Rooms 221 and 222 at the oceanfront Ramada Inn encapsulate American surfing culture. In Room 221 is Dino Andino, once the U.S. national champion surfer and now an elder of the sport. He surfs to support his wife and two children. He is 30.

Next door is Bruce Irons, the Next Big Thing. He is a phenom with a natural, beautiful talent for riding waves and little else, it seems. He may someday be a national champion; he may not. It hardly matters; he makes a healthy six-figure income simply because of the jaw-dropping style with which he rips the ocean. He is 19.

The two men anchor opposite ends of the arc of a pro surfer's career. They have come here, along with about 250 other surfers, to ply the knee-high waves of the 37th Annual East Coast Surfing Championships.

But they come for very different reasons.

Irons, who often doesn't perform well in contests (but grabs sick air--surfer lingo for maximum altitude--in eye-popping surfer magazine photos), is here because his corporate sponsor told him to attend. Andino is here because he'd like to win, sure, and get his sponsors some exposure, yes, but mostly to seed the ground for the next 40 years of his life. For Irons, the future is hardly a thought. For Andino, it's his every thought.

"All you gotta do is surf," said Irons--a tanned, shaggy blond--with a shrug. "That's not too much to do."

"I'd like to end up working for a sponsor," says Andino, a green-eyed, close-cropped blond. "But I can only hope for that. I could learn a skill that would help them."

To most, surfing looks like a no-worries life of leisure, a career devoted to perfecting showy, if nontransferable, skills. A trivial, utterly self-centered pursuit. But, like any career, once you choose it, it either carries you or sinks you. Consider Irons and Andino, the stars of the latest remake of "A Star Is Born": two people, same career, entirely opposite trajectories.

All a Big Game

"East Coast surfing" sounds like an oxymoron. Think of surfing, and the head instantly fills with Beach Boys songs, Jan and Dean riffs and the crashing waves of Southern California. Or perhaps you hear the theme to "Hawaii Five-O" and envision the famed pipeline. One might even think of Vietnam: Robert Duvall's American officer in "Apocalypse Now," seeking out the best Southeast Asian waves, unafraid of the Viet Cong because, as he says, "Charlie don't surf!"

But surfing activities from Long Island to Delaware to Florida account for about 30 percent of all surf-related sales. East Coast surfers hone their backside 360s and cutbacks on 3- to 5-foot Atlantic "peelers," then take their skills--like hopeful actors descending on Hollywood--to Ground Zero of American surfing, San Clemente, Calif., where many of the major sponsors are headquartered and most surfing magazines are based.

The Virginia Beach competition is the last stop of four on a six-month tour sponsored by Panasonic. The contest lasts four days--Thursday through yesterday--with several preliminary heats. In each round, surfers have 20 minutes on the ocean to catch waves; they are judged on their top three rides, scored like figure skaters by five judges. By placing well at each contest on the tour, surfers amass points. If the top-ranked men at this level reach a certain total, they qualify for the world tour. There are teens and a few women competing here, but pro surfing is a sport dominated by 18- to 35-year-old white males.

The beach is full of spectators--mainly teenage girls who are almost wearing bikinis and sporting temporary tattoos on their buttocks. Other surfers huddle under a tent, awaiting their turns to hit the waves or get a free massage from a physical therapist. They don't perspire. Or, if they do, they have learned how to do so in an attractive manner. Rock music blares out at the waves; an announcer reads off the results of each heat.

Irons is trying to win a spot on the world tour, but, thanks to his sponsors, he's already been to France, Indonesia, Africa and Germany, where he surfed in a wave pool. He's seen a lot of the world and yet he hasn't.

"We pretty much stick to the shoreline," he says. Though, in Africa, he did go to a wildlife park.

Irons grew up in Hawaii and gave up boogie boards for surfboards when he was 8. By the time he was 11, the secret was out about his talent, and the sponsors came calling. Now, according to Surfer magazine, he makes between $200,000 and $350,000 a year, a figure he calls accurate.

