Danger lurks at Mavericks

The Mavericks Surf Contest is never child’s play, but this year the big waves are expected to be exceptionally treacherous.

With the swell arriving from a direction that makes entry onto the waves difficult, strong currents that could pull wiped-out surfers toward the sharp and shallow reef, and residual winds making the ocean choppier, surfers will be forced to be extremely careful, according to some of this year’s participants.

But despite the potential peril, a majority of the 24 surfers invited to participate in the contest voted to paddle straight toward them  Saturday, contest organizer Keir Beadling said Thursday.

The legendary big-wave contest is held almost every year at Mavericks, a break about a half-mile off Half Moon Bay, drawing media coverage from around the country and thousands of surf enthusiasts to watch from the cliffs. To keep crowds down, the contest will be webcast live and simulcast at AT&T Park, along with in New York’s Times Square. The contest was not held last year because no adequate swell hit Mavericks.

For the first time, the timing of the contest was decided by a vote of the participants. Previously, contest founder Jeff Clark decided whether swell conditions were ideal for a contest, and surfers were given 48 hours to fly to the Bay Area for the contest. This year, contestants were given 24 hours to evaluate the conditions and vote.

Reigning Mavericks champion Greg Long said although the swell is expected to be very large and long lasting, the dangerous conditions kept the decision from being a no-brainer. But in the end, he said, 17 of the 24 surfers decided the conditions were good enough to go forward.

“It’s very exciting,” he said. “It’s going to be a pretty interesting day out there, with larger, more-wild swells. It’s going to make for a dramatic event, I’m sure of it.”

Beadling said that any surfers who feel the conditions are too dangerous can step aside and allow a standby surfer to participate. One well-known surfer, Mark Foo, is known to have died at the Mavericks site in 1994, but not during the contest.

“It’s one of the reasons you let the guys vote,” he said. “It’s a self-selected group. These guys are the 24 human beings most qualified to surf Mavericks on the planet. Nobody on the planet knows better than they what kind of conditions they’ll see out there.”

Long, who also won the 2009 Eddie Aikau surfing event in Hawaii, said that even though the contest window was coming to a close, the surfers wouldn’t have voted to hold it if they didn’t think conditions were good enough to ride. In the end, he and the majority of other surfers were swayed by the call of the big waves.

“It’s gonna be big, and that’s what everybody has been holding out for and hoping for — a big day,” Long said.

 

How to watch the waves

•As part of its ongoing efforts to reduce foot traffic at the event and entice fans to experience the contest remotely, Mavericks will offer live webcast footage at www.maverickssurf.com
•Fans will have the option of watching the contest on their mobile devices via Flo TV
•The day’s activities will be available via a simulcast at AT&T Park in San Francisco
•Spectators can watch from a boat for three hours, close to waves and contestants
•Binoculars may help spectators see the surfers, as the break is far from shore

Who to watch at the competition

Grant “Twiggy” Baker
The South African was a relative unknown when he was a surprise vote into the 2006 contest, but it didn’t take long for him to make a name for himself. He finished second to Greg Long at the 2008 Mavericks, and has won Billabong awards for big-wave surfing. He, Long and another surfer rode what may have been the largest wave ever surfed in January 2008.

Greg Long
The San Clemente surfer may be the man to beat, having won the 2008 Mavericks and the 2009 Eddie Aikau event in Hawaii. This will be his sixth Mavericks contest. He placed second in 2003 and then won the 2008 competition. And Long has earned numerous Billabong trophies.

Darryl “Flea” Virostko
The Santa Cruz native became one of the world’s best-known big-wave surfers when he won the first three Mavericks contests (1999, 2000 and 2004). However, in 2008 he announced that he had fallen into alcohol and methamphetamine addiction. He has cleaned up and even established his own rehab clinic, FleaHab. This is his opportunity to prove that both his mind and body are back.

Grant Washburn
The San Franciscan was a Mavericks finalist in 2004, ’06 and ’08, but his love for the swell doesn’t stop at the contest. He surfs the break — often alone — virtually every time it happens. This year alone, he has ridden Mavericks waves more than two dozen times. Also, Washburn has produced two surf films and worked on the book “Inside Maverick’s.”

kworth@sfexaminer.com

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