The homegrown contest’s founder explains how it all began — and why it may have changed but never sold out
By Ger-I Lewis
In 1993 Venice was suffering from an epidemic of gang warfare and drugs as well as the aftermath of the L.A. riots, all of which in combination had devastating socio-economic impacts on the neighborhood. The Venice Breakwater Locals (VBWL) didn’t know it, but we were in our last generation of dominance. The Dogtown/Venice hype — now celebrated to the point of historical revision — wasn’t yet part of the popular imagination, and the heyday of the Venice Pavilion skateboard era had ended quite abruptly.
I had recently left the U.S. Army, and returning to Venice I found a new generation of surfers and skaters who — except for one guy, Rick Massey — were rather directionless. I became friends with the new crew and proposed a surf contest. But rather than a regular contest, this would be one that the youth could own. Not the average WSA billy and barney ho-hum contest, but a Venice contest. The Venice Surf-A-Thon Surf Contest.
I checked with the old guard VBWL to get the contest approved and asked them to help. We struck a deal: I would provide all the beer they could drink in exchange for the greenlight and making John Hands the head judge (with
his own T-shirt that read “Head Judge”).
My recruiting method focused on participation and inclusion. I recruited local artists and local heavies such as Polar Bear (R.I.P.) and Dale Grant (R.I.P.) to judge, and I went to top local company head honchos such as Jim Muir (Dogtown), Scott Adams (Aquatech) and Skip Engbolm (Santa Monica Airlines), as well as startup locals such as Oscar and Carlos Galan (Hecho in Venice and Venice Street Wear) and Donald Cassel (Grindking). I also went outside the area, asking companies such as Lost Surfboards and Sticky Bumps to sponsor the contest; they agreed and have remained loyal sponsors. I added an awards show to encourage participants to take pride in themselves and their neighborhood, a bikini contest and concerts by local bands so that everybody could get involved and “shine,” so to speak.
In the early years the contest met resistance from a fellow I will call “Rectangle.” A very jealous and disturbed person, he did and has done everything possible to try to ruin the Venice Surf-A-Thon. I was forced to battle his henchmen, which included physical confrontation. Eventually I won over his crew and they either began participating in the contest or, like Rectangle, faded into drug abuse and obscurity.
The contest grew fast, and by the late 1990s it featured 130 surfers from all over the world, a raucous bikini contest that was little more than a strip show, and an award show that featured music talent and appearances by world-famous pornography performers. I was offered a six-figure sum to sell the contest but opted to keep it as it was: something of and for Venice locals, first and foremost.
I never intended the contest to become an institution, but it has. Venice Surf-A-Thon has outlived its haters and detractors, but unfortunately many of its original participants as well. The contest would not have been possible without Mike “Frosty” Baldwin, Gabe Morgan, Scott Anderson and Tony Cahill, or for that matter Jay Adams, Shogo Kubo, Dennis Agnew, Aaron “Hamster” Maddux, Pat Sleeper, Brian Zarate Dahlheimer, Paul Cullen, Chris Cahill, Bob Biniak — rest in peace all of you, your memory lives on.
Over time the contest had to evolve, and as I evolved emotionally and spiritually the contest has also. It’s become family-friendly. The drunken brawling, bikini contest and porn star appearances are long gone — replaced by a pizza party, raffles and door prizes. There are now special recognition trophies such as The Scott Adams Memorial Radical Move Award and The Tony Cahill Most Outstanding Surfer Award, which are often given not just to surfers but to volunteers. Last year, for our 25th anniversary contest, we added the Miss Surf-A-Thon Venice CA title — which has nothing to do with some objectifying spectacle, but exists to recognize the women who help make this fun event possible each year. Our focus is definitely serving youth and young families.
It has been disappointing, in a sense, that the contest has been ignored by the influx of huge tech companies and national brands that have moved into Venice the past several years. However, the contest never was about making money, and it has remained true to its roots as an indigenous, organic and original experience due to me never selling it out. Truly local businesses such as Flake and Paper Scissors Rock Salon have stepped up to become sponsors. As in the beginning, we still sponsor those who are not able to contribute the requested donation ($20 advance, $25 at the beach) to cover food, T-shirts or our annual gift to MLD Christian Charity School in the Philippines.
Venice Surf-A-Thon is a good time for all and is about serving others. It’s one of the last remaining cultural events for locals that grew out of the local community. It also proves it’s possible to meld old and new, and I am grateful for the opportunity to help do so. Generations of the Massey family have participated. The Packham family has participated for decades, with a grandson competing this year. Jim Muir and his son Teague both have trophies, and Skip Engbolm’s counsel is and has been crucial to the contest. Santa Monica Airlines and Dogtown are now in their 26th year of support, participation and mentorship.
Thank you to all the sponsors, volunteers and surfers who keep Venice Surf-A-Thon alive. And thank you, Venice, for allowing me to be of service for more than a quarter century of surfing and good times.
The 26th annual Venice Surf-A-Thon Surf Contest starts at 7 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, at the Venice Breakwater. Call (310) 902-6541 or visit the Venice Surf-A-Thon page on Facebook to connect with contest organizers.