Jan 18 2008

My Day at Maverick’s

Published by at 9:32 am under Guest posts,Surf culture

 Mavericks could throw out a bit…

RealSurf is always trying to increase its coverage of all things surfing, so when the Maverick’s big wave contest was called Friday 11/1/08 for the following day, Don took advantage of his presence in California on a visit to his family and friends to cover it.

Not that he dropped everything to drive the 340 miles/547k from Santa Barbara to Half Moon Bay to be there for the start of the event at 8 AM the next morning. No. After all, the swell was going to be hitting Santa Barbara on Saturday too, and ever the true surfer, he much preferred to be getting some of those waves to driving or watching other people surf.

So he talked me into covering it.

You see, my daughter lives 60 miles/97 k south of Maverick’s in Santa Cruz and has just taken up surfing. She had called me in Santa Barbara (280 miles/450 k away), when she heard the contest was on to tell me she’d love to go see it with me. Especially since she didn’t know anybody closer who was going. Well, you just can’t turn down quality time with your offspring, and Don played on this by promising heaps of glory and fame for reporting on the event for Real Surf. He sealed the deal by loaning me his camera, a spiffy Nikon digital professional model with auto everything and an impressive 300 mm telephoto lens.

I’d never used a digital camera before, but Don promised me it would be fun. You’d be able to count the surfer’s nose hairs with the shots I was going to get. So I was the one who dropped everything, threw a few things in my truck, and after detouring to pick up an extra battery with charger to replace the dangerously low one in Don’s camera ($82.95, Don), I hit the road to Santa Cruz. It should be fun; I’ve never been to a surf contest before.

A word here about me. Don and I have been friends since junior high school, and he introduced me to surfing in 1971, dragging me out of bed at daybreak for a dawn session at a local secret spot named Deadman’s, where I mainly froze my butt off and tried to avoid major injury. He later moved to Australia while I remained in Santa Barbara, but we have stayed in contact and see each other on his periodic visits back to California. We went surfing together just last week.

Thanks to Don, I’ve been a surfer for 37 years now. (And whenever I do that math, I always wonder, if I’ve been surfing that long, why aren’t I any better?) I’ve accepted being a recreational surfer, but it’s still a large part of my life and I am also interested in the subculture of us surfers and how that fits into society as a whole. Maverick’s has become the most famous big wave spot on the West Coast and the contest has already gained public awareness and mainstream media coverage, though this is only the fourth time it has been run. So I had my own reasons for being on the road north Friday night.

So the next morning before sunrise, my daughter and I hit the road for Half Moon Bay. Good omens abound: at Four Mile, surfers are milling around at the roadside, putting on wetsuits and waxing surfboards. At Scott Creek, hooded surfers are sipping coffee as they watch 10 foot/3 meter swells marching into the cove. California has 35 million people in it, but you could never tell by this stretch of highway; only a few hamlets break up the majestic coastal scenery–craggy headlands jutting out into the sea, coves with little crescent beaches in between, and dear to a surfer’s heart, big stacked up swell lines smashing into everything.

When we got to Half Moon Bay, we found out why the drive up had been so deserted: everybody had already beat us to the contest. It’s a small rural town and it was overwhelmed by the hordes that had descended on it. Cars were parked bumper to bumper for several miles along the main highway through town, in front of roadside busineses, and all along the few and scattered cross streets.

The place was gridlocked. Little old ladies couldn’t have gotten out to go down to the corner grocery for more cat food. And the little town was swarming with people along the streets and roadsides walking the final distance toward the event. And all this on 24 hours’ notice.

You know how on that rare occasion when you manage to evade your usual responsibilities and go surfing during working hours and you are eagerly anticipating getting some waves without fighting big crowds? And of course when you arrive, you find it’s not deserted at all, there’s plenty of surfers out in the lineup. And you look at them and can only wonder how they managed to evade responsibilities too and wind up here to ruin your day. Well, that was kind of the feeling I had driving into town: I know how I could drop everything and show up for the contest, but how did these thousands of others do it on one day’s notice? I guess it’s just part of allure of Maverick’s.

We parked in a special event parking lot ($15, Don) and joined the throng flowing toward the event. A word on the topography here. Maverick’s is off of Pillar Point, a small promontory at the north end of town. In the lee of the point, a breakwater extends southward to form a small craft harbor. Some high bluffs extend from the point northward, forming a small cove just to the north of the point.

