A true hometown event, the Brooks Street Surfing Classic is hailed as the world’s longest-running surf competition.
By Chad Nelsen
It’s Saturday morning at 6 a.m., and Brandy Faber is standing on the overlook above Brooks Street, coffee in hand and eyes fixed on the bubbling reef off shore. The first signs of a south swell are showing, and waves are rebounding off the outside reefs, wedging and reeling across the inside boils that form the legendary left-handed waves. Other surfers ranging from 12 to 60 start to gather, eye the surf and make small talk. There is a palpable sense of anticipation in the air. In between yawns and groggy eyes, the banter revolves around whether the swell is big enough, if the direction is just right so that the waves peel all the way across the reef without closing out, and whether the swell will build and hold through Sunday. Ultimately, Brandy, in conference with other surfers and organizers, ends the suspense and calls it off. There will be no Brooks Street competition today. Several weeks later though, the scene repeats, and this time the waves are bigger, the water more glassy and the direction better. It’s a go. Text messages and phone calls begin waking up surfers around Laguna. Lo and behold, the 50th Annual Brooks Street Surfing Classic is on.
Rolling With the Waves
In this age of high stakes, high dollar surf contests where professional athletes covered in sponsorship logos trek the globe to compete for fame and fortune, the Brooks Street Surfing Classic is unique and has a distinctly Laguna feel to it. Billed as the longest-running surf competition in the world, this low-key event is truly a community touchstone. It’s run through the Laguna Beach city recreation department, and contest participants must reside in Laguna Beach. It’s an event that’s only held if and when the waves are good enough to hold heats on a summer weekend.
The window for the contest opens in early June when the summer’s south swells first wash ashore and continues into late September. During that time a swell that hits on Saturday and will hold strong throughout the weekend is needed, so all the heats can be run. When a good south swell is in the forecast, the buzz begins, but you never know until the call is made that Saturday morning if it’ll be on or not—like most good surfing, it isn’t something that can be scheduled in advance. Once the call is made, local surfers and the recreation department staff move into action, preparing quickly for the next Brooks Street Surfing Classic. Volunteers man the registration tables, the judging booth is set up, and local legends are gathered to judge heats. Heat sheets are built on the fly with best efforts made to create fair matchups, and the organizers know all of the surfers so well that they can avoid clustering all the best surfers in one early heat to ensure the top surfers of every division get a fair shot at the finals.
The contest represents a diverse range of ages and surfing styles. There are short board surfing heats ranging from boys 13 and under to grand masters 50 years and above, including a pro-am division complete with prize money. There are girls’ and women’s heats, longboard heats, and sometimes even body surfing and boogie board heats, as well as a traditional paddleboard race around second reef. It’s not uncommon for competitors to jump into three or more divisions, and a common refrain is, “When else will I get to surf Brooks Street with only three or four other people in the water?”
Honoring Local Greats
Beyond the surfing, the local touches of the contest run deep. The contest is held “in loving memory of Jack Denny,” who was one of Laguna’s classic surf characters. Jack was an intrepid surfer, a character larger than life and an industry maven who created World Jungle—one of the coolest, local surf apparel companies. Jack’s brother Chuck is now a regular participant in the contest. The contest also hands out two awards in honor of the Chambers family, including the Cy Chambers Award to recognize a young surfer who is achieving academic excellence and the Tom Chambers Award to commemorate a surfer who shows creative excellence.
The connection between Laguna’s history as both a surfing and artist community is represented in the designs used on the annual T-shirt. Each year a surfer artist designs the art for the contest. This year Marcel Meade created the design. In years past the art has been done by local surfer-artists, including luminaries such as Wolfgang Bloch, Bill Ogden and Walter Viszolay.
The Brooks Street Surfing Classic has been dubbed the world’s longest-running surf contest; waves permitting, it will celebrate its 50th running this year. It was first run in 1955 and has led to a friendly rivalry with an East Coast competition over which contest is truly the world’s longest running one. The East Coast Surfing Championship, held annually in Virginia Beach, started in the summer of 1961 and is known as the East Coast’s longest-running surf contest. Just this spring, the Bell’s Beach Classic in Australia also celebrated its 50th anniversary and has been run consistently since the spring of 1961. The Brooks Street surf challenge started five years earlier than either, but has also skipped a year five different times due to a lack of quality waves.
When looking over the contest results, which date back to 1955, you’ll find a “who’s who” of surfing past and present. Notable participants include Hobie Alter, Mickey Munoz, Joey Cabell, Bill Hamilton, Tom Morey, Brian Bulkley, Jeff Booth and Alisa Schwarzstein-Cairns to name a few.
