Like a mythical sea monster rising out of the Pacific, Mavericks sounds its winter siren call.
With faces towering 30 feet or higher, the legendary Northern California surf break beckons wave warriors who dare to scale its slippery peaks. Only the best can be called “Titans of Mavericks.”
That’s the inspiration – and latest name – for Mavericks’ famous surf contest, the Super Bowl of big wave surfing held in the winter a half-mile offshore at Half Moon Bay. It’s a far different sporting event than that other Big Game that will come to Santa Clara on Feb. 7. Imagine if the NFL demanded to play Super Bowl 50 in only perfect conditions in an empty Levi’s Stadium and called everything off if the right circumstances failed to materialize.
But that’s part of Mavericks’ allure; nothing is certain but the danger. At least, this year the surf contest finds itself in calmer waters after six years of turmoil that saw four contest organizers try and fail to stabilize the logistically difficult event.
“The ocean is really volatile,” said Jeff Clark, the man credited as the first to surf Mavericks and the contest’s creator. “Storms keep making swells, but we’ve got to dodge rain squalls and blackout dates (such as Super Bowl weekend). We have our challenge to get this thing done. ... We’re putting on this huge event a half mile into the ocean on the biggest, most dangerous day of the year. But this is what we do.”
Since a pro surfing contest was last held at Mavericks in January 2014, the event has changed hands, yet again, with Los Angeles-based Cartel Management taking over its reins. Best known for its work with such recording artists as Kanye West and Josh Baze, Cartel is the fifth Mavericks contest organizer overall. Its ability to pull off a successful big wave surfing contest, especially one so iconic as Mavericks, is being closely watched worldwide. Logistics include looking out for great white sharks as well as lining up production crews and satellite trucks.
“We’re working with the best people in the field, definitely people with decades of experience,” said Brian Waters, Cartel’s chief operating officer and a surfer himself. “It’s a collaboration, a true group effort.”
Cartel has the backing of many Mavericks regulars, including Clark. Griffin Guess, Cartel’s founder, also is a surfer and Capitola resident. His friendship with Mavericks surfers got his company involved.
“They have the vision of what I was trying to do from the very beginning,” Clark said. “They’re really taking care of the surfers and the community. I wanted this event to be a showcase for the best big wave surfers in California and the West Coast. It’s grown into one of the meccas of surfing. Surfers come from all over to surf the gnarliest wave on the planet.”
As shape shifting as the wave itself, the Mavericks surf contest has taken several forms and names since its inception in 1999. The contest has been held only nine times in 16 years. A lack of large waves on the right days canceled the contest last winter.
At its peak of popularity in 2010, the Mavericks contest drew more than 100,000 fans to Pillar Point’s narrow shoreline, part of a protected marine preserve. Thousands more watched on big screens at AT&T Park in San Francisco. An estimated 1 million fans worldwide watched the contest live online.
Clamoring for better vantage points, that 2010 crowd overwhelmed the beach, destroying restoration efforts. Fans ventured out on rocks and scrambled up the bluff, putting themselves in peril. A wave knocked dozens of spectators into the water, injuring 13.
“This was an issue that went beyond our sport,” said surfer Grant Washburn at that time. “It’s about safety. We support people not getting hurt. (2010) was very scary. We worried about our friends and family. People were up on the cliffs in super-dangerous areas. That’s the problem: too many people want to watch.”
Meanwhile, the contest rode its own humongous wave of crossover fame. Highlights streamed onto video screens in New York’s Times Square, giving viewers a life-size view of the waves’ awesome power. Apple named an operating system in honor of the break.
Such mass marketing nearly wiped out the contest forever. The event had grown too big, too soon and needed to be brought back under control, in tune with its unique environment and the local surfing community, say its current organizers.
“We want to take (the contest) to the next level and also stabilize it,” Waters said. “We want its growth to be organic.”
Part of the contest’s current battle is to re-educate fans and keep them involved with Mavericks while honoring access restrictions.
“There is no beach – it’s gone,” Waters said. “The absolute best way to see (the contest) is live streaming on Red Bull TV.”
Cartel already has a big boost over past organizers. The San Mateo County Harbor District Commission granted the management company an exclusive five-year permit, good through the 2020-2021 winter surf season. Past organizers had to reapply annually.
“That definitely is a giant step,” Waters said. “It allows us to develop long-term relationships with our partners and create a healthy road map for growth.”
