Walls of waves tackled at Mavericks

WIPEOUT: Grant Baker of South Africa is worked by the waves. Two dozen surfers challenged one of the world's most dangerous breaks at Mavericks, about 20 miles south of San Francisco.
WIPEOUT: Grant Baker of South Africa is worked by the waves. Two dozen surfers challenged one of the world’s most dangerous breaks at Mavericks, about 20 miles south of San Francisco.
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Mavericks, a rock-studded, once-secret surf spot named after a dog, looked for all the world Saturday like the Super Bowl of big wave riding as thousands of people streamed to this fishing hamlet to see two dozen surfers challenge one of the world’s most dangerous breaks.

With powerful surf and gentle winds forecast, Mavericks pioneer Jeff Clark kicked off the sixth edition of the surf contest by issuing the call late last week to surfers from California, Hawaii, South Africa, Australia and Brazil. They had 24 hours to get here, and all but one -- who had just become a father -- arrived in time to take on waves forecast to reach 25 feet or higher.

But the surfers were not the only ones who had to mobilize for the contest held near Highway 1 about 20 miles south of San Francisco. “When they call it, everybody springs to action,” said Helmut Erhard, site manager for the Air Force missile tracking station half a mile away, where the judges and scores of news outlets were allowed to set up camp for a bird’s-eye view of the waves.

Party boats sold standing room for $275 a head so surf fans could bob in the sea alongside the break -- by far the closest vantage point.

But about 6 a.m. Saturday in the predawn blackness, Daniel Hinojosa, 49, of San Jose was hiking resolutely up the narrow lane toward Mavericks with something else in mind. Wearing a red wetsuit and carrying a surfboard, two disposable underwater cameras, a bottle of water and cheese sticks, he was planning to paddle out for a ringside seat. “I hope I can last two hours,” he said, referring to the water temperature, which was in the low 50s. “I’ll stay away from the party boats. I don’t want somebody throwing up on me.”

Last year, the mountainous waves that have made Mavericks famous and claimed the life of Hawaii surfer Mark Foo in 1994 did not materialize, and no contest was held. But as the first light poked through the overcast Saturday, hulking swells already were rolling to the reef, pitching upward and exploding in foam.

An hour later, at 8 a.m., the air horn sounded and the first heat was on. Most of the participants were from Santa Cruz and the San Francisco area, locals who treat Mavericks as their backyard break. One of them is sturdy Matt Ambrose of nearby Pacifica, a surfboard factory owner whose wife and two children looked on.

Is it terrifying to see him charging into house-sized waves above a shallow reef? “He surfs these waves all the time,” said Leigh Ann Ambrose, an emergency room nurse. “He was never injured seriously. He was cut on the lip twice and then the board hit his cheek and the skin burst. . . . He is as crazy as you can be out there and still be sensible.”

The event was broadcast on a large-screen TV at the beach with a ride-by-ride announcer, including instant replays, and at the Giants baseball stadium by the bay in San Francisco.

As the contestants took breathtaking drops and carved long lines across thundering waves, the area just to the south of them looked like McCovey Cove when Giants slugger Barry Bonds was chasing the all-time home run record. In addition to a flotilla of 50 party boats, there were several kayaks, spectator surfboards and a Coast Guard cutter.

There were also numerous Jet Skis, which are used to rescue surfers and tow them away from rocks after wipeouts. Federal officials granted permission to allow them in the marine sanctuary encompassing Mavericks.

Wildlife specialists from the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary stood on the bluffs with spotting scopes, counting watercraft and watching whether helicopters or boats disturbed wildlife. “We want to make sure that seabirds, seals or whales are not impacted,” sanctuary spokeswoman Mary Jane Schramm said. “Birds . . . are doing nesting prospecting and we do not want them frightened away from their habitat.”

Contest organizers worked with federal officials to try to avoid a repeat of the 2006 contest, during which hundreds of people walked onto the reefs to get a closer look at the surfing and trampled aquatic plants and animals. “That’s one of the reasons the organizers encouraged people to watch [the contest] online,” Schramm said.

The combination of high tides and big surf Saturday gradually shrank the sliver of beach where spectators almost looked up at the staircase of waves.

The water surged high enough to cause Jeff Wilson to retreat to a sandy rise near the contest headquarters, where he could watch the surfing in the distance and on the TV. “We were at the end of the beach and the waves came and washed over everyone -- people and their babies,” said the surgical technician from the East Bay.

After a series of storms and gloomy weather last weekend, sunshine bathed the crowd, which was a mix of surfers and nonsurfers. “I moved back from Hawaii a year or two ago and was missing the ocean,” said Jeannine Falletti, a real estate appraiser from Dublin, east of Oakland, who was snacking on the beach with a friend.

The scene, with live music, food vendors and environmental information stands, was a far cry from the day in 1975 when Jeff Clark, then 17, first surfed Mavericks and kept it pretty much to himself for 15 years. Now, he has a surf shop named after the break and runs the contest through a separate company, Mavericks Surf Ventures.

“We basically got it off the ground with sponsorship of the event,” said one of the company co-founders, Doug Epstein, who had worked as a sports agent. “We are attempting to produce an apparel line that captures the magic and spirit of Mavericks.”

For those who could not afford a boat fare, binoculars were indispensable, and one local merchant was carting more than 100 pairs to sell at the site.

Still, seeking high ground is the best way to see the surfing. In 2006, some people scaled the crumbly bluffs, causing injuries and damage to the fragile soil. On Saturday, organizers and sheriff’s deputies had to repeatedly warn people away from the most dangerous areas.

Some fans hiked to hillsides above Ross’ Cove, just to the north.

There, they caught glimpses of the contest but, according to two visitors, they cheered loudly for a lone non-contestant catching waves on the lesser-known break just below.

When he emerged dripping, surfer Bart Miller said he had started off his day surfing at Mavericks before the contest began, then switched boards for a session at the cove.

The executive coach from the San Francisco Peninsula said he surfs Mavericks “as often as I can.”

“Probably 25 or 30 days a year, and it is not all epic days. But it’s fun, and the wave is powerful and dangerous.”

Organizers said 250,000 people watched the contest on a Web cast and more than 1,000 paid to view it on the big screen at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

At the end of the day, the contestants chose the experience over money. “The sun was shining; there was no wind and plenty of swell. You could ask for nothing more,” said the winner, Greg Long of San Clemente, who received $30,000.

“As we paddled out for the finals and were sitting there, we decided we would take the first through sixth-place money [$57,000] and divide it,” he said. “The camaraderie was beyond anything I had experienced.”