Andino, whose father played congas in the Doors, was the nation's top high school surfer at 18 while growing up in Southern California. In 1991, he was rookie of the year on the world tour. But as high as he got, he lacked that certain something to make him No. 1, the surfing world's equivalent of Tiger Woods. (Right now, that's a Floridian named Kelly Slater, who reportedly makes up to $2 million a year. About 80 percent of professional surfers' income comes from sponsors.) The purse at Virginia Beach was $25,000; it can be well over $100,000 at the top surfing competitions.

Now, Andino and his wife, Tina ("She didn't know anything about surfing," he says), have a 5-year-old son named Kolohe and a 3-year-old daughter named Kylie. Andino was a C student in high school and never went to college. But he's hopeful that he's learned enough from his travels abroad to make an effective marketer or team captain, perhaps, for a surfing company. He can still surf better than most guys out here, but he knows his best waves are behind him. He makes $65,000 a year.

"I'm trying to stay in good with the surfing sponsors," he says. The corporate kings--surf companies like Quiksilver, Billabong and O'Neill--support the surf magazines with advertising. The magazines, in turn, often feature the big companies' surfers in photo spreads. If you live in San Clemente, as Andino does, you're a lot more likely to get in a surf magazine than if you live in, say, Virginia Beach.

"It's all a big game," Andino says. "And I don't say that at all negatively. But you have to learn how to play politics."

During one of the competition's preliminary heats Friday, Irons and Andino both surf well in the glaring, choppy waves. Irons is less selective with his waves but gets a lot out of them, snapping off huge, athletic "verticals" at the wave crests, launching the board so far out of the water that he drifts slightly as the steering fins on the underside rear of the board lose contact with the water.

Andino cuts graceful swerves across the waves, as though he's massaging them. He picks his waves smartly, then rides them, swooping low on their front side, then scaling them effortlessly, popping out of the top side. While Andino is toweling off after a run, he asks the younger man how it looked.

"You zinged on that one where you went left," Irons says, motioning with his right hand. "You went, like, wooof."

"Yeah?" Andino says. "Thanks, man."

When asked earlier about Andino, Irons is respectful, if somewhat limited in his descriptive prowess. He calls Andino "an older surfer" who "has no pressure to do well."

Andino fairly glows about Irons, with admiration in his voice for the innate talent he never quite possessed.

"He's loose, fast and really spontaneous," Andino says. "He's radical and, most importantly . . . he'll take on anything out there."

'They Can't Be Jerks'

Looming over the entire competition is a huge Australian head belonging to the body of Ian Cairns. He runs this tour for Panasonic. His head is massive, with cropped gray hair and lively blue eyes that suggest he might as easily sock you one as smile at you. His Outback accent is thick. On most competition days he can be found on the judging platform, a two-story scaffold tent, calf-thick forearms crossed, bush hat slung behind his head, king of all the ocean he surveys.

He was a western Australian surfer who, as a kid in the '70s, tried to rehabilitate the illiterate, outcast, stoner image of surfers. Though he never went to college, he talks about "wave theory" like a fluid dynamics professor, dropping terms like "sine wave" into his lectures.

For many people--especially TV programmers--surfing has become "old-fashioned" and "boring," he says, losing viewers to newer "extreme" sports such as skateboarding, trick bike riding and street luging. He aims to "take back" surfing's image as the original extreme sport by, for instance, establishing an Internet site that ranks nearly 2,000 world surfers and provides live multimedia coverage of events like this. That nondescript white trailer over there on the sand? Inside are three computers uploading each day's video reports of the competition.

He is asked: Why don't more surfers sound like you? Why do so many sound like they haven't picked up a book since high school?

Cairns uses "before" and "after" examples: Irons and Andino.

Though Irons "is no rocket scientist," he says, he's hoping the kid learns from his world travels and turns out like Andino--an affable, well-spoken, reliable fellow. Cairns, 47, says surfing organizations can act like boys clubs for troubled kids who are natural anarchists.

