Boomer Beach. On the Boomer seawall, a hand-painted message reads: "If you don't bleed here you can't surf here."
It was a ride that replays itself periodically in his mind, a rare moment of physical and spiritual revelation. The place was Petacalco, on the western coast of southern Mexico, where the waves break inside a large cove. Bruce Macklin, better known among bodysurfing fanatics as the Smokesurf Kid, reached the cove late on a clear afternoon and found the waves at 20 feet, pitching over into beautiful tubes. The foaming turbulence bear shore was so wicked that it precluded even a mighty swimmer like Macklin from heading directly into the breakers, so he slipped on his long black fins and kicked out from the side of the cove that ran perpendicular to the surf line.
Bruce Macklin, the Smokesurf Kid: "You get back up inside the tube and it's like making love to the ocean."
Directly across the cove was a thumb of land that formed a blunt peninsula, and as the sun began to fall behind it, he swam as hard as he could. It took him 45 minutes to reach the towering waves, but he was so stoked he hardly stopped to rest before lining up to take one. He found them steep and fast, fast enough to push him out and onto the face so that he skimmed like a flat rock across the deep-blue surface. Time slowed. Then he caught a wave that has since become a part of his psyche. As it approached, he was carried higher and higher by the suction of water being drawn upward into a peak nearly as tall as a drive-in theater screen, and he hardly kicked at all before he was taken by its immense energy. His timing and positioning were perfect, and the curl came over his head as he moved in a blur from east to west. He found himself way back in the hollow tube, the water roaring in an ordered tumult on every side, and as he looked ahead toward the open end he saw the orange ball of the sun appear like a fiery pupil in a watery eye. Its orange rays shot directly into the tube and illuminated its walls to a glowing, liquid orange. Time stopped completely, but Smokesurf kept riding. His left arm extended in front of him and his right submerged in the orange wall of spinning water, he drove for the opening and managed to shoot out of the tube just before it collapsed. Time started up again.
Smokesurf lives on Neptune Street in Encinitas and runs the bicycle shop at UCSD. He's 34 years old and was a founding member of the Gillis Beach Bodysurfing Association, the oldest such club in existence, when he hung out at Playa del Rey, near Santa Monica, in the early 1960s. He's nicknamed after the condition that ensues when an offshore breeze hits big incoming waves, holding up their peaks and blowing off spray that resembles smoke. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he lives — and works — in order to do one thing: bodysurf. "The ocean is my first and last wife," he says, smiling behind a huge, sun-bleached mustache that extends across his browned cheeks to a point beneath his ear lobes. "You get back up inside the tube and it's like making love to the ocean."
Countless thousands of coast dwellers have a vague understanding of Smokesurf's wave worship because they've stood in the surf and hurled themselves before breakers and thought they were bodysurfing. But to compare the summer beachgoer's "bodysurfing" to what Smokesurf and the other handful of serious bodysurfers do in the waves is like comparing the frug to the ballet. Actually, the dance analogy is apt. Grant Leone, a 31-year-old bodysurfer from Oceanside, has been called "the Baryshnikov of the waves" by spectators who've watched him perform in the big surf off Puerto Escondido in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. To some people, bodysurfing is a form of spiritual expression and communion, which is not a bad description of ballet. Guys such as Leone and the Smokesurf Kid have arranged their entire lives around bodysurfing, rising in the wee hours hours to ride the waves all winter and summer before the sun and the board surfers hit the water. You can spot them in the morning tide from Imperial Beach to San Francisco.
Here's 35-year-old John O'Neil, a wiry mechanic who works for the U.S. Border Patrol and lives in Chula Vista, who bodysurfs almost every morning in the break off the Tia Juana River mouth. He's gotten sick from the raw Tijuana sewage spilling there and has been ordered out of the water by hovering helicopters because of the beach being quarantined. Father north, 42-year-old Larry Bye can be found every morning bodysurfing beside Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach with his daughter and son and their friend Virginia Cartwright. Bye is an advertising executive with the Union-Tribune who says bodysurfing was the main thing that got him through high school, the Sixties, and the Seventies intact. Twenty-five-year-old Cartwright is a recent SDSU graduate in aeronautical engineering who two weeks ago beat Bye and seven other top competitive bodysurfers to become a grand champion in the Oceanside World Bodysurfing Championships.
