BELMAR - The Fosters Belmar Pro, the largest surfing competition in New Jersey, starts today in Monmouth County.
The event, now in its eighth year, is a golden opportunity for New Jersey surfers to compete close to home against some of the best surfers in the country and the world. More than 100 competitors from all over the country and as far away as the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico will compete.
As the sport has grown on the East Coast, fans and beachgoers are more aware of New Jersey pros and support them.
"The crowd in Belmar is rad. Groms (young surfers) run up for autographs and someone is always giving a good-luck shout as you walk down for your heat. It makes you feel good to be competing at home," said Andrew Gesler, 27, of Ocean City.
For Gesler, surfing contests are not his primary way of making money in the sport anymore. He spent the summer working long hours at a surf camp called Pro Surf Lessons that he runs with fellow pro surfer Jamie Moran, 28, also of Ocean City.
Gesler maintained the website for Heritage Surf Shop, took part in events with his new sponsor, California-based apparel company Hurley, and collected video footage.
"I don't enter many contests these days. I mostly focus on freesurfing and film projects, but the Belmar Pro is definitely something I never want to miss," said Gesler this week.
"To have something like that in your backyard is a great opportunity. I give it a go every summer and see what hand I'm dealt."
With surf conditions looking favorable for the start, many local surfers have high hopes against some of the best in the world.
Matt Keenan, 36, of Ocean City, Dean Randazzo, 42, of Somers Point, and Randy Townsend, 32, of Surf City, have all enjoyed success at Belmar in the past. Keenan, 36, made the finals in 2003 and Randazzo in 2004. Randazzo also made the semis in 2009.
Other local surfers to watch are brothers Rob and Chris Kelly of Ocean City, Brad and Jamie Moran, of Ocean City, and Zach Humphreys of Margate.
They will have their hands full with the likes of Cam Richards of South Carolina, Micheal Powell of North Carolina, as well as 2004 winner Bryan Hewitson and 2005 winner Aaron Cormican, both of Florida
The Belmar Pro is a blanket title for four professional events - the Fosters Belmar Pro, the Hannah Womens Pro, the Monster Energy Longboard Pro and the Fins Pro Junior.
While the Pro is a stand-alone contest, the Fins Pro Junior is sanctioned by the Association of Surfing Professionals as a one-star event on the ASP North America Junior circuit.
Surfers under the age of 21 compete for points toward the Junior World Championships, but also to gain experience and a to crack the $5,000 purse.
Several young local surfers have earned seeds in this event from past results. Michael Ciaramella, 17, of Stone Harbor and Ian Bloch, 20, of Margate will go right to round three.
Bloch surfs in heat two and Ciaramella heat three of the round of 48, likely on Friday. They each will also surf the Pro.
"I was actually surfing Monmouth County last week and these little girls came up to me. They said they knew who I was because they had seen an ad for the Belmar Pro. So, Jersey surfers are starting to get their names out there because of this contest," Bloch said.
There could be a lot of attention on the Hannah Womens Pro this year as well. Jamie DeWitt, 28, a native of Beach Haven, now living on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, looks to defend her title against other surfers such as Cassidy McClain, 16, of Ventnor.
The waves today are forecasted to be 3- to 4-foot with offshore winds and clean conditions.
A north wind will make things tricky for Friday, but the surf is predicted to stay up. Saturday shows a slight drop in the swell before it picks up again, with the onshore winds, for the finals on Sunday.