Surfers battling knee-to-waist waves at O’Neill Sweetwater pro-am

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A two-time winner took an early lead at the O’Neill/Sweetwater Pro-Am surf competition Friday, but Aaron Cormican will have to survive another day of preliminary rounds on Saturday in order to advance to the finals on Sunday, July 17, and take the title for a third time.

Midway into the first day of the competition, organizer Brad Beach said surfers from all over the East Coast — and even one from as far as Puerto Rico — are rising to the top, including past winners.

Joining New Smyrna Beach, Fla., native Cormican as heat winners are Gaby Escudero of Puerto Rico, Evan Thompson of Jacksonville, N.C., Parker Sawyer and Sebastian Moreno, both  from Virginia Beach, Jeremy Johnston, also of New Smyrna Beach, and Fisher Heverly of Emerald Isle, N.C. Cormican won the event in 2006 and 2009, and had one of the top scores on Friday, while Thompson won it in 2013.

Surfers are making the best of knee-to-waist waves, Beach said. “We can compete, for sure,” he said. “As long as it’s contestable, we’ll be out here.”

Cormican said his strategy in these surf conditions is to “just have fun.”

“I look for a nice wedge and just try to get a good score,” he said. “If a nice section comes up, I’ll try to catch an air.”

Contest judge Jeremy Saukel, of Satellite Beach, Fla., said this contest was unique for professional surfing because only the best wave counts. That means as long as surfers have time left in their 15 minute heat, they can still potentially catch a winning wave, instead of being behind by two waves, he said.

“We want to see explosive, big turns,” Saukel said. “It’s not about the length of the ride. We’re looking for them to take risks.”

Casual observers who don’t know much about surfing can rely on public announcer Mike Beech of Wrightsville Beach, who summarizes the events for the crowd. Each surfer wears a colored jersey to help fans see the action.

“There’s red, throwing that tail,” Beech calls out.

“Here’s white, pulling off that bottom turn and executing at the top. Bam!”

“That’s what I like,” he tells the crowd. “Backside flow, just tweaking that back!”

Beech said that the small waves conditions help prove the mettle of some of the world’s best surfers.

“It takes a lot of talent to surf these little waves,” he said.

Event organize Beach said Friday that surf fans have two more days of action ahead, culminating with the finals on Sunday, which will take place between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.

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