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Small Waves in Virginia Generate Big Money for the Surf Industry

While some of the world’s best surfers are lining up in Tahiti this weekend, the oldest surf competition in the country supports a huge East Coast fan base.

by Chris Cote
Aug 22 2015, 2:30pm

Courtesy East Beach Photography

The Billabong Tahiti Pro is one of the most spectacular events in the world of professional surfing—epic rides, perilous reefs, and top-ranked pros. The waves at Teahupo'o, which roughly translates to "hole in your head" or "chop off your head," offer some of the greatest barrel rides in the world. They are also some of the most dangerous; since 2002, five surfers have died while attempting to ride this infamous break.

On the opposite side of the world this weekend, surfers in another world-class competition will be riding waves that could hardly topple a toddler. Virginia Beach is a place for lovers, tourists, bikini contests, airbrushed t-shirts, and Orange Crush vodka drinks. It's also home to the longest-running surf event in the continental U.S, the Coastal Edge East Coast Surfing Championships, now in its 53rd year. The competition is a weeklong beach party that draws an international field of professional and junior-professional contestants as well as huge crowds of spectators, in spite of a reputation for lackluster waves. This weekend's waves are forecasted to be one to two feet tall.

"I've been coming here since I was a grom, and it's always refreshing to see the surf stoke on the East Coast," said Pat Gudauskas, a former World Championship Tour competitor and 2013 ECSC champion. "The waves can be challenging, but this event is important to not only East Coast surf fans, but also to East Coast and other travelling pros. It's a great place to gather valuable points and have a hell of a good time while you're doing it."

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For surf fans, tourists, and locals, the event shows how incredibly well small waves can be surfed. As an added draw, the event hosts peripheral events, like a 5K run, BMX and skateboarding exhibitions, and the long-standing Miss ECSC Swimsuit Pageant, where the winner receives a trip to Sturgis, South Dakota for the Sturgis Buffalo Chip, the largest Harley-Davidson Motorcycle rally and music fest in the nation.

What the East Coast lacks in surf quality, it makes up for with a passionate fan base that, crucially for sponsors, spends a lot of money on products. While Tahiti is a proving ground for Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning, and others, only a few people will be watching them from the beach. The ECSC, which has attracted as many as 100,000 attendees, gives the industry a big return on small waves.

"It's important for us to show an ongoing commitment to the East Coast," says Doug Palladini, Vans' vice president and general manager for North America. The company is the ECSC's main-event sponsor this year, and a supporter since 2009. "It's more than just flying out from Cali, throwing a party, and going back home. It's a permanent show of our love for Virginia Beach, Florida, Jersey, Rhode Island, and all the places where our fans live on the Right Coast."

The ECSC 2014. Courtesy East Beach Photography

Vans now owns or runs the three biggest surfing events in North America: the Vans US Open (California), Vans Triple Crown (Hawaii), and the ECSC. (ECSC's title sponsor, Coastal Edge, is a chain of family-owned surf shops on the East Coast with headquarters in Virginia Beach.) Tahiti, Hawaii, and California have world-renowned waves that attract top professionals on a regular basis. In Virginia Beach, when the pros come to town, it's a big deal.

"Our waves aren't the best, but our surf community is massive," said Michael Dunphy, a Virginia Beach native and the ECSC's reigning champion. "For most of the year, we're pretty surf-starved. That makes us so appreciative when there are waves and for this event when it comes to town."

Dunphy just signed a contract with Quiksilver clothing—part of the company's efforts, he said, to improve its reputation and sales on the Right Coast. "The East Coast surf community spends a lot of money on surf clothing and all that. Some of the biggest surf shops in the country are here. So it makes sense to concentrate on this region from a business standpoint."

Last year, Dunphy bested an impressive field at the ECSC to become the first Virginia Beach surfer to win a major event since the 1980s. The win earned him dinner with the mayor, an award from city council, and appearances on the covers of multiple local newspapers.

"It was a big deal for me and, I think, for Virginia Beach surfers," he said. "In a way, it kind of proved that we can compete with the world's best, and win."

The ECSC wraps up Sunday night. The competition can be watched on the event website. The Billabong Tahiti Pro runs through August. Live coverage of the event can be seen on the World Surf League website.