SEASIDE PARK - Pete Machotka has waited a long time to surf in the Garden State Grudge Match.
On Tuesday, the 21-year-old from the Manahawkin section of Stafford Township secured a spot by making the finals of the Grudge Match Qualifier. Machotka took fourth place among 32 surfers.
"I've competed in the qualifier six years and I've never made the Grudge Match," said Machotka, a Harvey Cedars lifeguard. "I guess all the swimming and running and getting used to hot days in the sun had something to do with it. But it's been my all-time goal in life to win a Grudge Match. I've always thought it was the most prestigious event in New Jersey."
Surfing mostly on his backhand, Machotka put together big moves all day, even beating out perennial main-event threat Clay Pollioni of Ortley Beach in Dover Township.
Machotka has competed in local Eastern Surfing Association and National Scholastic Surfing Association events since he was 13. In 2009, he was the highest-ranked New Jersey junior by the Association of Surfing Professionals North America. He is entering his senior year at Richard Stockton College, where he is working on an accounting degree.
The four finalists of this qualifying event all get slots into the Grudge Match main event, held each October at Casino Pier in Seaside Heights.
The Pier has long been a venue for New Jersey's most competitive events, from the 1967 Atlantic State's Contest to part of the ASP Tour in 1988 to the Grudge Match, which has run every fall since 2002.
South Jersey surfers such as Kevin Richards, Rob and Chris Kelly, Jamie Moran, Randy Townsend, Josh Wilson, Sean Santiago, John Barrie and Dean Randazzo all have spots secured based on their performance in the main event last year, which was won by Margate's Zach Humphreys.
The overall winner of Tuesday's qualifier was P.J. Raia, 17, of Rumson. Raia missed the main event last year because of another commitment in California, which meant he had to qualify again this year.
"I was bummed to miss it last year, but now I can't wait for the main event. I remember being younger and just watching the guys and wanting so badly to be there," said Raia, who is home-schooled while pursuing a surfing career.
Raia amassed 12.5 points out of 20 for a convincing victory over Point Pleasant's Dalton Johnson, 24, who finished second with 8 points in the final. Taking third place and looking in form all day was Tommy Ihnken of Howell.
Event director Rob Cloupe, the Northeast sales rep for Grudge Match sponsor Smith Optics, originally had planned to take advantage of the precursor swell from Hurricane Irene last Friday. But too many surfers and judges were evacuating or boarding up their homes.
That meant holding the contest in less favorable conditions Tuesday. At 2-4 feet, the size of the swell wasn't much of an issue, but the onshore winds created very difficult conditions. The first round had decent surf, with light northeast winds, but as the wind came east and the tide dropped out for the final, there was very little open face.
Raia found a rare corner in the final to exact three turns in a very short amount of space for a 6.5. He also busted a fins-free turn for a 6 late in the heat.
Among the other locals who looked strong were Colin Gibbs, 28, of Ocean City, and Chris Eaves, 20, of Cape May Court House.
The Grudge Match is an on-call event, meaning that Cloupe picks a three-week period and holds it on the day he thinks will have the best waves in that window, usually deciding only two days in advance. October usually sees one or two very strong storms in the region, and the event thrives on the surf they create.
Raia, Machotka and Ihnken will all compete next in the Fosters Belmar Pro from Sept. 15-18.