A little further up the coast from Cartwright and Bye is the hermetic Boomer Beach crowd of La Jolla, with guys like "Dolphin" Don Riley, "Freeway" Dave Freeman, who some think is among the best body surfers in the world, even though he avoids most contests like ptomaine, and John "Kamikaze Man" Demerjian, who last month badly wrenched the muscles in his neck at Boomer. Though he's something of a local legend, his accident frightened him so much — for a few seconds after it happened he was completely paralyzed — that he claims he's hanging up his fins and chucking bodysurfing altogether.
Continuing north, the morning surf turns up Hal Handley, a cancer researcher at UCSD who is investigating how to manipulate the body's immune system to fight is own tumors — one of the most important cancer-fighting breakthroughs ever. Up in Del Mar there's a Swede Throneson, the 66-year-old president of the Del Mar Chamber of Commerce, a retired Lt. Colonel in the Marines, who's bodysurfed for 50 years and started out by taking the long-gone trolley from his childhood home in North Park all the way up to La Jolla to surf Boomer.
Up past Del Mar you'll find the Smokesurf Kid and Tim Casinelli, who was 15 last year when he won the Oceanside grand championship. North of him is Grant Leone and his bodysurfing buddy Bill Missett, managing editor of the Oceanside Blade-Tribune, organizer of the Oceanside World Bodysurfing Championships and one of the sport's driving forces. North of Oceanside the list goes on to include Mike Cunningham of Manhattan Beach, who many believe to be one of the top three or four bodysurfers in the world. And of course Fred Simpson, the 45-year-old bodysurfing sultan of the infamous Wedge in Newport beach, the most treacherous break on the West Coast. The bald-headed Simpson, left arm outstretched and right arm tucked into his hip as he plunges down the face of a 30-footer, epitomizes the devoted bodysurfer; strong, courageous but not stupid, secure in the knowledge of how much risk a great thrill is worth.
What all these people (and plenty of others not named) share is their own riveting vision of Smokesurf's liquid-orange tube, an intimacy with one of the planet's most elemental and powerful forces, a spiritual connectedness with nature. The ocean is the anchor of their lives. They differ in a fundamental way from board surfers in the same fashion that a hang-glider pilot differs from a jet jockey: They're a part of the wave and privy to its secrets, whereas board surfers are exploiters of the wave, and their equipment keep them from its complex energies. And just as the jet jock garners all the glamour and adulation, it's the board surfer, not the bodysurfer, who's been elevated to the status of latter-day archetype. It's also the board surfer who gets financed by commercial sponsors, lavished with contest prize money and televised on Saturday afternoons. And herein lies the maelstrom into which bodysurfing has been pulled. Some bodysurfers, Grant Leone and Mike Cunningham among them, want to turn professional just as about 20 bodysurfers in Hawaii have done. but others, such as the Smokesurf Kid and Freeway Dave and many, many more, see the prospect of professionalizing as the antithesis of what bodysurfing is really all about: roaring orange tubes, time momentarily stopped.
Bodysurfing’s most maniacally anti-commercial faction is undoubtedly the Boomer Beach crowd. People have been body surfing Boomer, which is right around the corner from La Jolla Cove, probably since the turn of the [19th] century. Since about the early 1960s it has been a break closely protected by a de facto brotherhood that is so rabidly secretive about the place that its members don’t even like to admit they’re members of anything. Many top-notch bodysurfers say the reef break at Boomer, which is fraught with danger to the novice because of the shallow rocks, is too slow and lethargic. But it is consistent. When there’s a decent swell, the wave peaks to form a nice shoulder, and bodysurfers can get a long, if somewhat slow ride. When it is very big it is definitely a fast, planing ride, with a good tube.
