Surfers, surfing fans, music lovers, skateboarders and people who simply appreciate a good party are gathering in Virginia Beach this weekend for the 48th annual East Coast Surfing Championships.
"There is nothing like this," said Kevin Gaydosh, who handles publicity for the event. "Any direction you turn, there's something going on." The combination surf competition and beach party, which started Thursday and runs through Sunday, is free and open to the public, thanks to the volunteer efforts of some 450 members of the Virginia Beach Junior Chamber of Commerce. The event runs along the oceanfront, between Second Street and Ninth Street.
The focal point is the surfing competitions, which attract amateurs and professionals from all over the world, who catch air, spin, and otherwise make balancing a board atop moving water look easy.
Meanwhile, over the years, the event has grown to include an 8K run, a swimsuit contest, many live music performances, and tournaments for soccer, volleyball, flag football and more.
Ths year, the event has 30 amateur surfing competitions and 10 professional ones, says Gaydosh. Fans can grab seats on bleachers set up along the water, or stand at the shore break along Second Street to watch the action.
What to watch for? Heats usually feature four surfers at a time, jockeying for position as the waves break. One surfer will claim the best position and the others will fall away. "What the judges go for is what you do with the wave," Gaydosh said. "If you do a number of tricks on that one wave and stay up on it, that's good."
Announcers call the action, tactfully throwing in details so even people who know nothing about surfing can understand what's happening.
New events are added all this time. This year, says George Alcarez, general manager of the event, marks the debut of freestyle motocross exhibition and a skimboard competition. (This involves throwing a pod-shaped board into the surf and riding along the edge of the beach.)
The event traces its roots to the late 1950s, when Huntington Beach, Calif., was first gaining a reputation as Surf City, USA. A few people who lived near Gilgo Beach, on New York's Long Island, traveled to California, and brought the surfing bug back to the East Coast. They threw a private surfing-themed party on the beach, and gave it the whimsical name East Coast Championships, even though it lacked anything resembling an official surfing competition. "Anybody who could stand up on a board just did it," said Gaydosh. "It was never intended to be more than a one-year party."
But it was held the following year as well, and those informal events attracted surfers from Virginia Beach, who brought the concept back to their home town and expanded it. From the start, the group enlisted the Virginia Beach Junior Chamber of Commerce to run the event, which the Jaycees do to this day.
"When it came to Virginia Beach, they got serious about it," Gaydosh said. Accomplished surfers were recruited to serve as judges, though at first they simply perched on stepladders to watch. "As it got bigger and bigger, it kind of grew into a more sophisticated event," he said. A member of the Jaycees interested in beach volleyball added that event. "Every year or two, another beach event gets added on."
Now the judges work from a three-story-high platform constructed for the event. "When we first got started, we didn't even have a bullhorn, much less a public address system," said Paul West, president of the U.S. Surfing Federation.
West, 50, grew up in Virginia Beach and said he's been "involved with this particular event for 31 years." It has become a serious surfing destination, attracting big names from all over the U.S. and the world, he said, noting that many surfers who later became famous got their start at the ECSC.
He described ECSC as an unusual combination of fierce competition and end-of-summer fun. "Anybody who is anybody from the sport comes to the ECSC," he said. "Sure, there's fierce competition. They want to win and they surf hard."
But they also flock to the event because "it is, without a doubt, a huge party, a kind of celebration of the end of the summer and a gathering of the tribe."
If you go
East Coast Surfing Championships
Oceanfront in Virginia Beach, 800-861-7873 or vbfun.com. Some 100 top surfers as well as 300 amateur surfers will compete for prizes. There are also skimboarding competitions, volleyball matches, a 5K run, a swimsuit contest, skateboarding, live music and food vendors. There's a cost for competition participants, but all activities are free for the public. Events run 7 a.m.-6 p.m. today and 7 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.