Return of a Classic: The Cold Water, a longtime Santa Cruz surf tradition, is back from a seven-year slumber

Crowds have traditionally lined the cliff — and even packed bleachers — for the Cold Water Classic at Steamer Lane.
(Via World Surf League / Rowland)

O’Neill and the World Surf League are dusting off the cobwebs on one of surfing’s top contest venues, Steamer Lane. For many years Santa Cruz was a regular stop for surfing’s elite-level competition, and it built a reputation as the quintessential surfing amphitheater.

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Before the Santa Cruz Warriors became the marquee pro sports attraction in town, there was the Cold Water Classic. And the star power was provided by Steamer Lane, known worldwide for its exquisite combination of brawn and beauty.

The Lane’s world-class gladiator pit hasn’t hosted the best surfers in the world often since the Sea Dubs arrived a decade ago — twice, to be exact — but the memories of big moments turned in by local stars, young and old, and international heroes have been seared into the minds of many around this salt-encrusted town.

The names Tom Curren, Martin Potter and Joel Parkinson — all world champions in the sport Hawaiian princes brought to the San Lorenzo rivermouth in 1885 — are etched next to local legends Chris Gallagher, Peter Mel and Adam Replogle in Cold Water lore.

For the first time since 2015, new memories will be made next month. The World Surf League (WSL) and longtime event sponsor O’Neill are bringing the festivities back to West Cliff Drive from Nov. 15-19.

“It’s pretty epic to have the Cold Water Classic back after all these years,” said the biggest of local legends to win the Cold Water, Nat Young. “It’s been such a big part of the surf culture up here in Santa Cruz. The Lane is just such an amphitheater of a wave. You look back and the whole cliff is just lined with people, and you can hear all of them out there while you’re in the water.”

Steamer Lane's setting is among the world's most iconic, especially for a contest.
(Via World Surf League / Prefontaine)

Young is Santa Cruz’s most accomplished pro surfer ever, and he won the event back in 2008 when he was only 17. He was hoisted up the stairs at the Lane on the shoulders of his idols, setting him on a path toward surfing’s top echelon of the WSL, a feat only two other Santa Cruzans had ever accomplished.

It’s a sweet return to Steamer Lane for Young, long dubbed the “Pride of the Westside,” especially after his successful, and emotional, comeback to the sport’s elite level a year ago.

Since the contest is a lower-level qualifying event for the WSL, it will attract a field of mostly up-and-comers looking to advance their dreams to the level of Young. John Mel and Sam Coffey are two locals with genetic pedigrees who will be looking to capitalize on the familiar surroundings.

But Young will be joined by at least two other top-level Californians who have committed to the contest: Kolohe Andino and Griffin Colapinto.

“Along with the event history, the waves at the Lane are so good and fun to surf that everyone wants to do this event,” said Santa Cruz pro Shaun Burns, who is also O’Neill Wetsuits team and events manager.

Nat Young throwing bucks of water on his way to a fifth-place finish at Margaret River, Australia, in May.
(Matt Dunbar/World Surf League)

The contest will include a women’s bracket, no insignificant detail given the heat O’Neill took a year ago when it reintroduced a favorite local contest with an unequal distribution of prize money and contest slots. Autumn Hays and Keanna Miller are two locals primed for success at the Lane.

Though its regularity and level of competition ebbed and flowed since its debut in 1987, there was a time in the late 1980s and early ‘90s when the natural arena setting formed by Steamer Lane and Lighthouse Point formed a steady, iconic presence in the world of pro surfing. And champions like Curren and Potter were akin to the likes of Kelly Slater and John-John Florence in today’s pro surfing landscape.

Fans lined the cliff at the 2012 Cold Water Classic.
(Via World Surf League / Prefontaine)

Whlle the Cold Water’s seven-year absence has been notable, Burns says the return marks a big moment for both Santa Cruz surfing and the spirit of wetsuit pioneer Jack O’Neill.

“I think O’Neill wanted to get back to its roots and bring back a historic event that is classic to the company and the community of Santa Cruz,” he said.

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