The organizers had set up various booths and the officials’ stand along the thin ribbon of sand between the water and the bluffs at the end of the point, and a large crowd milled around here throughout the day. As my daughter and I approached the point, part of the crowd flowed forward toward the booths and all the hoopla on the sand, while the other half split off to walk up a service road to the top of the bluffs for an elevated view. We opted for the bluffs.

Mavericks’ location and undersea features

How Mavericks works.

The best position to observe the contest would obviously be at the end of the point, overlooking the break, which is a half mile/.80 k offshore according to the contest organizers. Unfortunately this prime real estate is the location of a military communications installation, and it is fenced off, festooned with sternly worded signs, and patrolled by humorless guards. So that’s not an option. The crowd continued north past the installation and along the bluffs until we had a good angle of view of the peak at Maverick’s, where we stopped to watch the event.

My daughter and I found a spot on the slope from which to begin our coverage of the event. Some other spectators seemed to be experienced–they had brought folding camp chairs, snacks, bigger binoculars than ours and much bigger telephoto lenses for their cameras. Our 300 mm lens was nothing compared to this array of hardware, big long tubes mounted on tripods. If they’d been howitzers we could have raked the peak with a fire that would have quickly chased the surfers, the party boats, and even the Coast Guard cutter off the break and had Maverick’s all to ourselves.

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Spectators watching the Maverick’s contest from the bluffs north of the break. The telephoto may be on a tripod, but it’s one of the smaller ones. Spectators are bundled up against the mid-morning overcast and still-nippy temperatures.

My daughter and I quickly realized the utility of such large lenses: we were quite a ways from Maverick’s, maybe 3/4 of a mile/1.2 k. One could see the peak with the naked eye, and with binoculars make out the surfers, little ant-like figures dropping in or zipping along the face. Contrast and detail were not quite as good when looking through the camera, so we found it best to work in tandem, one as spotter with the binoculars giving directions to the one firing away on the camera.

I found using a digital camera quite a freeing experience: take pictures with abandon, it’s only space on a memory card and can be deleted later. We took 172 pictures, and Don and I looked through them all to cull out the best here. (“These are the best of the mighty Maverick’s contest?,” you say, “these pathetic little. . .” Before you continue, however, consider how much you paid for them. Good photography is hard, and surf contest photography is ridiculous.)

We tried for some good action shots from our single distant angle. It would have been nice to record identifying information for each shot; the surfer, the heat, his score, etc., but up on the bluffs 3/4 of a mile away and around the point from the contest headquarters and PA guy, we had no idea what was going on with the contest.

We had to give up any idea of reporting on the contest, or even who’s surfing in what picture. We couldn’t tell. And you know, it didn’t matter. We sat there watching some great surfers who happened to be wearing colored vests surfing 20 foot/6 meter waves. It was a beautiful day, the overcast burned off and it warmed up. Surrounded by blue sky, fresh air, and the ocean below, we were a mellow crowd, cheering (in a relaxed, mellow way) an impressive drop-in, or groaning in commiseration when somebody got nailed. Scores? Winners? Well, that’s all pretty artificial anyway, isn’t it?

AT LAST, SOME SURF REPORTAGE: Truthfully, Maverick’s didn’t look prime Saturday, not the way you’d want it for its big day. I’ve seen it breaking in person only this once, but like most surfers, I have seen photos and footage, and read descriptions. The swell was about 20 feet, small in big wave terms these days, and just above the threshold for Maverick’s to start working. The swell was kinda slow and dumpy, the peak would rise up and throw over, but often rather listlessly and only halfway down the face, collapsing into mush. Some waves, especially later in the day when the tide was high, didn’t break at all. There also tended to be a long wait between sets, which were only two to three waves. The better waves did jack up into hollow peaks and threw over into a pit; we saw a few air drops down the face and a couple of guys get pitched on some mistimed late take-offs. But even these waves backed off after the initial peak into a mushy mid-section that required the surfer to stay with it until it lined up again in a smaller inside section.

Sound familiar? Like your home break on some average day? I guess it can happen to a big-wave break too. The excitement was mainly in the initial drop and turn, before the peak backed off. We did see some late take-offs and deep carving bottom turns in front of a massive feathering lip coming over, but after that the ride settled down into staying with the wave in the mushy middle section and firing off some points-scoring maneuvers on the inside section. Don got some waves on the same swell in the Santa Barbara area, and reports that though the waves were smaller, the conditions were similar.

