The Smirnoff Pro/Am
The most prestigious contest of its era, the Smirnoff Pro/Am was the unofficial World Contest for most of the 70’s and the last leap made towards the establishment of surfing as a true professional sport before the IPS was established. Being invited was enough to cement a surfer’s reputation as one of the sport’s greats (even if the selection process was widely criticized as overly subjective). After being moved from its original site, Santa Cruz, California to the proving grounds of Hawaii; the divergent pool of local Hawaiian talent, international contest juggernauts, and big wave maestros vied for both unprecedented monetary awards and unofficial global status as the world’s best surfer.
The Smirnoff Pro/Am, organized and promoted by Fred Hemmings, was held from 1969-1977. Debuting at Steamer Lane, Santa Cruz but finishing the final heat in measly 2 foot surf, the contest was soon moved to the massive shifting peaks of Sunset Beach, Hawaii. That first contest touted a $4,350 cash purse which was unequaled for that era, and surfers viewed the event as a major move towards true professional surfing. The first Smirnoff Pro/Am was won by Corky Carroll who pocketed $1500 and Margo Godfrey who won $150. Women’s events in those days were often seen as a sideshow to the men so the contest dropped the women’s event altogether upon moving to Hawaii (before bringing it back 6 years later).
As the contest ran from year to year, problems became evident in both the administration and invitation process. Questions arose concerning the close relationship between contest directors and sponsors as well as with the fairness of surfers being selected based solely on the subjective notion of their surfing “reputation.” Add to that, varying contest rules and uneven judging from contest to contest, and it soon became evident the Smirnoff’s years were numbered. Its prestige and uniqueness would soon wane as other contests offered big money and challenging venues as part of the budding International Professional Surfers tour.
But the 1974 Smirnoff will forever be etched into the annals of competitive surfing. The infamous event held on Thanksgiving Day ran its final four heats in legitimate 20+ foot Waimea, the premier big wave venue of the time. The pristine, death defying surf was only part of the story as 5 of the 18 competitors had never even surfed Waimea (a wave famous for its tricky lineup and hyper-vertical drop). Further lending drama to the moment was contest director “Dead Ahead” Fred Hemmings who as per legend contested claims that the surf was “too big” by offering to paddle out and catch the first wave of the day. The event, which has been called one of the greatest days in surf contest history, was won by 27 year old Hawaiian Reno Abellira who bested fellow statesman Jeff Hakman by a hair to pocket a fat $5,000 prize for his feat. Future World Champion Peter Townend would later call his making the final of the 74’ event “life changing.” Other winners of the winners of the Smirnoff include Nat Young, Gavin Rudolph, Paul Neilsen, Ian Cairns, Mark Richards, Mark Warren, and Jericho Poppler.
Soon both Australia and South Africa would establish their own professional contests and the Smirnoff Pro/Am would be one step in Fred Hemmings and Randy Rarick’s grand scheme for the future of surfing in which surfers would compete in 14 contests complete with an official points system and prize money totaling some $146,000 and eventually crown an official world champion. The days of a single world contest event were over and the surfing world tour era had begun.