Young surfers catch waves at the Surfing America Prime Surf Competition on Monday. The under-18 event was held on the waves off West Cliff Drive. The contest, which features the best young shortboard surfers in the country, ran from Jan. 15 through 17. Photo by Sal Ingram.
Photo by Ryan Tuttle.
Santa Cruz local Willie Eagleton, 16, discusses his semi final heat. Photo by Elizabeth Arakelian.

Colored jerseys dot the water. Jack Johnson plays on the speaker system. The smell of salt hangs in the air.

The Surfing America Prime Series tournament coincided with the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial weekend. The event took place at Steamer Lane, a surf spot on West Cliff Drive. Large tents popped up near the lighthouse to serve the event.

The Prime Series, which is run under the sanctioning body of Surfing America, was founded by Andrea Swayne and Greg Cruse. The invitation-only tournament is where the best amateur surfers in the nation gather to compete for a spot on the national team. The event is run in four-person heats. Boys competed in under-18, under-16 and under-14 groups, and girls in under-18 and under-16 groups.

Swayne, who is also the beach marshal, kept track of the scores at the tournament. Every few minutes, seemingly typical teenagers — in fact the best amateur surfers in the nation — approached Swayne, perched underneath one of the tents. Still dripping wet, they checked their scores and which bracket they had been placed into.

One of the teenagers was bleach blond Willie Eagleton, a 16-year-old who attends Santa Cruz High School. His father, a surfer as well, got him into the sport four years ago, and now Eagleton surfs every day before and after school.

“I started out at Cowell’s and now I surf at the Lane,” Eagleton said, observing the surfers in the ocean through his black Oakleys. “It is unique to be able to surf at all right point breaks.”

Swayne commented on the location as well.

“Santa Cruz is a classic location to run the contest,” she said. “It is a nice way to showcase the talent.”

Cruse, who also serves as director of all aspects of the event, said that it takes a lot of work to put together a tournament like the one at Steamer Lane. Since the event is invitation-only, the majority of the work is figuring out who will be invited to participate, he said.

He also handled sponsorship and advertisement. Not wanting the major energy drink companies marketing to the competing teenagers, he sought out the support of the California Milk Processing Board, and was able to get Got Milk? to sponsor the event.

Swayne said that the group of participants are highly competitive but also good friends.

“Friends on the beach, but not in the water,” Cruse joked.

Cruse and Swayne said the program promotes good sportsmanship and winning or losing with good grace.

Cruse, a surfer of 42 years, has noticed an evolution in the sport as of late, as more money has flowed into the event.

“You used to just go surf and have fun, but now it is being treated like a serious sport,” he said.

He has seen the youth begin to incorporate more intense training, including stretching before surfing and cardio, to stay in shape.

The competitors take surfing extremely seriously, Swayne said.

“They are focused,” she said. “Some even have private coaching. Many competitors are on independent study and are world travelers, going to Australia, Indonesia and Costa Rica.”

Many of the current amateur standouts are from surfing families with a long history of surfing travel.

“It’s addicting,” Cruse said of surfing. “You feel like your gills die out if you don’t get in the water.”

As the sun started to sink and the tournament ended for the day, cars still lined the streets with their windows down and surfboards poking out the back windows.

This is surf culture and as Cruse says, it is as much a sport as it is a lifestyle.