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Surfer on a white board and surfer on a red board (that’s all I know!) dropping in on the peak in one of the early morning preliminary heats. As Don said, “Hmm, only triple overhead.”
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Another early heat. The left tended to be a little more hollow than the right, but it would quickly collapse into a closeout. Most rides were on the right, though it was more mushy, perhaps looking for a longer ride for a higher score.
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I think that’s the Silver Surfer on that one. That looks like his contest gun, not that blobby longboard he usually rides. A jet ski stands by to assist. The contest got a waiver to use them in a marine sanctuary.
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This is from one of the later heats in the morning, notice the increasing reflection of sunlight on the wave face. This is probably one of the semifinals.
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Another from a late morning heat.
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The crowd viewing from the bluffs. By late morning, it had cleared off and warmed up. Beautiful day to watch some surfing, eh?
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After watching the ants surfing all morning, we started trying for the perfect shot of the lip throwing over. Really soft shoulders on that wave, though, perhaps that’s why there’s nobody on it. The waves were beginning to back off by the middle of the day.
If we were being diverted into taking artistic shots, we decided it was time for a change of scene, so we walked back down the bluffs to check out the perspective at the point, which turned out to be a very different scene.

The contest headquarters, judges’ stand, souvenir stand, environmental education booth, and bandstand for the continual musical entertainment were all there, with crowds milling about it all, making it a congested scene.

The PA announcer would keep you apprised of action in the contest, but standing on the beach amidst the milling throng, there seemed no way to actually see any of it, a half mile out to sea. It was a zoo, but many there seemed perfectly content, perhaps proud that they were at ground zero of the great event. Breaking through to mainstream notice, it is inevitable that the Maverick’s contest attracts people who know nothing about surfing, and we saw a lot of suspects.

Perhaps, too, it is as Don suggested to me, that it is like the fans of the enormously popular auto racing circuit in America, 100,00 of whom will pack a venue to drink beer, get sunburned, and watch cars go around in a circle for 4 hours. They may not know racing, but they can still appreciate a good crash. Perhaps nonsurfers are attracted to the Maverick’s contest because anyone can appreciate a guy getting hammered by a 20 foot wave.

A few individuals had clambered up the base of the bluffs at the point in hopes of a better vantage point. A slim prospect, in our estimation, and the PA announcer would periodically admonish them to descend with vague threats of punishment by the authorities. Nobody paid the slightest attention.

Most ironic about the scene at the point was that there was a large TV screen set up to display the internet coverage of the action. Many on the beach, who had taken the trouble to come all that way to Maverick’s, were nonetheless turned away from the water to watch on TV what was happening over their shoulder. I felt sorry for the musical acts, putting in professional sets, but a sideshow attracting almost no interest. Just as we were leaving to return to our blufftop position, the PA announcer read the lineup for the finals heat. At least we knew what we would be watching. We caught the finals from the bluffs.
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This is from the finals. I could lie and say it was Greg Long leaning into his bottom turn on his winning ride (hey, maybe it is!) and you wouldn’t be able to dispute it. The finals heat was an hour long, and they needed it, as the the sets were more infrequent and the waves getting mushier. By this time, from the bluffs the sun was really reflecting off the water, creating a million sparkling diamonds etc., but making it really tough to spot the action and take pictures. This surf photography is hard work.
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A view from the bluffs in the afternoon, when the air was a little more hazy. The object in the distance, which looks a bit like the Yellow Submarine, is the promontory of Pillar Point, with the military communications installation on top.

The large sphere is a device to communicate with Venus, or monitor your cell phone calls, or perhaps your calls to Venus; officials declined to elaborate, except to deny it took pictures of you the last time you got down with your woman in the backyard. The spy satellites do that.

That little eighth-inch/3mm dark horizontal smudge on the right edge of the picture, just below the horizon, is a line coming through at the Maverick’s peak, so you can see the excellent positioning of the promontory as a spectator venue.

My daughter suggests moving the installation off of its prime real estate, and carving out an ampitheater with bleachers and maybe a performance space at the bottom. Throw in some bathrooms and refreshment stands at the top and you’d have a great contest/concert venue, don’tcha think? A much better use of the location, and after all the installation doesn’t have to be there; you could move it to the bluffs in the foreground with no loss of contact with Venus or your cell phone.