But unless you’re a regular, you’re made to feel so unwelcome that few outsiders ever surf it. To the Boomer crowd, which takes pride in what it calls the Boomer Beach Blood Bank (a reference to the common collisions between flesh and reef) bodysurfing on that break is a kind of masochistic rite. Which is why “Dolphin” Don Riley, who sometimes leads Sunday services of the Unified Church of Boomer while standing on a special rock at the surf line, may be ostracized and pilloried for talking about it on the record.
"You aren't gonna surf this place very long without paying your dues," says Riley as he sits on the beach and gazes out at the infamous break, which on this day is minuscule. Above him, on the Boomer seawall, a hand-painted message reads: "If you don't bleed here you can't surf here." It's the Boomer anthem and epitaph. A pelican glides up the face of a low roller just offshore and continues north over a morning sea of blue obsidian. Riley nods toward a spot over which the pelican just passed. "There's one rock out there called Barnacle Bill," he laughs. "You hit Barnacle Bill, you're gonna know it." Another rock nearby has been dubbed the "Cornerstone of Democracy."
Riley himself has been busted up pretty well by Boomer, which is named after the sound the place makes when the surf pumps big. At 38 he's pretty much sworn off the 10- and 12-footers, leaving them to the less battered. "You get out there on 12-footer," he explains, blue eyes beaming his easy laugh through a thicket of blond hair and beard, "and you're not kidding anybody. It's just you. You have to put your whole heart and soul into it. You don't have a choice. It takes everything you got to just not drown."
"Oh God," Riley has thought as 12- and 15-footers bore down on him, "let me just swim back in. I won't see no more dirty movies." It draws closer, like a hustling shock wave. "No more smoking!" No more drinking even!" It's there. "Please..." It's sucking up water and swimmer. "No more playing with myself!" It's cresting. "Oh God, no..." Moment of truth — ride it or be swallowed by it. Time slows, he kicks, he's taken, he planes to the right. the faster he goes, the more times ceases to exist. He's tubed, he's abandoned any deal-making with God, he's become engulfed by convulsive energy in a rolling, thunderous discharge, caught in a synapse within the planet's nervous system. Then he's thrown to the bottom, buffeted among the rocks and the eel grass, and when he comes up he turns and swims for all he's worth — away from shore, back toward the breakers.
Riley used to ride Boomer when he was a kid being raised in Santee, but in 1977, after he was divorced and laid off by the state from his job in waste water treatment, he finally decided to dedicate himself fully to the sport. "I had the resources to do whatever I really wanted to do," he recalls. "And what I really wanted to do was perfect my bodysurfing." So he moved to La Jolla and began riding at Boomer whenever the swell came up. By 1977, though he'd already been bodysurfing for more than 20 years, "I was still a crude bodysurfer. I had some style, but it was crude. I got in people's way; I got yelled at; I didn't know wave etiquette." This is a cardinal sin at Boomer and elicits much verbal and physical abuse. Those who weather the treatment pass through a kind of initiation rite, and they become accepted, just as Dolphin Don did. He's now earned respect as a kind of surf philosopher, an Old Man of the Surf. "It takes years going through the progression of what the water's doing, to what the wave's doing, and then to actually mastering the wave. Once you've learned how to get into a wave, ride a wave, and get out of a wave with style, you've really accomplished something." Riley has observed and ridden so many waves that he says he can actually see "energy lines" forming, moving, and dispersing through the breakers. He reads these energy lines and figures out the optimum place to be in the wave for the best ride. Like baseball bats and the fast corners at Sebring, all good waves have a "sweet spot."