Cartel also won approvals from the state and county parks departments and state Coastal Commission. The contest is also run in coordination with the Coast Guard, California Highway Patrol, San Mateo County sheriff, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Air Force; all have a say in when the event can be held.
“That’s one of the most frustrating things: you’re dealing with so many people,” Clark said. “We’re so grateful to have the Coast Guard involved now. They can designate an area as our ‘playground’ where we can operate safely. In the past when we tried to hold the contest, spectator boats came in so close, it got really crowded and really dangerous. We’re trying to keep people from hurting themselves.”
In many ways, this Mavericks contest will be streamlined to its essence. There will be no Mavericks fan festival, outdoor big screens nor simulcast at AT&T Park, and absolutely no fan access to Pillar Point, beach or bluff, for a hopeful glimpse at the offshore action. Mavericks viewership will be restricted to online streaming.
By invitation only, 24 hand-picked surfers from around the globe are on call to compete. Some time before March 31, they’ll get 48 hours’ notice to hit the beach for heats starting at 8 a.m. The top finishers share in $120,000 in prize money.
This season’s invitees are all male, but – with urging from the state’s Coastal Commission – organizers are working to include women as part of the field by next winter.
“Women always have been involved,” said Clark, who now serves on the contest’s selection committee. “For the very first event, Sarah Gerhardt was an alternate. Women are welcome to come and surf Mavericks and see if they can get into the event. It’s a level of ability that gets you into Mavericks.”
“You have to have someone that can surf that wave, that has the experience at Mavericks as well as the quality to be out there,” Waters added. “A lot of men don’t make it into this contest.”
Whether Titans of Mavericks gets the green light for this winter’s surf season is up to El Niño and contest organizers, who are still waiting for that perfect day. Although recent storms whipped waves to 50 feet or more, wind and rain made them far from ideal.
“So far this winter, we’ve actually had maybe two days where we might have (had a contest),” Clark said. “To put that in perspective, all the contests we did have, that one day in the whole four-month window was the only day good enough to hold the event. It’s not as easy as armchair quarterbacks think.”
“You want the right tide, swell direction and weather,” Waters explained. “Wind is the most important factor. Surfers are riding a 10-foot board at 50 miles per hour down these waves. When the wind smacks them, it’s like driving a Ferrari and hitting speed bumps every 10 feet. It’s no fun and, more importantly, it can be really dangerous.”
World-class surfers Mark Foo and Sion Milosky drowned at Mavericks. Many others have been injured or nearly drowned – including actor Gerard Butler while filming the 2012 biopic, “Chasing Mavericks.”
In what’s been called the worst wipeout ever captured on video, Garrett McNamara – a Titans of Mavericks alternate – snapped his left arm at the socket Jan. 7 while riding a storm-whipped 50-foot wall of water. McNamara hit the wave’s face three times before landing in the churning ocean.
It looked like falling five stories down an elevator shaft into a washing machine.
Flying in from Hawaii to surf Mavericks during El Niño swells, the 48-year-old pro surfer was rescued by spotters on Jet Skis, other surfers and harbor personnel at Pillar Point.
“Safety is our No. 1 priority,” said Kelsey Kaulukukui, part of the Titans of Mavericks production team. “For the men and women who make it here, we want a safe contest and to do it right.”
How to watch Mavericks
What: Titans of Mavericks surf contest
Who: 24 invited big wave surfers, including 2008 winner Greg Long, vying for $120,000
Where: Pillar Point, Half Moon Bay, San Mateo County
When: Nov. 1-March 31. When surf conditions are perfect, contest officials give competitors the “call,” 48-hours notice that the contest is on.
Get the call: For a text alert or email alerting when Mavericks goes green, got to www.titansofmavericks.com.
Stay off the beach: Due to safety concerns, no beach access will be allowed during the contest at Pillar Point or Pillar Point Bluff Park. Traffic in Princeton and neighborhoods near Mavericks will be restricted to residents only.
See it live: RedBull.TV will offer free live streaming of the contest. In addition, several restaurants and bars will host viewing parties with the live feed on big screens including: Old Princeton Landing, Half Moon Bay Brewing Company and Cameron’s Restaurant (Half Moon Bay); Wipeout Bar and Pete’s Tavern (San Francisco); and Pleasure Pizza East Side Eatery, Reef Bar and Pono Hawaiian Grill (Santa Cruz).