Laguna’s Own Surf Legends
Local legend Jeff Booth, who was on the professional surfing tour for nine years and finished as high as third in the world, got his start in the Brooks Street heats in 1981. Jeff recalls, “The Brooks Street contest holds a special place in my heart because it was the first contest I was ever in, and it launched my whole professional surfing career. I can vividly remember my first finals heat. I was surfing on a 5’2” Stussy twin fin with a green and black checkered deck and blue rails. I surfed against Sean Mahoney, Mike McMurray and Coby Julian and won.”
The local legends are too numerous to mention because they’ve all played a role in the lore of the contest. While the history, format and city support provide the structure for the continued success of the contest, it is the local surfers who provide the magic.
Two of Brooks Street’s biggest names both graduated from Laguna Beach High School in 1963 and are both named Ron.
Ron Sizemore, now 66, has been surfing the Brooks Street almost as long as the contest itself. This summer’s contest will be Ron’s 45th Brooks Street. Ron first surfed the contest in 1960 as a 15-year-old kid and recalls getting “aced” that year and not making the finals. But his surfing improved so much over the course of the year that by the following summer it was suggested that Ron “exaggerate” his age and surf with the 18-year-olds. He would go on to win the contest in that age division the following three years. This launched Ron’s professional surfing career, and he went up and down the coast surfing above his age level with remarkable success.
One of Ron’s favorite memories of the contest was in 1963 when they moved it down to Thalia Street because Brooks wasn’t breaking. They had great surf and Ron ended up in a dead even tie with legendary surfer Mickey Munoz. The judges sent them out for an additional half hour heat with no intention of picking a winner, but instead to give these two surfers and the crowd another great session to enjoy.
Ron Lutz, a self-proclaimed “basketball guy,” doesn’t surf but has been an essential figure in the contest for decades. Ron, who recently retired as the senior recreational supervisor for Laguna in 2010 after 40 years, first got involved in the contest in 1970. After getting out of the Army he went to work for the city and was put in charge of the contest. As he puts it, “The city was always supportive of the contest, but we have always run it on a shoe string. The registration money would pay a few of the staff to help organize the contest over the weekend, but it was really the community and the volunteers that make it the special event that it is.” Over the years, Ron became synonymous with the contest and always looked forward to seeing all the surfers each year. “The surfers are a great bunch of guys,” he says. In looking back on his career with the city, Ron recalls, “Of all the things I did for the city, Brooks Street was the most positive event. It was a long and exhausting weekend, and even though it was the most dangerous event I ran—which always made me nervous—I looked forward to it every year.”
Brooks Street has also been a staging ground for Laguna’s top female surfers. Alisa Schwarzstein-Cairns shows up in the contest standings in 1977. Just like Sizemore and Booth, the Brooks Street competition was one of the first contests Alisa surfed in. Today, she credits the friendly but competitive nature and the challenging waves at Brooks Street for the launch of her pro surfing career, which has included the ASP World Tour. One of Alisa’s favorite memories is competing as the only girl in the “super heat,” which was a final heat amongst the winners of all the divisions. Surfing at the peak of her professional career, Alisa won the heat while competing against Jeff Booth, Brian Bulkley and Mark Price.
Today she coaches the Laguna Beach High School girls surf team and hasn’t ruled out joining the contest again in the future.
With the banner hung, registration table buzzing and heat sheets up on the contest board, the judges take their seats and the first heat begins. The water is cleared of surfers warming up and an air horn sounds. Four girls under the age of 18 dawning multicolored jerseys paddle toward the boiling, rocky peak at Brooks Street, and one of the most unique surf contests in the world is underway yet again. As the day passes, surfers of all ages mill about, competing against their best friends, shaking hands and cheering each other on. Heats are run and some are eliminated, others advance and everyone seems to be having a great time; in fact, you’d be hard pressed to find another competition with such camaraderie.
By Sunday evening, a raucous awards event is held where the winners are awarded trophies, goody bags full of surf gear and even cash prizes for the pros. With the weekend coming to a close, bragging rights and even the pecking order in the lineup may be reestablished—and most everyone has a smile on their face.
Photos by Geoff Ragatz
On the 2011 article: One of the oldest surf competitions in the world, the Brooks Street Surfing Classic, started in 1955, is all about community. Bad conditions can keep the Classic from occurring, so here’s hoping for those legendary left-handed waves to hold for a weekend this summer.