I achieved my ultimate dream in 1986, when I was hired for the second time as the announcer of the OP Pro Surf Contest in Huntington Beach. What an honor! It was the biggest surf competition in the United States, and all the top pros in the world competed in it. The waves were good, the weather was hot, and the contest cash was plentiful. More than that, this was a raging party taking place during the unofficial last party week of the summer.
It began on Wednesday and concluded Sunday, the day before Labor Day. In addition to calling the surf action in the water, I was broadcasting live remotes on KROQ, telling everybody to come to the beach, party and have fun. MTV (back when they had relevance) was covering the event as well. So were TV news crews, sports reporters and newspapers from around the world. Every day, record crowds descended upon Surf City USA to enjoy the beach and be a part of this massive gathering. Things went smoothly and brilliantly—until Sunday.
Nearly 100,000 people showed up at the south side of the HB Pier on the final day of the OP Pro. After so much media hype, I expected it. And since it was the Sunday before Labor Day, nobody had to work the next day. It was easily the biggest crowd I’d ever seen at the beach, and the weather was really hot. Early that morning, I could tell it would be a big day.
I remember feeling the adrenaline as I was calling the action, making sponsor announcements and getting the crowd fired up Poorman-style. Then, between the quarterfinal and semifinal heats, OP held its annual Bikini Contest. The crowd went wild. Everything pointed to a sensational conclusion to a great week.
Early that afternoon, everything became otherworldly. Out of nowhere, violence engulfed the Surf Contest. A full-scale riot had broken out between hundreds of beachgoers and Huntington Beach police officers. Amazingly, it didn’t interfere with the contest or the thousands of fans watching the finals. The oval formed by the stage and stands close to the ocean served as a natural sound buffer and crowd barrier. We had no idea anything was wrong because we couldn’t hear a thing! I just merrily called the finals as calamity ensued behind us.
We finally heard about the riot from tournament director and “Bronzed Aussie” surf legend Ian “Kanga” Cairns. We could see the billowing smoke from a police car that had been set on fire. Cairns told the competitors what was happening and asked if they could compete in one more heat for safety’s sake, as the crowd would be leaving and walking into a raging disturbance. They complied.
The riot started when some guys walked up to a couple of women getting some sun behind the stands. When one guy pulled a woman’s top down, a nearby Huntington Beach cop tried to apprehend him. Things immediately turned bloody. “The HB cop got his ear split by a bottle,” a veteran of the Santa Ana Police Department who was there told me much later. “He was gushing pretty good. Craziness of it is that the girls didn’t get hit by anything. They somehow weren’t hurt at all.”
From there, it turned into an all-out brawl between beachgoers and HB cops. The beachgoers were armed with bricks, bottles and jagged pieces of concrete they obtained by smashing the beach trash cans. Debris was flying everywhere, and there was a ton of blood and numerous injuries. My cop source told me every police department in the county was dispatched to HB to clear the beach, pier and finally Pacific Coast Highway. Santa Ana PD sent 15 officers, 13 of whom were injured. Though he got out unscathed, my source had the face shield on his helmet smashed by a piece of concrete.
There were numerous one-on-one battles between cops and rioters. Officers cuffed many rioters and just left them on the beach, to be taken into custody later. In the mayhem, press photographer John Lyman was detained.
“A cop came running up to me as I’m showing him my press badge and threw me to the sand,” Lyman said. “He had his knee in my back with my hands behind me, getting ready to cuff me, telling me I was under arrest. All of a sudden, the policeman and I are being showered by broken glass. This guy on the beach had thrown a bottle, and it hit the cop on his riot helmet and shattered all over us. The cop jumps up off me and starts to run after the bottle-throwing rioter. I jump up, grabbed my camera and ran in the other direction.”
With police cars overturned and burning, a few rioters rushed the Huntington Beach lifeguard headquarters. Armed with a shotgun, lifeguard Bill Richardson faced them in the garage. He told them to leave, and when they didn’t, he fired a round into the ceiling. The rioters reacted as if there were a fire drill and split fast.
“It’s a miracle nobody died,” my Santa Ana PD friend said.
Things finally calmed down around dusk.
The craziest thing of all is that I was able to finish calling the finals of the OP Pro and even announce the awards ceremony and present the trophy to Mark Occhilupo. While the crowds in the stands cheered, the insane bedlam raged behind us. Before even attempting to go home, competitors, judges, announcers and contest volunteers waited a few hours for things to die down.
“This is going to set back surfing 10 years,” Cairns told us then. It was more like 30 years; the contest has never been as big since that bloody day (1986 was also the last year the event held a bikini contest). I also haven’t been hired to announce either another OP Pro or a U.S. Open of Surfing event.
In fact, for quite a while, I was persona non grata in Huntington Beach. The police, I was later told, did not want me setting foot in the city. They believed my live remotes on KROQ telling everybody during OP Pro week to “come down to HB and party” had caused the riot.
Hmmm . . . To this very day, the analysis used to reach that conclusion remains a mystery to me.
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