Riley now works the night shift at waste water pumping station number two on Harbor Drive, but in real life he's about the only member of the Boomer crowd who enters contests and encourages others to help organize the sport. Most of his Boomer cohorts don't acknowledge any surf break of brotherhood outside their own. Riley is also somewhat of a Boomer renegade in that he'll unabashedly expound on the spiritual and mystical aspects of bodysurfing. For example, while most surfers seriously pray to the Hawaiian Kahuna gods for good surf, Riley freely reveals that the Boomer crowd supplicates before a deity called Tobi, the mystical force that controls the waves. Riley's Sunday services at Boomer attempt to appeal to Tobi, and when that doesn't work he just starts barking like a dog, and often as not the swell responds. Like all true surfers, he's dead serious about this. Says Dolphin Don, "The people who really feel the spirituality of it are those who've come close to death, who've come really close to drowning out there."
Bill Missett, the managing editor of the Oceanside Blade-Tribune, knows exactly what Riley's talking about. He considers himself strongly psychic and credits his own near-drowning with bringing the spiritual side of his life into fuller bloom. Missett's epiphany came in August of 1977, when he was bodysurfing off San Quintin, about 125 miles south of Ensenada. He'd been camping there with a lady friend, who was about the only person in sight along the four miles of beach when he entered the eight- to ten-foot surf late on a sparkling morning. He took the rip current out to the largest set of breakers and rode them for an hour before finally being thrashed hard. He found himself exhausted and trapped inside the impact zone, where wave upon wave broke on his head, and he was unable either to swim to the outside or swim back in against the rip. A bubble of panic rose from his belly as the thundering breakers beat him toward surrender. He tried to force down that upwelling of fear, but he was losing. Then, amid the roar of crashing white water, he heard his lady friend's voice calling his name, as if she were within three feet of him. Missett immediately comprehended that she was in some kind of trouble, so he redoubled his efforts to get in. He used his last bit of strength to fight his way outside in order to catch one of the biggest waves that would carry him all the way to shore through the tip. This plan worked, and he came running up the beach to where his friend had been sitting and he frantically tried to find out what had happened, why she'd called out to him. She said she hadn't called out, but sensed he was in trouble and had been worrying about him. And even if she had yelled his name with all her strength, she couldn't have made herself heard over the roaring surf. But MIssett insists he heard her voice call his name very clearly. It saved his life.
Bruce "Smokewurf" Macklin is hep to that, but he felt a strong spiritual bond with the ocean long before his serious accident in the waves last March. It happened off Puerto Escondido in southern Mexico, and Bill Missett was witness to it. The surf had been unusually small for several days at this place, known as the Mexican Pipeline, and sandbars had built up on the bottom. Smokesurf attempted an off-the-lip maneuver in about four feet of water. This technique involves the bodysurfer going straight over with the break, diving under the wave, and doing a kind of somersault underwater, which usually means he surfaces behind the breaker. But when Macklin went over he slammed headfirst into the bottom and fractured two vertebrae in his neck, as well as cracking a rib. He knew something was wrong, his head kind of dangling at a sharp angle over his right shoulder, but he still tried to keep bodysurfing. Only when he got thrashed by the next wave, because he couldn't move so well, did he decide he'd better get to the beach. A couple of hours later the intense pain set in, but it was six days before he was x-rayed at the local clinic. Then he returned to San Diego to have his neck reassembled by a chiropractor. Two months later he was back down in Puerto Escondido riding 25-foot storm surf, for which occasion he had all his body hair shaved off in order to reduce drag.
Smokesurf spends a lot of time down in Puerto Escondido because the waves are good there about 300 days per year. He's signed a contract to buy two acres of land with a small house right on the beach and plans on moving there permanently in about four years, just as soon as he's saved the $90,000 for the transaction. He's planning on running a bike shop in the small village, which fellow bodysurfer John O'Neil says is so laid back the dogs don't even get up out of the road when a car passes by.