"This teaches them goals and objectives," he says. "They have to learn to speak, to deal with sponsors. They can't be jerks. You learn really positive life skills."

At 28, when he was ranked 21st in the world, Cairns knew he wasn't going to get any better. He said "I concede," and got into promotion.

This is one possible next step for Andino, but there are several others.

Sport as Lifestyle

The Taco Shop at 23rd Street and Atlantic Avenue, a block back from the ocean, is the kind of place that makes you strongly consider giving up the law practice to learn surfing. In a joint like this, on the dying August nights, the atmosphere is thick with food and sweat and drooping spaghetti straps, naval-ringed tanned midriffs and sexy laughter and bummed cigarettes and draft beer in flimsy plastic cups.

On the open-air deck out back, five surfers--pro and amateur--scarf down carne asada (roasted meats), tacos and brews. They talk about the craft and the culture.

Sam Zuegner, 24, lives on Long Beach Island, N.J. He is a "photo surfer." It goes like this: If he's wearing a company's shorts, and someone takes a picture of him, and it appears in a magazine, and the company's logo is visible--he gets a check.

"Surfing is more than a sport," he says. "It's a lifestyle."

You hear that a lot. Like, every half-hour.

What kind of lifestyle?

"Cheap beer, cheap hotels, cheap dates," he says, laughing.

Which brings up the issue of surfer girls. The Beach Boys sang:

Little surfer

little one

made my heart

come all undone.

Turns out, it's the other way around.

"We go through a lot of girlfriends," says Paul Barga, 27, a pro from Carlsbad, Calif., and a surfboard maker. He says it matter-of-factly, not arrogantly. "You'll say you're only going to be surfing for an hour, but you'll stay for three because the waves are good."

But how long can you stay out on the ocean, making some coin?

"As long as you're the flavor of the month," Zuegner says.

Who's the flavor of this month?

"Bruce Irons" is a name they offer.

Payday

At 9 Saturday night, Andino is back at the Ramada. He had a quiet dinner, then saw a movie, "The 13th Warrior." He's ready for bed. Irons is at a local nightclub where one of his sponsors has women modeling the company's new line of surf wear. It's part of the job.

By 1 p.m. yesterday, both Irons and Andino were out of the competition. The Kid made it to the quarterfinals; the Old Man, to the semis.

"I got $1,000. I beat some of the young guys," Andino says. "I'm stoked."

Andino has received an offer from a start-up surfing tour to be a liaison to the tour's younger, less-socialized surfers. It would mean more travel than he'd like, but that's where the money is. On the other hand:

"If I have to pound nails to support my family, that's what I'll do," he says. "I've had a good life."

Epilogue

Could the adventure end here, at Round the World Mini Golf at the corner of 16th Street and Pacific Avenue?

Pete Smith is 60, a smiling, lovely storyteller who hands out colored balls and putters and calls himself the "resident pro." In surfing, though, he used to be Someone.

As one of Virginia Beach's original surfers in the '50s, he and his buddies rode 14-foot, 90-pound mahogany boards. (Andino's six-foot board is made of epoxy foam and weighs about five pounds.) He won this Virginia Beach competition once. He traded off his fame and opened a surf shop.

Then things turned poorly: His marriage failed, as did his relationship with his son. Smith became depressed and stayed inside during the day when surfers were on the water--couldn't stand to look at them. At night, he'd come out to drink. Eventually his business went bankrupt.

Smith worked for the city as a courier until a car crash four years ago. Now, he says, the pins in his right knee keep him off the waves.

Once in a while, folks come in and ask, "Say, are you the Pete Smith from the surf shop?" Keeps him going, it does.

But so does his second wife, Dot, 44, whom he met on the courier route. And their 6-year-old daughter, Sarah, whom Smith takes to school before he comes to the miniature golf course. Smith got a second chance, and he knows it.

"I get to meet great people and spend my twilight in a nice, relaxing motif," Smith says. In 1996, he was inducted into the Surfing Hall of Fame. He remembers the day his ring arrived in the mail: "I was so stoked."