Big-wave beef looms over Sunday contest

Big wave surfers line up for the action during a previous contest at Nelscott Reef, located a half-mile off Canyon Drive Park in Lincoln City. (Photo by John Monroe)

LINCOLN CITY — Big-wave surfing contest promoters are slated to hold competing tournaments on the same giant swell Sunday, setting the stage for a clash that involves renowned surfers, bewildered city officials and the Oregon State Police.

John Forse, who holds the primary permit from the city allowing him to use Canyon Drive Park as a staging site for his Nelscott Reef Big Wave Classic, announced this week he would hold the contest Sunday, March 10, with alternative dates of March 11 or 13 depending on conditions.

But a rival group whose organizers were once cited and fined by Lincoln City for holding an illegal surfing contest has also laid claim to the big wave, setting up the possibility of another clash like one that captured the attention of the OSP.

“They’re saying they’ll break the law to run their event,” asserted Forse, who has asked the city to cancel both his permit and a secondary license held by the rival group for a contest called the Nelscott Reef Pro.

City tourism officials who sanction the event by issuing permits for exclusive use of the park did not return queries from the newspaper. However, the system allows the primary permit-holder, Forse, first call on surf dates.

In an embittered email sent to city hall on March 5, Nelscott Reef Pro organizer Gabe Smith announced his contest would not be suspended, regardless of city penalties. His web site,, claims the event will be held March 10, as well.

“Considering we have $40,000 on the line and we are doing an actual webcast you would think we could get priority, but whatever,” wrote Smith, giving his interpretation of the city-issued permits. “John is not allowed to have both days so he needs to pick which one of those days he is going to run his itty bitty garbage contest. I would rather pay a fine than return $40,000, just a head’s up. John Forse will not ruin this for us. It’s already in the works and happening no matter what he does.”

Forse responded to the letter by calling on city officials to rescind both permits before the situation boils over, as it has previously.

The grudge match between rival surf contests has vexed city officials for several years and drew the attention of state police after Forse complained of rampant safety violations, including jet skis that endangered surfers.

In 2017, a couple of tourists watching an unsanctioned contest from Canyon Way Park were caught beneath a log when a sneaker wave struck the beach, reviving the city’s interest in overseeing big wave contests.

“People almost died, and all they got was a $150 fine,” complained Forse.

Meanwhile, OSP claims the world-famous reef one-half mile offshore is within its jurisdiction. Trooper Scott Severson advised that state troopers, “without taking sides,” would observe the next big-wave contest “from the coastline with binoculars.” He warned that “jet skiers would be cited if appropriate” and the contest would “ultimately be shut down if operations are unsafe.”

Forse concluded that he is ready to run his contest unless the city suspends both permits.

“I went ahead and fulfilled my obligations,” said Forse, who is offering $10,000 in prize money. “I’ve paid for the garbage cans, the toilets and the traffic control. What happens now is up to the city.”


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