Late last February, before Smokesurf arrived at Puerto Escondido from his bodysurfing travels through Peru and Ecuador (he may be the only person known to have bodysurfed the ancient and sacred waters of Lake Titicaca, high in the Andes), Bill Missett, John O'Neil, and Grant Leone were in the little hamlet whiling away the surfless hours. Leone, whose home break is Cassidy Street in Oceanside, and O'Neil, who surfs off the Tia Juana slough in Imperial Beach, are both highly competitive bodysurfers who like to enter — and win — bodysurfing contests. They took a bus as far north as Acapulco looking for waves. Nothing. Meanwhile, word filtered down that the winter storms in San Diego were creating 15-foot breakers. After two weeks of nothing but ripples, O'Neil was, as they say, extremely wave horny. He flew back home and that same day jumped into the hulking surge off the end of the Imperial Beach Pier. There was no one else in the water, and when he took off down the steep gray waves, he was eyeball-to-eyeball with astonished onlookers standing on the pier, the end of which was torn off later that evening by the raging surf.
While the last winter's storms were chasing most board surfers out of the water, a few stalwarts like O'Neil were in their glory. On four or five separate occasions the big ones started breaking over what's known as Mystery Reef, about three quarters of a mile offshore from the Tia Juana slough. It takes O'Neil and his sidekick Rod Pierce about 45 minutes to swim out to that break. When that one isn't working, there's usually a fine shore break at the slough, and when the Mexican sewage makes it impossible to swim there, they move up to the surf off the northernmost end of Coronado, at the edge of the air base.
O'Neil has an ideal job for year-round bodysurfing. From his Border Patrol mechanic's shop on the crest of a hill in San Ysidro, he can see the slough and tell whether or not a swell is lumbering in. He has an understanding boss, and when he takes off in the middle of the day to swim for the big surf, he's allowed to write it off as vacation time. When it's good, he's in the water by 5:00 a.m. after eating a banana to stave off cramps and provide fuel. He and Pierce are always alone at this hour. but as the sun comes over the horizon, the area fills with board surfers, and O'Neil says it get competitive. The board surfers have caused him to change his style so that he catches waves long before they grow steep and start sucking water. (Generally, the first person on a wave has the right-of-way.) It's a remarkable sight to see him move into a wave that's a mere low swell and board surfers are constantly amazed to find him behind them yelling, Gangway! as they start to paddle on an approaching roller. Disputes aren't uncommon. "I don't punch out board surfers anymore," he deadpans. "I just break off their skegs."
The contest has reached the point where every year someone astounds the judges with a brand-new move. Seven years ago, when the half dozen California contests were just starting to become popular, basic maneuvers such as spinners (when the bodysurfer performs a 360-degree spin) and underwater takeoffs were considered highly advanced. Over the years those moves have been refined and embellished by people like Leone until they became part of increasingly complex routines, such as Leone's Puerto Porpoise. He introduced this maneuver at last year's Oceanside contest. It consists of an underwater takeoff, but instead of popping out of submersion onto the face of the wave, he pops out just behind the lip as it comes over. He immediately does a butterfly stroke and comes over the falls, performing what's known as a re-entry in front of the break. He again catches the wave underwater, and starts spinning as he breaks the surface, moving laterally ahead of the curl. When he performs it perfectly, it resembles a series of dance movements.
Leone, who works as a tree planter in Canada for three months out of the year, calls bodysurfing his "ecological niche." His long-term plans are to make some money as a professional bodysurfer; he's already competed in two professional bodysurfing contests in Hawaii — both by invitation only. And though the West Coast has yet to organize a professional contest, it's only a matter of time, as far as Leone is concerned. "I've thought for a long time that eventually this sport will go professional in a big way," he says. "I want a sponsor. I want that.' By winning his age division and the grand championship at Oceanside, Leone reasons that he'll then have enough credentials to approach potential sponsors such as Sunkist, AMF Voit (which makes swim fins), and Stubbies, OP, Hang Ten, or other beachwear manufacturers. "I need it," he says of the Oceanside contest. "I have to win it."