With the end of the finals, the day’s events were over and we followed the crowd down from the bluffs and back to the parking area, where we joined the river of vehicles now flowing out of Half Moon Bay either north or south on the single road through town. It was slow at first and we got an extended view of the sketchy business district as we inched along, but it soon opened up and we made it back to Santa Cruz before dinner.

An impressive phenomenon, a sudden and vast influx of vehicles and people one morning until the town is stuffed, and then in the afternoon it is reversed and by dinnertime the town is empty again.

The event was very well organized to handle the crowd and organizer Jeff Clark obviously had coordinated with local government. He must have gotten everybody in a uniform in San Mateo County; we saw California Highway Patrol officers, county sheriffs, emergency paramedics, and even county park rangers. It’s impressive to think of all of this coming together within a day or two of Clark’s decision to run the contest.

There is one strange fact, however, that it is a sporting event that is ill-suited to spectators. There is no good opportunity for them to get a good look at the proceedings: either they are at ground level on the beach, or they are at an angle and too far away on the bluffs. Don viewed the internet-feed coverage and thought it excellent. (Which means that Don got to go surfing and then watched some fine big-wave surfing on his laptop in the comfort of his home, while I didn’t surf, drove a hell of a lot, and watched little ant surfers from a mile/1.6 k away.)

Maybe this is one of those events it’s better to witness on television than in person. How postmodern. At least the contestants seemed satisfied. Winner Greg Long announced that such was the camaraderie of the fraternity of big wave surfers that all six finalists would split the finals money evenly.
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Evidence of a well-run event: no lines at the Porta-Potties (portaloos!). And this impressive row was not all of them.
Well sure, maybe Don got a better look at the waves, but my daughter and I got the total experience and even with all the last-minute rushing around and long-distance driving, we found it quite enjoyable. It was another pleasant day at the beach, sitting in the midst of a festive crowd on the bluffs and cheering or groaning in a spontaneous unison as we watched.

Our biggest cheers were not for the contest, however. During the competition, about a quarter mile/.4 kilometer up from the Maverick’s peak, a noncontestant paddled out from the cove beneath our bluffs and went after some waves for himself at a less promising spot than the contest peak.

They were big, but slow and tended to line up and close out, so he was having trouble positioning himself and getting into a wave with some down-the-line potential. We were all keeping an eye on him, and when he finally made a wave, we gave him the biggest cheer of the day for his big bottom turn, and then groaned when he was picked off by the section.

An enterprising Los Angeles Times reporter covering the contest later interviewed him and learned he was a frequent Maverick’s surfer and an “executive coach.” One assumes he advises executives on how to better do their job–insert cynical remark here–but I am unclear on the specifics other than he is probably self-employed with plenty of surf time in his schedule. Don speculates he hunts up surfing executives for midweek surf jaunts to be charged to the company’s training budget for their “mental clarity” benefits, a truly depressing thought to contemplate the next time you sneak off for a surf only to find a crowded lineup. But life is too short for jealousy.
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After the contest was over, as the crowd streamed back to their cars, we saw these locals heading out toward the point. Now that the damn thing was over, they could finally go surf their break. We told them they should have been here an hour ago. They didn’t laugh. That’s locals–no sense of humor.
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I grabbed this shot as we inched along the road out of town. A boy of about 12, suited up and ready to hit it at a little spot south of the yacht harbor where some mellow shoulder-head high waves were rolling in. Maybe in a few years. . .
So that was our experience. My daughter and I agreed it was definitely worth it, that the hassles were quickly forgotten and the memory of the pleasures grew richer. A great experience.

And you know, I’ve been thinking. I saw the noncontestant executive coach guy paddle out from the cove in a paddling channel and get out to the lineup untouched; it didn’t look that hard. And the waves at the Maverick’s peak were not real punchy, with big soft shoulders. And the sets were brief, 2-3 waves. And there wasn’t a lot of white water, you wouldn’t have to paddle that far to get over to safety in calm waters; why, the peak backed off inside after it threw over. Check the photos.

Sure, you’d have to get lined up properly on the peak and not try to take off too deep before you had it wired, and be careful not to blow the drop-in down the 20 foot/6 m face. . . What I’m saying is, maybe it was special conditions and not the usual Maverick’s, but I think you and I probably could have done it, right? I mean, how hard could surfing 20-foot waves be?

And by the way, is that what surf contests are usually like?

-Peter from California

You can check contest footage, photos, and coverage at Surfline.com. Heaps of video of the contest itself is on the Mavericks myspace page.

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