The Mavericks Invitational, one of big-wave surfing's major contests, kicks off on Sunday morning at eight when a low frequency pulse from the west-northwest and light off-shore winds will begin to generate glassy 17-footers.
Mavericks, which is located about 25 miles south of San Francisco, just west of the Pillar Point headland in Half Moon Bay, is the Mount Everest of surfing. The spot was named after a gray-haired German shepherd that followed the first crew of Half Moon locals to surf the spot into the water in 1961.
The real pioneering began, though, in 1975 with an 18-year-old carpenter named Jeff Clark, a young man who'd grown up watching massive waves detonate on a reef just north of his house. Clark surfed Mavericks alone for 15 years. Eventually, he told surfers from Santa Cruz (to the south) and San Francisco (to the north) about his secret spot.
In 1992, Surfer magazine introduced the 'Voodoo Wave' to the rest of the world in an article called 'Cold Sweat.' Two years later, when Mark Foo, a well-known Hawaiian surfer, drowned at Mav's after wiping out on a 15-footer, the spot became world-renown.
The Set Up
What is it that makes Mavericks perhaps the gnarliest, most terrifying wave on the planet and source material for cheese-ball Gerard Butler adventure-sports flicks? For starters, the air is cold and the water is frigid (always around 50 degrees) and black.
Mavericks resides smack in the middle of the dreaded red triangle and there's always the possibility of Great White appearing. I've never surfed Mavericks and most certainly never will, but I imagine that if I were brave enough to make the paddle, once I got out in the lineup, I'd be less focused on the cold and the really big fish and more focused on other stuff -- like rapidly-moving water mountains and dangerous winds and currents and jagged rocks.
Surf season at Mavericks runs from October and lasts through March. The spot begins breaking -- sort of -- at 10 feet, but it does take on that mutant Mavericks shape -- scalloped and sinister -- until it hits 15 feet. When the surf reaches the 35-40 foot range the waves become far less predictable and far more dangerous.
As Sean Collins, the late creator of Surfline, once pointed out, there's an interesting swirling pattern of shallow reef extending westward off of Point Pillar. Those swirling grooves function like a large magnifying glass to merge and focus extra wave energy from nearby deeper water toward the shallower reef.
With a long period swell, like the one that competitors will see on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, the wave energy squares up perpendicular against this reef and all of that energy bowls up into the Main Peak (The Corner).
Anatomy of a Mavericks Wave
Mavericks is a predominately right-breaking wave. (The wave itself is said to be particularly challenging to ride, requiring down-the-line speed under thick, heaving sections.) According to Matt Warshaw, the dude who literally wrote the book on Mavericks ('Mavericks: The Story of Big Wave Surfing'), the terraced reef produces a two-speed wave: a fast, hollow, tremendously explosive section that spills into a more forgiving shoulder section, which leads to another near-vertical drop known as Second Bowl.
Just inside the The Corner, closer to the shoreline, there's a steep drop-off in the underwater topography where surfers can be stranded for multiple-wave hold-downs.
Closer to shore, that's where death resides. You do anything you can to stay away from the inside at Mavericks. You do that by picking the right wave and by being cognizant of the wind. Gusty off-shores will cause you to free fall on the drop or even worse, get hung up in the lip and then pitched over the falls. In most cases the current will wash you south, out of danger.
But in the case of a west or a west-southwest swell, the current will carry a trapped surfer into the Cauldron, a shallow rocky area with underwater ledges and holes where you can get trapped.
There are calmer lagoons near shore, but those unfortunate souls who end up being swept through the Cauldron, and then over jagged fingers of rock, may find themselves trapped between a series of dry boulders and 20-foot avalanches of rushing whitewater.
The Contest Field
This year’s Mavericks Invitational field is even more star-studded than usual. It features the usual crew of big wave hell-men, including Grant “Twiggy” Baker, Ken “Skindog” Collins, Shane Dorian, Nathan Fletcher, Mark Healy, Rusty and Greg Long, Peter Mel, Jamie Sterling, Dave Wassel, and Garrett McNamara.
Kelly Slater, who took second place in the 2000 contest, and 10-time Molokai to Oahu paddleboard champion Jamie Mitchell will also be in attendance. Most of the remaining members of the 41-man field are local dudes, guys from Half Moon Bay or Santa Cruz, or just up the road in Pacifica. Guys who know the break, who -- if you watch the webcast on Sunday -- you probably won’t see getting stuck inside.
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