Twenty or so Hawaiians have already earned money as bodysurfers, and about that many Californians stand ready to do the same here on the West Coast. The islands' first professional contest was held at the notorious Banzai Pipeline in December of 1980. Sixteen Hawaiians competed along with eight Californians, among them Grant Leone, "Freeway" Dave Freeman from Boomer, and Mike Cunningham of Manhattan Beach's Gillis Beach Bodysurfing Association. Only Cunningham made it out of the preliminary heats, and he eventually took second overall behind Hawaii's Mark Cunningham (no relation), who some consider to be the absolute best bodysurfer in the world. Manhattan beach's Cunningham, who works as a lifeguard, won $700, and his performance is still talked about by both Hawaiians and Californians. Bob Thomas, president of the Honolulu Bodysurfing Club, was chief judge at that contest, and he says, "Us seeing Mike Cunningham's underwater takeoff was amazing. It was a breakthrough for the Hawaiians." Previously, the Hawaiian and Californian bodysurfing styles were distinct and separate. The islanders, blessed with consistently big waves, prize long, fast rides, whereas the Californians have a more improvisational, trick-laden style. Cunningham's underwater takeoff, in which he was a silhouetted in the clear water for several seconds before popping out onto the steep face, introduced a new dimension to Hawaiian bodysurfing, and now the islanders have adopted elements of the flashy California style. This was evident in the 1983 pro invitational contest at the Pipeline.
That event, which took place last January, still sticks in Grant Leone's throat. Again eight Californians were invited to compete, including Leone, Mike Cunningham, and Bruce "Smokesurf" Macklin. Smokesurf declined, preferring to spend his money (the competitors had to pay their own way) on the trip to Peru, Ecuador, and Puerto Escondido. This year's contest wasn't such a showdown between the Hawaiians' big-wave bravado and the Californians' flash and dash, but there was still an obvious difference between the two styles. Using his usual repertoire of graceful spinners, underwater takeoffs, and unnamed tricks, Leone finished first in his preliminary and semifinal heats. Mike Cunningham didn't make it to the finals, where Leone finished a disappointing sixth. He affects a stiff upper lip by saying, "Obviously, I didn't do what the judges wanted to see," but he also believes he performed better than sixth best. He thinks the judges may have been influenced by the mumblings, through another bodysurfer, of Hawaii's Mark Cunningham, who's won every contest he ever entered. Cunningham is a powerful figure in the islands, and he is said to have complained about the favorable judging of the Californians' tricks after Leone's preliminary heat. Leone was leaving the ten-foot breakers to the Hawaiians and was riding the six-footers alone, dazzling the crowd and judges with his fancy-pats California style, But after Cunningham's alleged bitching about cheap tricks on small waves, Leone didn't fare so well in the final judgment.
The West Coast bodysurfers may soon have a chance to turn the tables on the Hawaiians. The venerable Fred Simpson, manufacturer of Viper Fins, which sponsored this year's pro contest in Hawaii, says he's probably going to organize a pro contest next summer at the Wedge in Newport Beach. When that happens, then California will follow the same route that Hawaii did after the 1980 pro contest at the Pipeline: those who surfed for money would no longer be allowed to compete against amateurs, so each of the four Hawaii bodysurfing contests instituted a pro division. If Simpson goes through with it, then the world championships in Oceanside will be forced to accommodate pros, and West Coast bodysurfing will be transformed.
But then again, veteran bodysurfers know that the sport has resisted earlier efforts at transformation in California. That was the whole point behind the formation of the Pacific Bodysurfing Association (PBSA) in 1978. Bill Missett, perhaps the most adept organizer in the sport, got together 52 of California's best bodysurfers in November of that year, some from as far away as Santa Barbara. "Everybody wanted more competition, standardized rules and regulations for contests, and generally more consistency of competition," relates Missett, who was elected the first president of the PBSA. "Professionalizing was down the road five years." Of course, PBSA is now five years old, and the specter of pro divisions is about to overtake the sport. But it's not happening the way it was originally planned.
