The most exciting surf contest in history? Yes!
The 1986 Op Pro riots in Surf City, California happened 30 years ago this week and what a wonderful time to be alive. Surfers went crazy! Surfers lost their minds! Or maybe not surfers. Maybe Inland Empirites. Maybe thick necked yokels. Who knows! Whoever they were, the OC Register has a brilliant re-telling written by Laylan Connelly. Pour a cup of Zima and enjoy.
On Aug. 31, 1986, Bill Richardson stood in the Huntington Beach lifeguard headquarters building, gripped a 9 mm handgun, and braced for the worst.
Rioters were surrounding the building, and a few were already inside. Looters seemed ready to destroy a place the lifeguard captain considered a second home.
Outside, police cars were being overturned and set on fire. And the mob was shaking other cars and chanting “one more, one more.” Glass bottles were being thrown; blood was flowing.
Officers temporarily retreated from that stretch of beach, near downtown. They advised the lifeguards to do the same.
But that day, 30 years ago this week, Richardson loaded a gun he’d only used in training.
Then, he came face-to-face with the rioters.
“They met someone crazier than they were,” Richardson recalled recently.
Now 72 and the Chaplin for the Huntington Beach Marine Safety Department, Richardson doesn’t recall being afraid during the biggest riot in the long history of riots near Huntington Pier.
He remembers a different emotion.
“I was pissed.”
BIG HAIR, SMALL BIKINIS
It was the mid 1980s and MTV was still playing music.
Neon was big. So was everybody’s hair. For women, Ocean Pacific ruled the beach with high-on-the-hip, skimpy bikinis.
For anyone who wanted to party hard, Huntington Beach was the place to be.
The Op Pro surf contest was a big deal, too. About 100,000 people turned out to watch the event in 1986.
Ian Cairns, a former pro surfer, ran the contest back then, as well as the series of contests leading up to the event in Huntington Beach. He said the crowds grew bigger that summer. And the parties got rowdier.
“They were bad guys,” Cairns recalled recently. “Like, rock-and-roll crazy, you know.”
What sparked the actual riot remains a point of debate. Some say women and girls in the crowd removed their bathing suit tops, around 2 p.m., and the mostly male crowd reacted. Others say some men were aggressors, attacking some women.
Whatever the cause, witnesses agree that the mob soon was out-of-control.
Cairns remembers standing on scaffolding built over the crowd, watching surfers in the contest out in the water. But as the unrest began, he looked behind him and saw black smoke billowing skyward.
“It just erupted,” Cairns said. “The … massive crowd was burning police cars and tearing doors off (police cars),” Cairns added.
“It was gnarly. It was mayhem.”
Meanwhile, the surf contest wasn’t done.
Surfers Mark Occhilupo and Glen Winton were in the water, finalists competing in the best of three heats. After two heats, Occhilupo should have taken the win, but with the unrest growing Cairns called both surfers to the scaffold to ask them for a favor.
“We have to protect the crowd in the bleachers, the surfers,” he told them. “What do you think about going back in the water?”
Cairns then declared a tie and directed the surfers back into the water for a third heat. He was hoping to buy some time, and that by the time the contest formally ended the rioting would be over.