It was a sunny afternoon in Huntington Beach, and the finalists of the Op Pro, the largest surf contest in the world at the time, were about to paddle into the line-up. Behind the scaffolding, nearer the boardwalk, trouble was brewing. It began with a bit of female nudity and grew exponentially over a matter of minutes and hours into widespread chaos, with billy clubs swinging, glass bottles being thrown and a cloud of sand and dust settling over acres of sand near the pier.
The date was August 31, 1986, exactly 25 years ago. It was an ugly day for surfing, it was an ugly day for the city of Huntington Beach.
The Op Pro is no longer in existence; the U.S. Open of Surfing
has filled the void. Reports estimated that 25,000 people
were on the beach for the finals in 1986; it was estimated that more than double that number were on the sand this year when Kelly Slater
managed a lopsided finals victory on his way to the $100,000 winner's check. Mark "Occy" Occhilupo
won the event back then and his check was for $8,000.
Over 100 cops in riot gear descended on the scene, hoping to diffuse the situation. After initially getting a handle on the mob, the mob bit back. Police cars and a lifeguard jeep were torched. Auto parts were thrown through the window at lifeguard headquarters. While the crowd dwindled in numbers over the course of several hours, the events lasted well into the evening. By the end of it all, only seven people were arrested for public intoxication.
While the city still holds a major surf contest every year, it no longer does so on Labor Day weekend.
Surfing and surf contests are big business these days. Twenty-five years ago, surfing was on the fringe. For instance, beginning next week the Quiksilver Pro is taking the ASP World Tour on its maiden voyage through New York, hosting an event at a surf break on Long Island. The winner will take home $1 million. It's an unprecedented amount of money for the sport. It was once a counter-culture activity, a subculture, now surfing is mainstream, in lifestyle and sport.
Nothing like what happened at Huntington Beach 25 years ago has happened since, even at the U.S. Open, where busloads of people from different parts of the state, country and world arrive and share 14 acres of land. Fortunately, no alcohol is provided. Surfing had nothing to do with the riot back then, it was just the site of the disturbance, much like the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA aren't responsible for an angry mob wrecking havoc on the streets of Los Angeles after the team wins a world championship. Bad people do bad things regardless of location or whoever may be affected.
Below is the news coverage of the riot by Channel 9 News. Nice background, Mr. Broadcaster.