The founding members of the association formed a board of directors, elected officers, and created committees. Even a newsletter, called B.S., was established, written, and circulated to an eventual 350 members by Bill Missett. The talk was heady, but ultimately it was cheap. It turned out that Missett and a small handful of others were the only ones to put out any real effort toward the association's goals, and he resigned the presidency in 1981. He continued to produce the newsletter, which is about the only sign of life left in the PBSA, until last winter, when it was taken over by Ron Erickson of the Gillis Beach club in Manhattan Beach.
The PBSA still exists, but its original big plans have been humbled. Attendance at its annual meetings dwindled so low that the last one, in January, drew only six people, not even enough for a quorum. The association has helped to improve the sport in some ways, but it also may have inadvertantly helped to divide it. Basic contest guidelines were written, and the newsletter has had a galvanizing effect. And at least two contests — one in Pacific Beach and one in Ventura — were created through the auspices of the PBSA. It was an accomplishment for the organization when the Kransco Corporation, which owns Morey Boogie and Churchill Fins, agreed to sponsor these new contests. But those contests have merely proved that bodysurfing's natural aversion to that bugaboo commercialism is not misplaced.
Kransco requires that all contestants wear Churchill Fins, the turquoise-and-yellow jobs that many bodysurfers call "floppy noodles." This crass commercialism incensed most of the members of the association, and its board of directors called for a membership boycott of the Kransco contests, of which there are three. "About 90 percent of the best competitors resent what Churchill did," says Virginia Cartwright, one of the top female bodysurfers on the West Coast. "It's brought the sport down in numbers and quality of competition in the contests, and I think it really hurt the association." Suddenly, instead of having six West Coast contests at which to fraternize, members of the PBSA now really only have three, and the competitors have splintered into two camps: those who support the association and those who just want to enter contests and have fun, no matter what kind of fin they have to wear. And everybody else is laughing in their soup, saying they told you so — organization begets commercialization, which begets politics, which has nothing to do with the essence of bodysurfing: those roaring orange tubes.
Two weeks ago the Oceanside World Bodysurfing Championships attracted the largest congregation of bodysurfing talent one is ever likely to see. Unfortunately, the good waves to match all the talent were nowhere near Oceanside. If it weren't for the contest, none of the 400 contestants would have deigned to enter such feeble surf. But the show went on.
There was Mike Cunningham, moving as smoothly as a dolphin through the low swells and performing his patented triple re-entry, in which he begins with an underwater takeoff, pops out onto the sloping face of the surface, pops back out, and slides back under again. Not to be outdone was Grant Leone, whose new move this year entailed an underwater takeoff combined with an underwater spinner that had him moving toward the break as hit the surface. Then, like a whirling gymnast, he performed a twisting spinner that reversed his direction in a kind of figure eight and brought him into the standard position ahead of the break.
Smokesurf Macklin, scoffing at the "surf," didn't get enough good rides to advance to the finals. Larry Bye, as energetic and quick in the water as a teenager, demonstrated the wisdom of decades of experience by consistently finding the perfect position to take off into the break. His great timing and strength gave him the best tube rides of his division. john O'Neil continuously caught waves long before they matured into peaks, thrilling the spectators and judges each time he sliced across a round swell. Virginia Cartwright, holding her position high up under the curl, performed lightning-quick spinners that looked remarkably like pirouettes, her arms and hands held in delicate curves arcing out from her body. When it was all over, Larry Bye's aggressive strength had beaten John O'Neil's shrewd finesse. Mike Cunningham's graceful power had defeated Grant Leone's flashy dancing, and there was no contest for Virginia Cartwright. In the grand finale, which pitted together the champions from each age division, Cartwright's elegance won out over all. She became the first woman in the seven-year history of the world championships to win the coveted title of grand champion. No media outside of Oceanside took notice, and many bodysurfers believe it's better that way.