SEASIDE HEIGHTS - Hurricane Sandy forced the cancellation of the Smith Optics Grudge Match in 2012. But the invitation-only contest featuring the state's best surfers was back Monday in unruly 4- to 5-foot surf north of Casino Pier.
Lavallette's Sam Hammer, 34, collected his fifth Grudge Match belt in a bitterly fought final with Randy Townsend of Surf City.
The Townsend/Hammer final was a rematch of 2005, that also went to Hammer. Shortly after the opening horn, Hammer broke the ice with a big backside hit and a finishing turn for a 7.0 score (out of a possible 10).
But Townsend answered on the next wave with four clean turns to the inside for a 7.5. As they went wave-for-wave Hammer found a long right, connecting several turns for a 7.8. It proved too much of a hill for Townsend to climb and Hammer took the Grudge Match belt, 14.8 to 14.4.
"I love surfing against Randy in the final," Hammer said, "He's so deserving and he really pushed me every time. It was tough out there. It was really bouncy and you really had to get lucky with your waves."
In 2002, Smith Optics sales rep, Rob Cloupe came up with a man-on-man, winner-take-all, invite-only surf contest featuring only New Jersey-based surfers for an on-call event, meaning it would be announced with a few day notice to ensure the best swell in October. Ten years later, two of the original invitees battled in the final.
The swell was less than ideal. Waves have not been consistent this season, and the storm that lingered over the New Jersey coast for the past six days was the first legitimate swell since the contest's waiting period began.
Unfortunately, the storm never moved north, so while the wind got lighter, it never went offshore for ideal conditions. The morning started out with extremely challenging overhead waves with closeouts at low tide. Conditions improved somewhat as the tide came up, but were tricky through the final.
With former Grudge Match champions Mike Gleason of Long Branch on a trip with his sponsor to Portugal and Dean Randazzo of Somers Point, a no-show, the 24-man field was full of alternates.
That meant the return of 2004 Grudge Match champ Frank Walsh, now an Atlantic City fireman, who surfed into the third round.
Early local highlights included Surf City's Royce Weber laying down a frontside turn that was among the best of the day in round one. Margate's Zach Humphreys, 23, the 2010 Grudge Match Champ, came out of a deep tube as well.
Another South Jersey local to turn heads was Conor Willem of Surf City. In the first round, Willem ousted former semifinalist Jamie Moran and nailed an air-reverse in tough waves. He lost to Tommy Ihnken of Howell by .3 points.
Ocean City's Rob Kelly had a very strong showing. He originally qualified for the Grudge Match at the age of 15 in 2004. Now handling marketing and pro surfing duties for Billabong, Kelly posted a 15-point total in the third round with one of the best performances of the day against Humphreys.
Kelly took off behind the peak on the biggest lefts and surfed with speed and power to defeat Ben Graeff of Longport in the quarterfinals and then lost to Hammer in the semifinal.
"I have some really good boards right now," Kelly said. "And with this storm, Ocean City was about the same size all weekend that Seaside was today. We've been surfing all week at home in similar conditions - myself, my brother, Chris, Jamie Moran, Matt Keenan and Frank Walsh."
But Hammer proved to be too much for Kelly and won a tight semifinal heat.
Townsend, captain of the Harvey Cedars Beach Patrol, is coming off a successful season of lifeguard tournaments and making the final at the Fosters Belmar Pro in September. He downed Ben Graeff in the quarterfinals, but was losing early in the semifinals to Ihnken. But he found speed on a punch left and threw a fins-free reverse for a 7.5 in the final seconds to advance to the final.
One of the most anticipated matchups of the event was semifinal number two, pitting Hammer against 29-year-old Andrew Gesler of Ocean City. Gesler clearly had two of the best turns in the contest, completely laying on his rail frontside. Unfortunately, his waves didn't offer an opportunity for a combination of maneuvers.
On the other hand, Hammer got off several solid turns and found a running right to the beach that he finished in the shorebreak to advance to the final.
"I had the opportunity to land an air after securing what I thought was two good scores and fell off my board at 95 percent completion (incomplete airs do not get full scores.)," Gesler said. "I was hungry this year and I really thought I had it, but it's up to the judges."