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Turf battle heats up over Surf City name
Santa Cruz was annoyed to hear that Huntington Beach claimed the label, but `real surfers don't care' what their favorite spot is called

By Kimi Yoshino Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times
Published February 10, 2005

California - Surfers don't really care what nickname you give their city. Just give them good waves, room to move and a couple of exhilarating hours of freedom.

But to the business-suit crowd, reputation is everything. And so for 15 years two California beach towns have been kicking sand at each other, both claiming the boasting rights of being the true Surf City.

In Huntington Beach, tourism officials struck first, in November, by getting the trademark "Surf City, USA." That pinched a nerve up north in Santa Cruz, which this month directed its city attorney to seek a federal trademark of its own. "Original Surf City, USA" sounded good.

Deciding who really deserves the title is like trying to broker a peace agreement between the Dodgers and the Giants, the conservatives and the liberals.

Arguably, each city can claim a piece of surf glory. Each is on the ocean, and each has deep roots in the sport.

But that's about where the similarities end.

In Huntington Beach, surfers stroll across a wide, sandy beach, paddle out and catch waves breaking off a sandbar. In Santa Cruz, they leap off a rocky cliff into the frigid water, ride ridiculously long waves, hoist their boards up a few flights of concrete stairs and trek half a mile back to do it all over again.

Sexy vs. serious

In Huntington Beach, surfers all seem trim and sun-kissed, so alluring that trendy clothier Abercrombie & Fitch has a camera piping live video from the pier into its stores. Santa Cruz surfers embrace the motto "Keep Santa Cruz Weird" and pride themselves on hitting the beach without stopping to look in the mirror.

There is one other major difference. For Huntington Beach, the moniker is about more than bragging rights; it's about money. The "Surf City, USA" trademark--approved by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a $335 filing fee--is part of a marketing effort to sell the city along the increasingly lavish Orange County coastline.

With a fancy new Hyatt and 500 more hotel rooms on the drawing board, the city's ambitions are to mature from "a sleepy beachfront community to a world-class overnight resort," said Doug Traub, director of the visitors bureau.

That couldn't contrast more with slow-growing Santa Cruz, a city that circled itself with a greenbelt to knock out suburban sprawl. Indeed, the gritty surfers exaggerate the risk of their shark-infested, icy waters just to scare away outsiders.

Still, word of Huntington Beach's trademark traveled up the coast, where Santa Cruz Mayor Mike Rotkin said he fielded about 30 calls from disgruntled residents.

So Rotkin invited the "wimps" of Huntington Beach to a surf-off. He went on local television, singing his own rendition of Jan and Dean's famous "Surf City:"

"You think your pier compares to Steamers'

(Surf City's Santa Cruz)

Just give it up and go drive your Beemers.

(Surf City's Santa Cruz)."

The officials down south just smile, gleefully slapping "Surf City, USA" all over their tourist brochures and adding a warning note on their Web site to anyone who dares tread on their trademark.

Even Dean Torrence, of Jan and Dean fame, got in on the act. When the duo wrote their famous anthem "Surf City," which topped the Billboard charts in 1963, "none of us," he said, "had Santa Cruz in mind."

Torrence lives in Huntington Beach and spent many of his teenage years surfing in the city. "I'm flattered that [Santa Cruz] is so uptight about it," he said.

Neither city was actually mentioned as that fantasy land where there are "two girls for every boy," though both are mentioned in Beach Boys songs: Huntington Beach in "Surfin' Safari" and Santa Cruz in "Surfin' USA."

"Real surfers don't care," said Santa Cruz surfer Brian MacDonald, a 46-year-old retired dot-commer. "Or, if anything, they don't want the name Surf City because it sounds kind of cheesy."

Still, Santa Cruz boosters are proud of what they have.

"We've got more surf around here than they have in their little thumb," boasted Harry Mayo, 81, a retired firefighter and one of the original members of the Santa Cruz Surfing Club.

Indeed, Santa Cruz's Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point are considered world-class surf sites, where up-and-coming pros cut their teeth before packing their boards for Hawaii. They also claim proximity to Maverick's, about an hour north in Half Moon Bay, a big-wave spot referred to by as "one of the seven natural wonders of the world."

The northern surfers include old-timers, teenagers and wealthy, middle-aged imports from the Silicon Valley.

Surfing lore

The locals are schooled in Santa Cruz surfing lore, tidbits they may have picked up at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, where guys such as Mayo gather on Friday afternoons to spin yarns about their surfing days before World War II.

Just about any surfer can spout the story of how surfing came to town.

"It was a couple of Hawaiian princes surfing at the Rivermouth in the 1800s," said Dave Gardner, 34, a teacher-artist-vegetable peddler. "They weren't even drilling for oil in Huntington Beach yet."

And they idolize local legend Jack O'Neill, inventor of the modern wetsuit. Never mind that he's just as much a part of the Huntington Beach surf scene as he is in the north.

In Huntington, he has a star on the Surfing Walk of Fame on Main Street, across the street from the statue of legendary Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku and the Surfing Hall of Fame. And the O'Neill logo is plastered over the oceanfront windows of the surfboard shops that overlook Huntington Beach's pier.

Competitive surfing

Then again, just about every major surf brand--including Quiksilver, Billabong and Hurley--is represented in Huntington Beach. Competitive surfing is also at home in Huntington Beach, which has 35 to 40 competitions a year, including the headlining U.S. Open of Surfing.

"What do they have in Santa Cruz' The Cold Water Classic'" mocked Randy Hollowell, 19, of Huntington Beach. "And that got canceled last time because they didn't have any waves."

Millions of Americans have known of Huntington Beach's waves for decades, with its surfing contests legitimized by ABC's "Wide World of Sports." The city was the host of the first U.S. Surfing Championship in 1959, two years before anybody had heard of the Beach Boys.

Year-round, the water and air are so much warmer in Huntington Beach that Steve Pezman, publisher of the Surfer's Journal, says a Santa Cruz surfer who hit the waves in Huntington "would think he'd died and gone to Hawaii." The waves, though smaller, are more consistent year-round.

Some don't understand the civic competition.

"It's kind of a non-event as far as the surfing community is concerned," Pezman said. "Culturally, both places have earned a piece of the title. Both places have solid credentials. I wouldn't rate one over the other."

And for some folks, it's just a matter of perspective.

"Surf City' Yeah, I've heard of it," said Santa Cruz visitor Albert Vasallo, who lives in Miami. "I think it's up in Hollywood ... Hollywood Beach, Florida."