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Watercraft at Mavericks ride a wave of regulations

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The Mavericks surf break is known for going off during a storm — but a new storm is brewing that may threaten to shut it down.
Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary authorities say they will begin enforcing new regulations that prohibit unpermitted personal watercraft at the famous surf break unless the swell is more than 20 feet tall.

But surf advocates say the spot is frequently surfed when waves are smaller than that, and prohibiting the personal watercraft during those times will endanger lives at a perilous surf spot that has already claimed one.

Though personal watercraft have not been sanctioned at Mavericks since the venue was included in a National Marine Sanctuary in 1992, officials typically looked the other way.

That changed last March, after a lengthy and heated public vetting process resulted in the new regulations that specifically outlaw the vehicles unless they get a permit in advance, or if a high-surf advisory has been triggered by waves bigger than 20 feet, sanctuary spokeswoman Mary Jane Schramm said. She said the restriction is intended to protect ocean wildlife and habitat.

The new regulations have not stopped surf advocates such as coastside resident and Mavericks Surf Contest founder Jeff Clark from taking his Jet Ski out to the big-wave surf spot even on days when there is no high-surf warning. After world-renowned surfer Mark Foo died at Mavericks in 1994, he established a group called the Mavericks Water Patrol — volunteers who would do the work of lifeguards there, helping tow surfers to the spot, which is half a mile off shore, and aiding them if they are injured.

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The conflict came to a head last month at the Mavericks Surf Contest, when sanctuary officials found 34 personal watercraft on the water — far more than the 10 permits that had been granted, sanctuary Director Maria Brown said. At some point during the contest, the swell became high enough to warrant a high-surf advisory, but until then, authorities were forcing them to return to Pillar Point Harbor, Clark said.

The battle is likely to get more heated soon: Brown said sanctuary officials are meeting with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the Coast Guard and state Fish and Game Department officials to plan enforcement tactics at the spot.

But Clark said the enforcement is wrongheaded. He said the spot typically breaks about 15 times a year, and he has yet to see scientific evidence that the presence of personal watercraft for those days does any harm to marine life or habitat.

“It’s one of those things that’s really hard to abide by because they put a perceived problem over human life,” he said. “We have to keep going out there because we don’t want our friends to die, and nobody else is out there watching out for them.”

Watching the waves

20 feet: Minimum wave height for personal watercraft to be used
34: Personal watercraft spotted in water during last month’s Mavericks competition
10: Personal watercraft permits issued for Mavericks
1992: Year Maverick venue was included in National Marine Sanctuary
1994: Year surfer Mark Foo died at Mavericks (not during competition)


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