About 150 surfers and thousands of surf fans will head to Belmar in Monmouth County starting today for the biggest professional surfing event in New Jersey - the Foster's Belmar Pro.
Among them are 15 local surfers heading north to compete against a field featuring some of the best surfers in the world.
The Belmar Pro, now in its ninth year, offers five professional divisions with the main event the Men's Pro ending on Sunday. Eighty surfers from the East Coast, West Coast and overseas will compete for a $25,000 purse in the most competitive division. Vince Boulanger of Maryland will try to defend his title.
Last year, locals did not fare particularly well. However, Somers Point's Dean Randazzo made the finals in 2004 and has made several appearances in the semifinals.
At 43, the former Association of Surfing Professionals World Tour surfer and four-time cancer survivor is still a good bet to be in contention on the final day of competition.
This year's heavies include North Carolina's Ben Bourgeois, a former World Tour surfer who won here in 2009, Jeremy Johnston of Florida, who's finished runner-up twice, and Florida's Aaron "Gorkin" Cormican, who won in 2005.
Other local surfers who have made it to the late rounds in recent years include Randy Townsend of Surf City and Matt Keenan of Ocean City. Keenan made the finals in solid surf in 2003 and small waves in 2007.
"I was kind of on the fence about doing it this year," said Keenan, 37, who is now a sales rep for Nike and a new father. "But my wife thought I should do it. It kind of fell at a good time with my work schedule and I like to do any event in New Jersey. It's always a good event."
Look for Ocean City's Chris Kelly, Jamie Moran, Rob Kelly and Andrew Gesler to do well in the early rounds, as well as Zach Humphreys and Ian Bloch of Margate and Ben Graeff of Longport. A few newcomers from Surf City in Royce Weber and Conor Willem have come on strong this year as well.
Keenan and Randazzo will surf in the Masters Pro, a division for surfers 35 and older. Randazzo has already won several Masters titles and in July, he scored a perfect 10 in the International Surfing Association's World Masters Championships against surf legend Sunny Garcia of Hawaii on his way to the semifinals.
For Keenan, it's something entirely new. They are both favorites but will have to contend with Florida's Bryan Hewitson, 36, who won the Belmar Pro in 2004.
A trio of Hawaiian surf legends, Buttons Kaluhiokalani, Reno Abellira and Mark Liddell, all in their 50s, are coming out for the Masters. These three Hawaiians, credited for pioneering progressive surfing during the single-fin surfboard era, last competed in New Jersey in the 1970s.
"I'm excited to come out and bring my family," Kaluhiokalani said. "It will be interesting to see how things have changed there."
The division with the best shot of keeping a title in New Jersey is the Hannah Womens Pro. In 2009 and 2010, Jamie DeWitt, 29, a native of Beach Haven who now lives in Port Orange, Fla., took the title. Last year, Jessica Kwiecinski, 18, of Jackson Township upset DeWitt and a collected group of top national amateurs for the win.
But South Jersey has some talent on the rise. Maddie Peterson, 14, of Wildwood Crest, made the finals of the U.S. Surfing Championships Girls Under-14 division and won the East Coast Girls Surfing Championships in August.
Riding high on momentum this year is Cassidy McClain, 17, of Ventnor. McClain, also a track and cross country standout at Atlantic City High School, has not only owned the girls amateur ranks, but has been winning events in the Junior Men class as well. Most recently, she notched a win at the Belmar Amateur event last weekend, beating several professionals.
"The amateur weekend was really good for my confidence. I feel like I'm really surfing well right now. My goal is to beat some of those Florida girls and make the final this year," McClain said.
Stone Harbor's Michael Ciaramella will compete in the Pro Junior competition.
While local surfers have been reveling in the weeklong swell from Hurricane Leslie, those waves will be gone by the start of the Belmar Pro. There is a waist-high wave forecasted for today, dropping on Friday and picking up for the weekend again with possible groundswell from a new tropical system filling in.
Saturday and Sunday's action will be broadcast online at belmarpro.com.