‘Firing’ waves grace Cold Water’s return: Six good reasons to train your eyes on Steamer Lane this week

Nat Young's preparation for the Cold Water was greeted by solid new swell on Monday at Steamer Lane.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The Cold Water Classic gets the reboot along West Cliff Drive on Tuesday after a seven-year respite. In the limelight will be one of the crown jewels of Santa Cruz’s rich surfing resources: Steamer Lane. Also: solid surf, local talent, a women’s division and hope for a sustainable CWC future. Oh, yeah, and a beer garden.

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If Monday’s ocean conditions were any indication, Mother Nature wholeheartedly approves of the Cold Water Classic’s return to Steamer Lane — the backdrop for many dramatic competitive surfing moments over the years.

“It’s firing,” competitor and event organizer Shaun Burns said after emerging from a morning warmup session at the Lane. “I was out there next to Griffin Colapinto, who’s like No. 7 in the world. A lot of these guys didn’t have to come to town and do this event but they came because it’s prestigious and they want to put their name on that trophy.”

The whole week looks promising in terms of waves and weather as an event that used to be a Santa Cruz staple — and one that tied Surf City to the world of high-level pro surfing — returns for the first time in seven years.

It’s back largely because primary event sponsor O’Neill Wetsuits decided to spend on the gathering and use it as part of its 70th-anniversary celebration. The costs to put on a five-day contest are in the six figures, even for an event like this year’s, which has relatively low prize money and tour qualifying points on the line.

Crowds have traditionally lined the cliff — and even packed bleachers — for the Cold Water Classic at Steamer Lane.


Need to know

WHEN/WHERE: Tuesday through Saturday, 7 a.m. start each day at Steamer Lane.
ADMISSION/PARKING: Free. Parking at the lots and around the Westside neighborhood.
WEBCAST: Live each day at WorldSurfLeague.com. Hosted by Peter Mel and Adam Replogle.
ETC.: Beer garden Thursday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to the end of competition. $10 donation goes to Save the Waves.

One of those who helped push the idea through was Burns, a longtime O’Neill team rider who grew up with memories of watching and competing in his hometown event.

As an ambassador for the area’s World Surfing Reserve status — Santa Cruz is one of just 11 areas worldwide to earn that designation from the environmental group Save The Waves — has helped bridge the gap between the region’s biggest surf company and a city that prides itself on the natural resources of Steamer Lane.

“I just told them how stoked this surf community would be to have it back. It just makes sense for them to go back to their roots right here and it’s such a good look for O’Neill,” Burns said. “I mean, their brand started here in Santa Cruz, where we have world-class waves. We should showcase them.”

Surfer Shaun Burns in action
Shaun Burns watches the action Monday as contest setup gets finished.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

J.J. O’Neill — or Jack Jr. — is the youngest of seven children wetsuit pioneer Jack O’Neill brought into the world. The man with the iconic eye patch, who lived out his days at his green cliffside house near 38th Avenue along Pleasure Point, died at age 94 in 2017.

Jack Jr., 36, recently became the company’s creative director and has been working with Burns to organize the contest.

The familiar tents and scaffolding, those that help focus the attention below on one of the sport’s great natural venues, popped up along West Cliff Drive the past few days. Since it’s a smaller relaunch to this event in terms of prize money and prestige, there won’t be the giant bleachers as there have been in past years that really take the Lane to next level in terms of spectating.

But there will be plenty of good views to be found along the railing all week and into what is scheduled to be finals day on Saturday if the surf cooperates. There are plenty of reasons to think this could mark a memorable return to Steamer Lane for the Cold Water.

Here are six of them:

The surf looks cooperative

Steamer Lane is at its best when the top surfers in the world aren’t trying to grovel their way into scoring rides. The Lane is a powerful, shapely, sometimes quirky, wave — the quirks largely attributable to the reverberation provided by the cliff it wraps around.

It needs a powerful northwest swell to do its thing properly this time of year. And the one that began filling in on Monday, giving surfers from near and far a great warmup opportunity in 5- to 7-foot conditions, will do the trick for opening rounds.

Later in the week, another blast should pick things back up for what organizers and surfers both hope will be a memorable finish.

“We’ll be watching the buoys close and hoping there’s enough swell to get us into the weekend,” O’Neill said.

This outlook for the week from the wave forecasting team at Surfline is the kind that surf contest organizers hope for— except the taper-down Saturday. Which is why the competition could be compressed into four days, with the finals happening Friday.

The week of waves looking solid via Surfline.com
(Via Surfline.com)

Early weather forecasts showed the potential for rain and unfavorable winds — the kind of conditions surf contest organizers dread. Yet somehow it turned into sunny skies, light winds and plenty of swell.

“It’s working out so far,” O’Neill said.

Locals will get to show off

There is a great history of Santa Cruz surfers, who know the peculiarities and moods of Steamer Lane, performing well at the Cold Water Classic.

