Watercraft in Maverick’s crosshairs

As if the big-wave surfing contest at Maverick’s didn’t have enough turbulence surrounding it this year, a showdown over personal watercraft is now shaping up.

Enforcement officials say they will be on the water at the upcoming contest issuing citations of at least $500 to anyone with an unpermitted personal watercraft and forcing them out of the water.

The contest takes place off the coast of Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay, where 24 of the world’s best surfers are invited to take on the surf break’s massive waves.

The event typically attracts dozens of personal watercraft, including water patrol rescue workers, support-craft or “board caddies” for the surfers, and spectators. However due to concerns that the Jet Ski-type vehicles endanger wildlife and create too much noise, at the upcoming event, only the water patrol will be allowed to use personal watercraft, and those will be limited to 15. Drivers of the permitted watercraft must wear special clothing to distinguish them from the others who will then be ticketed and asked to leave the water.

The controversy isn’t the first this year for the contest. During the last contest, held in February, massive waves swept over a beach where a crowd was watching the contest, injuring 13 fans. In the months after, a longstanding dispute over the leadership of the contest came to a head, and a splinter group of surfers competed for and then won the permit to host the contest this year. They’ve renamed the contest the Jay’s at Maverick’s Big Wave Invitational.

In February, officials from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration attempted to limit the number of personal watercraft at the event — which they have authority to do because the contest takes place in a national marine preserve.

But though they only officially permitted 10 watercraft, they observed at least 34 in the water, according to marine preserve spokeswoman Mary Jane Schramm. This time, an enforcement official will be posted at the boat ramp, preventing the watercraft from even entering the water, she said.

Contest founder and organizer Jeff Clark adamantly opposes the limitations, saying that modern personal watercraft are much cleaner and quieter than they once were, and science does not support claims that the craft injure wildlife. There are no limits to the number of boats that can be on the water, and limiting the personal watercraft will only mean more boats crowding around the contest, perhaps making a more dangerous situation for surfers in the water, he said.

“There are these preconceived notions that personal watercraft is this terrible thing,” Clark said. “There’s all this government involvement in something they don’t even understand.”

But not all surfers feel the way Clark does. Surfer and current contest director Greg Washburn said some purist surfers believe there is no place in surfing for personal watercraft.

“I think they’re OK — I like to use them occasionally when I think it’s worth it and legitimate,” he said. “It’s a tool, but like any tool, it can be misused.”

Watching the waves

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

kworth@sfexaminer.com

Bay Area NewsLocalSan Franciscosurfing

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