Katherine Clark oversees “her boys” like a Boy Scout den mother.
Only her boys aren’t Boy Scouts at all, far from it. They’re top surfers who come each year to surf the break at Mavericks and compete in what is widely recognized as the big wave surfing event.
From the first contest in 1998-99, Clark was there managing hundreds of volunteers, arranging for Porta-Potties to be trucked in, making lunch for as many as 500 people and chartering boats for the contest judges, media and VIPs —all on short notice. The contest is called 24 hours in advance, any time between Jan. 1 and March 31, whenever wave conditions are judged to be right.
“Early on, I remember her making us breakfast burritos in the dark before sunrise,” said Grant Washburn, 38, a Mavericks finalist in 2004 and 2006.
This year, as the event continues to grow, drawing a bigger crowd base and a non-surf-industry sponsor in Ask.com, Clark will again be there, although others are now working beside her.
“It’s like putting on the Super Bowl out in the ocean on 24 hours notice,” Clark said. So how does she manage? “You’ve gotta be a strong Plan B type of person,” she says.
Clark, the ex-wife of Mavericks surf pioneer Jeff Clark, who along with Keiran Beadling and Doug Epstein makes up Mavericks Surf Ventures, bonded with many of the surfers not long after she opened the Roadhouse Café, later Mavericks Café, in Princeton-by-the Sea in the early 1990s. It became a default headquarters for many of the surfers, Clark said.
In spite of some growing pains as the event becomes more popular, including an earlier threatened boycott by surfers and a recently filed lawsuit by a mother and son injured by falling cliff debris last year, Clark, Washburn and others are hopeful.
For those who surf Mavericks every winter, the commercialization of the event has been a tough fit. “It’s frustrating to see something you love and you’ve been doing for so long pawned off as something else,” said Washburn, who has worked on multiple surfing documentaries and written a book about Mavericks.
To address the traffic problems and crowds that last year’s event caused, organizer Maverick Surf Ventures has hired longtime surf event manager Darren Brilhart, secured parking at the Half Moon Bay Airport and will run shuttles to the best viewing beaches, according to Epstein, spokesman for Maverick Surf. In addition, two big screen televisions will stream a live Web cast, which will also be aired on flat screen televisions at the Field Club Lounge at AT&T Park.
Predicting big waves
With the start of the Mavericks waiting period comes the beginning of the wait for the perfect waves off the Half Moon Bay Coast. Those waves get their start near Japan, according to Mark Sponsler.
Mavericks’ amateur meteorologist, Sponsler grew up in a family interested in the weather; his brother worked as a forecaster. He tracks the weather using the National Weather Service and satellite data, checking in often with Mavericks pioneer Jeff Clark “who ultimately makes the call,” said Sponsler, a Mavericks surfer himself.
The best waves require some basic ingredients. First, the storm has to cover a large area with winds of 55 knots or more, headed straight for the California coast, Sponsler said. He’s looking for strong, straight winds to last two or more days, generating waves at least 40 feet high. Then, as the storm catches the jet stream and moves toward the Pacific Northwest, he begins to chart the winds along the coast, Sponsler said.
“We want the winds to be basically dead calm off the coast, and to have a low tide for the best conditions,” Sponsler said.
He often tracks storms from as far as 2,400 nautical miles and can forecast the right conditions — barring the all-important local winds — as much as a week in advance, he said.
This being the first full-blown El Niño year in a while, Sponsler and others say December produced some of the best waves in a decade after a slow start, which bodes well for the competition.
“The El Niño is great for surfing because it supercharges the jet stream,” Sponsler said.