Brad Hoffman, the 41-year-old beach lover who prefers to be called B-Rad, holds East Coast surfers in especially high regard. They are a breed apart from the West Coast variant, he says, hungrier and heartier. They must wring rides out of smaller waves in colder waters, and that is precisely what they did here Saturday.

"It takes more dedication here," Hoffman said at a surfing competition under a brilliant blue sky on the first full day of Memorial Day weekend. "You have to chase waves. You have to surf every day to get better."

And, indeed, the surf on this day was not entirely cooperative. Legions of sunbathers welcomed a light breeze, but its vector, coming off the water, resulted in the sort of choppy, angry surf that contest organizers charitably called "contestable."

Jen Abrams, 18, a luminary of the Eastern Shore surf scene, and others described the waves as "junky," a term of art that refers to choppy surf.

Still, more than 100 amateur surfers, Abrams among them, spent the day competing for the points that would allow them to advance to regional contests. It wasn't always pretty, but it was surfing, Ocean City-style.

Three judges sat in the shade of a white tent, rating each ride. The judges referred to contestants by the colors of their jerseys, and the tent filled with an absurdist, frenetic chatter that could have been scripted by Samuel Beckett.

"Red's up."

"Red's down."

"Green's up."

"White's up and down."

It continued in that vein, punctuated at times by a rush of screams -- "Down in front!" -- directed at hapless beachgoers who meandered into the stretch of beach that separated judges from contestants.

"We're looking for big moves," judge Dana Smith explained. "Turns, the sharper the better, and they have to be completed. It's nice if they get a big wave, but they have to do something with it."

The surfing scene in Ocean City has changed dramatically since the Eastern Surfing Association held its first competition here more than three decades ago. Just ask George Smith, the building contractor near the white tent, tucked under a large umbrella and bundled up in a sweatshirt. At 58, he was the oldest contestant in Saturday's competition.

"It used to be years ago when we'd go surfing, you'd round up your guys because you had to find people to go with," said Smith, Dana Smith's husband. "Now you do everything you can to find a place by yourself, and you can't."

Part of the popularity in Ocean City is explained, Hoffman and others said, by a larger embrace of surfer culture. Once the anti-sport, surfing has gone mainstream, spawning a cultural archetype captured by Sean Penn's rendering of the slacker Spicoli and Keanu Reeves's Ted Logan of "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure."

The ranks of surfers in Ocean City now include families and any number of professionals. "You'll be surfing with your doctor, your Realtor, your lawyer," said competitor Art Baltrotsky, 39. "It's amazing."

Ocean City, which must accommodate armies of nonsurfing beachgoers, limits surfing to two stretches of beach. The allocation has not increased in years, and Hoffman said he isn't too happy about it. "The town hasn't embraced surfing like it should," said Hoffman, owner of the surf shop Cloud Break.

For a time Saturday, Reagan Fuller, 23, was among the spectators. The Washington resident watched for less than an hour and then retired to the back of the beach, where she occupied a chair at the base of a low sand dune.

"The waves were kind of weak, so it wasn't really that thrilling," she said.

If Fuller wasn't captivated by the contest, it might be in part because she's not a surfer. Looking out at the water, where sets of knee-high waves washed over the sand, she mused: "These are probably good waves to start on."

But for the contestants, East Coast surfers all, it was a day to be in the water, to catch a good wave, even just one.

For a surfer, there is no other choice, Adams said. "You got a beach. You've got to surf."

Lauren Hanlon, above, of West Chester, Pa., keeps close watch on the action at Ocean City's 59th Street beach. At right, Anthony Schaefer competes in the junior men's division semifinals. Not everyone cares about surfing. Haroula Tzamaras, left, of Olney, and her sister Demetra appear more interested in building castles in the sand.