That could be equally pronounced this year with a well-seasoned Nat Young, fresh off a successful comeback tour on the World Surfing League, defending his home turf. Two of Young’s most memorable competitive surfing moments have come in his backyard.

First, as a 17-year-old amateur in 2008, Young took the victory, surfing past many of his longtime idols and mentors. Then in 2012, in his very first competitive heat at the sport’s highest level, he upset 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, helping derail any chance of Slater, close on Joel Parkinson’s heels, claiming a 12th.

Along with Young and Burns, who are good friends and now grizzled veterans, will be two younger, up-and-coming locals in Sam Coffey and John Mel. A locals heat early Tuesday morning will add more Santa Cruz surfers to that mix, with Bud Freitas, Ben Coffey, James Daniel and Sander Nauenberg.

As for local favorites?

“I’d say myself and Nat,” Burns said boldly. “Hey, if you’re gonna bet, why not bet on yourself, right?”

The crop of outsiders has some names

Besides Colapinto, who finished No. 7 on the World Championship Tour, the top non-local at the Lane this week will be Kolohe Andino, who finished 22nd on tour and was on the inaugural Olympic surfing team in Tokyo.

Former tour surfers Brett Simpson and Torrey Meister also add a little star power to an otherwise scrappy field of youngsters trying to earn enough points in World Qualifying Tour events like this one so that they can work their way up to the WCT, which hosts events at some of the marquee waves around the world.

It’s always interesting to watch surfers unaccustomed to the Lane’s moods and the cold water struggle to figure it out. Case in point was the opening-round heat in 2012 that pitted Slater and Andino against Young. While Young found the waves with the most point-scoring potential and milked them to their fullest, Slater was left scratching his head.

“I’m so frustrated out here,” he said afterward. “I can”t get any waves.”

The women will get their due

Briefly over a history that spans back to the late 1980s, there have been appearances by women at the top Steamer Lane events. But this marks a historic flip of the switch for female competitors getting equal billing — and a good moment for O’Neill to make people forget about last year’s inequitable faux pas at another event the company sponsors.

Last October, O’Neill Wetsuits rolled out signups for a local contest in which the men’s prize purse was $10,000 and the women’s $1,000. When the heat came from multiple directions, the company reversed course and decided to split the purse evenly — more in line with modern contest parameters since the WSL adopted even prize purses in 2018.

“I appreciate that the movement of change is happening for women in surfing, and support O’Neill in taking this opportunity to continue to make the changes that are right for their community,” Eastside surfer and shaper Ashley Lloyd said at the time.

The Cold Water prize money? Ten thousand dollars split evenly between the men and women.

Santa Cruz talent runs deep on the qualifying series and Autumn Hays, Esme Brigham and Keanna Miller will all be trying to school the competition in their backyard. Eastsider Ashley Held got a sponsor’s wild card, and a number of talented youngsters will be trying to earn the local wild card spot on Tuesday morning.

“I’m so excited it’s back and the women’s event is on,” said Miller. “My mom competed in this event back in the day so I’m really excited to try and follow in her footsteps and make a final. Our community here in Santa Cruz is awesome and I have a picture of me at one of the Cold Water events when I was really young so I can’t wait to finally get to surf in it.”

Hays has similar recollections: “I remember being in middle school and watching all of my idols surf my home break. I’m so excited to have Cold Water Classic back on the schedule.”

This could be the return that lasts

J.J. O’Neill said the family-run company of 40-some employees has talked about this being a new beginning that puts the Cold Water Classic back into an annual rotation it last held from the late 1990s into the early 2000s.

It takes financial partners, he said, and the City of Santa Cruz joined in this year, along with the Kona Brewing Company.

“We’ve been talking about wanting to make it a bigger event next year,” he said. “We’ve been working on getting local sponsors to jump in there and help us. Santa Cruz was stoked to be a part of it. It helps promote getting people into town and local businesses.”

Burns points to other contest locations less known for their natural surfing resources that get sponsorship from the local visitors bureau and even big companies like Dignity Health. While it might take those developments to grow the Cold Water into something big again, this reboot has mostly been about O’Neill deciding to do it.

“Mostly this is O’Neill giving the opportunity to everyone,” he said.

Santa Cruz Parks & Recreation Director Tony Elliot calls the Cold Water Classic a “big deal” and says its future is something the city feels strongly about.

“Surfing is a core part of the Santa Cruz identity,” he said. “It’s a special and historic form of recreation in Santa Cruz and worthy of celebrating through competitions like the Cold Water Classic. Seeing the return of it is a testament the collaboration with O’Neill, the WSL, and most importantly the local surfing community and its dedicated ambassadors.”

Did we mention the beer garden?

Kona and West Peak are sponsoring a beer garden Thursday-Saturday from 11 a.m. until the contest ends. A $10 entry fee is good for two beers (the most the city will allow per person) and all proceeds will go to Santa Cruz-based Save The Waves.

“There will be a tent right at the top of the stairs,” Burns said. “With all the money going straight to Save The Waves, we’re pretty stoked about that.”

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