the beach and increasing security, to safeguard the event after the riots in 2013.
Everyone’s behavior was web-based; attention seeking. Drunken teens dress down to the barely anything, painting themselves with obscene slurs all across their bodies. “Free Hugs”, “Kiss Me”,
“Spank Me”, and some even as obscene as “Enter Here”. Unfortunately, most of the spray painted advocates were young teenage girls—typically with a group of friends painted just like one another.
According to Huntington Beach residents the taboo of the U.S. Open’s body painting parades originated a few years back, when booths, particularly Skull Candy, spray painted their logos onto patrons.
“It then turned into people painting hand prints across their bodies, It just dominoed from the stencil,” said Jessie Akroush, Manager at the famous Jack’s Surfboard shop on Main St., an HB resident and coincidentally a Long Beach State 49er.
In 2013, according to authorities, after arresting a thief from Jack’s Surf shop, as authorities walked out with the culprit, a group of patrons gathered around in havoc. Akroush remembers having to barricade the shop for safety.
With the music, skatepark, celebrity draw ins (in the water and shoreside) and constant surf heats, it’s more of a festival than it is a contest, one intended to highlight the message that has been marketed to countless kids by the surf industry over the last few decades: rebellion and youth are cool, so come on down to Huntington and get rowdy.
“It used to be about surfing; people came out for [surfer’s] autographs,” said Akroush. “Then it turned into a party—literally everyone [is] drunk.”
The teenage-public-make-out-and-ass-slapping frenzy of the US Open hasn't changed much since the 2013 riot. The fans raved about the vendors and drinking, however, since the riot, no vendors are allowed.
But none of the competitors received so much as an afterthought. When asked by Jeremy
Searle, when interviewing patrons of the 2014 Open, for a recap on Inertia, an online publication—none of the interviewees knew a surfer’s name.
In his online recap, which went viral, young teenage girls—painted as described previously—were eager to jump in front of a camera. The entire group, underage, and all dressed down
alike, not only showboat their “femininity”, but allow and encourage the groping.
Rebecca Louwbra, a bartender at No’ Ka Oi, a local bar off Main St., describes the trend as disgusting.
“I’ve seen marijuana plants painted on 12-year-olds,” said Louwbra.
“They have full on make-up; I mean, full fledge, make-up. You can’t even tell that they’re 12.”
Can you feel bad for their parents? Maybe, if we knew where they were.
The resided feeling that most residents radiated: the Open is not a day care to just dump your kids off at. The beach is not a babysitter.
Although there are bars up and down Main St., an attraction for many of the attendees is drinking on the beach.
A large percentage of the people in attendance are younger, so they can’t enter the local bars anyway. Aside from the Open, the local bars, restaurants and shops are a major contributor to the appeal HB’s leisurely beach city already has.
The split between demographics builds animosity between residents and visitors. Many of the regulars at No’ Ka Oi, in particular, are older—contrastingly, the Open brings in waves of the underage, trouble seeking demographic that brings distraught to the city.
According to Louwbra, her establishment cannot serve bottled beer at the outside patio, because during the 2013 riot, people threw beer bottles at the policemen.
Both Akroush and Louwbra share the common belief that the U.S. Open draws in good and bad activity for the community, but that outsiders don’t respect the city and are the ones to trash it.
After responding abruptly about the US Open: “I hate it,” an employee at a shop on the pier asked to remain anonymous…because bad mouthing the Open could be bad for business…
Goes to show the draw-in of people, capabilities and how financially supplementing the event can and truly is for the city.
However, last year slowed down—wearily regulated and secured weightily. Police bodies
multiplied and security was maximized. More on-horse policeman came out than previously for better crowd control. The regulations preventing vendors and live music were a large component for the smaller turn out as well.
Last year in 2014, HBPD created a Mountain Unit consisting of a sergeant and three officers on horses. Whether or not it specifically was created because of the Open’s riot is unsure, but it was a factor.
“We made $16,000 in 2013 [even with the riot]. In 2014 we closed out with $10,000,” said Louwbra.
Granted, even with all the trouble behind the Open….
“One thing's for sure—you have to show up early with so many people coming into town. We had one of our busboys park off 17th for work that day,” said Louwbra.
To help visualize the amount of people—that’s 17 blocks from Main St..
James Larson, a veteran lifeguard at Huntington Beach, worked the U.S. Open the day of the riot in 2013. From the watch tower, Larson coordinated patrons from danger only to see that the danger wasn’t in the water.
“The beach is condensed with too many people during the Open,” said Larson. “It’s filled with outsiders who don’t care about the city or respect the sport.”
The significant difference, according to Larson, from the 2013 and 2014 U.S. Opens, was the amount of security. Ambassadors, as Public Information Officer Marllatt of the Huntington Beach Police Department, called the yellow-shirted security guards that checked bags and helped tame crowd control. HBPD called upon a third-party-security-agency for beachside reinforcement.
The guards all wear a brightly highlighted yellow t-shirt, with “security” screen printed on the back, for easy recognition. A good call by HBPD; scaling down the event and adding more security.
“Scaling down the event—no skating, vendors, music—brought it back to a surf contest. There’s no incentive to come down after,” said Marllatt regarding a rebellious youth. “When you have to scale down large events, you can’t always control alcohol on the beach.”
But that’s why there are more beachside ambassadors.
Still, it’s not illegal for girls to paint themselves or to write words across their bodies. Yet, when that drunk old man or loitering transient takes up the offer and smacks the young girl right where the instructions on her back say to, we have mom coming back upset, explained the Public Information Officer.
However, that’s the issue. It’s either parents are naive to what the U.S. Open entails shoreside, or their kids slip away without ever mentioning where they’re at.
“I’m sure they don’t jump out the cars in a g-string…just like they have vodka in gatorade bottles…they’re covered up,” said officer Marllatt.
“They’re [the parents] lucky to pick up a sober kid at the end of the day; usually they’ll get a call from us—telling them that their kid is drunk.”
After things quieted down in 2013, the event organizers issued a statement via Facebook:
“We’re extremely disappointed and saddened by the disturbance that occurred up on Main St. after the close of the US Open of Surfing. We work tirelessly with City staff, police, fire and other agencies to ensure a safe environment for all. We appreciate the quick response of HBPD and are awaiting further information.”
If you want to see surfing at its most beautiful, go someplace remote like Indonesia. If you want to see surfing at its most dangerous, head to Hawaii or a desolate island off the coast—probably somewhere outside of the United States. But if you want to see surfing at its most mass-consumed, head to the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach.