The 2014 Coldwater Classic

Santa Cruz surfer Shaun “Burnsy” Burns faces the world at this year's O'Neill Coldwater Classic.

by Ryan Masters

Oct. 28, 2014—Steamer Lane is far more than a wave; it’s many waves—world-class rights, bombing A-frames, elevator shaft lefts, aerial ramps, mushy rollers…and on some days, depending on swell direction, size and tide, it’s all of those things simultaneously.

It has also come to define Northern California surfing culture as a whole, partly thanks to the O’Neill Coldwater Classic, the longest running professional surf contest north of Point Conception, which will be held on Wednesday and Thursday of this week at Steamer Lane.

The history of the Coldwater Classic is as long and varied as the playing field it calls home. While amateur contests have used the name as far back as the 1960s, the first professional event is widely considered to be 1985—the year local legend Anthony Ruffo won the contest and began his long and checkered career. Over the next 30 years, the Coldwater frequently changed formats and sponsors, but retained its rugged, kelp-strewn charm.

Over the years, it’s played host to many of the sport’s elite, including world champions Tom Curren, Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson and Kelly Slater—and helped define the careers of many locals who won it: Pete Mel (1997), Chris Gallagher (1998 & 1999), Adam Replogle (2002), Kieran Horn (2003) and Nat Young (2008).

Wave Workers

No longer a stop on the ASP World Tour, the Coldwater Classic has been re-imagined. 2014 marks its second year as an invitational event for unsponsored surfers. According to Brian Kilpatrick, O'Neill's marketing director, the idea was spawned by a trip to Australia.

“We were at the Margaret River Pro and there were these guys winning heats and surfing incredibly with no logos on their boards,” Kilpatrick says. “They were funding their travel to the next event with credit cards, by selling boards and with whatever prize money they could win. Sometimes they were missing events because they had to pound nails out in the middle of nowhere or go work on a shrimp boat. They were definitely not living the dream—they were blue-collar surfers just squeaking by.”

The idea is not unprecedented. Golf, for instance, provides unheralded athletes an opportunity to make the PGA Tour through invitational events. But the O’Neill Coldwater Classic Invitational is the first of its kind in surfing. One winner from the 16-surfer field will be awarded an O’Neill sponsorship worth roughly $50,000—and, more importantly, a shot to make the big leagues by competing on the ASP's World Qualifying Series circuit for a year.

While last year’s Coldwater Classic Invitational winner, Torrey Meister, probably didn’t surf well enough in the qualifying series to make the cut for the 2015 World Championship Tour (he’s currently ranked 37th), the Hawaiian has gained priceless exposure and experience traveling the world to surf and competing against the world’s best. In addition, the concept has been excellent marketing for the O’Neill brand.

“The response from our media partners has been excellent,” Kilpatrick says. “And the general public loves it because these are super-relatable, working-man stories. When we had Torrey traveling around the Pacific Northwest, people were really stoked and supportive of him. It was a great experience.”

Steamer Lane Local

This year, Santa Cruz’s collective hopes are pinned on Shaun “Burnsy” Burns—the lone local in the contest. Born seven years after Ruffo won the Coldwater in 1985, Burnsy learned to surf on a soft top at Cowell’s not long after he learned to walk. Before long, he’d graduated to the Lane and begun to distinguish himself in the line up.

“It’s a tricky wave, but I consider it world class,” Burnsy says. “It can have so much power—like Hawaii. But when it’s breaking near the cliff at high tide it can have a lot of backwash and unpredictable bounce. You have to know where to take off.”

While his local knowledge is an advantage, he is quick to acknowledge his competitors.

“I grew up surfing the wave so my plan is to just go out there an attack it like I have for years,” he says. “But experience at the Lane will only take you so far. All these surfers [in the contest] are professionals and know how to read spots as well as anyone.”

While Burnsy is a member of the O’Neill surf team, it only provides about $700 a year—an amount that qualifies him as unsponsored. He competed in the first invitational last year but only advanced in his first heat before “the waves went flat” and he was bounced from the contest. While his sights are set on a win and a big 2015, he’s also hedging his bets by finishing up an Environmental Management degree at Cal Poly. Regardless of results, he says it’s a huge honor to compete in the Coldwater Classic.

“It’s a big contest,” he says. “Every year since I was little I’ve skipped school to watch it—and the year my buddy Nat [Young] won was a huge inspiration for me. I also grew up watching guys like Kelly [Slater] and Mick [Fanning] when it was a WCT event.”

Kilpatrick agrees that the Coldwater Classic has historically served as a major inspiration for successive generations of Santa Cruz surfers.

“It’s an institution for Santa Cruz and over the years has brought in talent from all of the world,” he says. “There’s a direct correlation between the Coldwater Classic and the rise of Santa Cruz talent. Back in the 1980s, kids like Adam Repogle, Pete Mel and Ratboy were definitely inspired by seeing the Brad Gerlachs and Mark Occhilupos of the surfing world compete at the Lane and free surf around Santa Cruz.”

“People don’t remember, but Santa Cruz was pretty isolated back in the 1970s and even the early ‘80s,” Kilpatrick says. “This was still the wilderness. You could argue that the Coldwater Classic brought the surf industry to Surf City.”

Need to Know:

The surf forecast for the O’Neill Coldwater Classic Invitational calls for a new three-to-four foot northwest swell on Wednesday, which will taper off through Thursday. Watch the live broadcast on

Follow this link to learn more about Steamer Lane.
Read a 2013 article about the Coldwater Classic's format change.