SEASIDE HEIGHTS - New Jersey's best surfers will descend on Casino Pier this morning for the ninth annual Smith Optics Garden State Grudge Match.
The Grudge Match features 32 New Jersey surfers and is not sanctioned by the Association of Surfing Professionals, nor is it part of any overriding tour. This contest, with its once-a-year-qualifier, is a completely unique standalone event. And with a man-on-man format and a winner-take-all $3,500 purse, it favors aggressive surfing and risky maneuvers, translating into one of the most exciting surf contests on the East Coast.
The Grudge Match is held "on call," meaning that starting Oct. 1, Smith Optics Northeast representative Rob Cloupe waits until the biggest and best swell of the month and then makes the call two or three days ahead of time. Competitors have been known to fly back from the West Coast or the South Pacific when the contest is set.
Today's event begins at 8 a.m. on the Sherman Avenue beach.
"The forecast looks pretty good," defending champion Zach Humphreys, 22, of Margate, said Wednesday, "The models are calling for about a 10-foot swell, which should translate to maybe 2-foot overhead. The whole month of October, we haven't had anything epic, so I'm just hoping it all comes together."
The complex low-pressure system that is pulling out to sea today is responsible for creating the biggest swell New Jersey has seen since Hurricane Irene in August. Surfers likely will have 5- to 8-foot waves with south/southwest winds becoming more southwest during the day.
The Seaside Heights coastline faces more easterly than South Jersey's, which means conditions will be more offshore there. While this contest has been held six times on the south side of Casino Pier, it will be held on the north side today, providing extra protection from the structure. Either way, the 20- to 30-knot winds will be a factor.
"Those southwest winds are supposed to blow pretty hard, but the size should hold throughout the day," Humphreys said.
Humphreys first qualified for the Grudge Match in 2004. The next year, at age 15, he upset two-time champion Dean Randazzo.
Humphreys made it back to the semifinals in 2009, and in an epic showdown last year, he took the title from three-time winner Sam Hammer, 31, of Lavallette. The Grudge Match belt has been sitting in Humphrey's room since last October.
The Grudge Match excitement is elevated by the different plots that have unfolded in its history. In the past, young surfers have taken titles from old guards. North Jersey surfers have clashed with South. Ocean City's Kelly brothers, Rob and Chris, have even had to surf against each other.
There is always someone looking to settle a score or avenge a loss. The result often becomes a man-on-man slugfest of heavy moves and dangerous waves.
Humphreys hasn't gotten caught up in trash talk.
"I just have to take it heat by heat. I just want to take that belt home with me again (today)," he said.
Two local pro surfers who will not compete are Ran-dazzo and Andrew Gesler. Randazzo is at the Intern-ational Surfing Association's World Masters Surfing Cham-pionships in El Salvador. He has dominated the early rounds of the Grand Masters competition. He was awarded an 8.5 score for a long barrel at Punta Roca, the highest score of the event.
Gesler, 27, of Ocean City, was preparing for the Grudge Match on Oct. 3 when he destroyed his posterior cruciate ligament and also tore the medial collateral ligament of his right leg, while attempting to land an air. Gesler made the finals in 2003 and 2009 but has never won the belt.
"I knew that I would have to bring my top game to compete this year," Gesler said. "The only way I can win is to catch the biggest waves, the deepest barrels and the most technical maneuvers. This is the worst injury of my career."
Gesler plans to have reconstructive surgery at the new surgical pavilion at Shore Medical Center in Somers Point.
Other surfers to watch are Jamie Moran, 27, of Ocean City, who has made the semifinals in the past and Rob Kelly, 22, who made the quarterfinals of the Vans Pro at the East Coast Surfing Championships this summer.