The Selling of a Wave

Three sports clothing companies are sponsoring contests that encourage surfers to ride the 60-foot waves at Maverick's Point. Someone may be encouraged to death.

On a sticky September night South of Market, the Twenty Tank brewpub is packed to capacity. Ruddy-faced people in white, logo-emblazoned T-shirts sip beers, waiting for the second public screening of Maverick's, a documentary produced by filmmaker Lili Schad and surfer Grant Washburn. The room buzzes with curiosity. This is what the audience already knows:

1) Maverick's is the name of the big wave 20 minutes south of San Francisco.
2) It was discovered by a local named Jeff Clark, who surfed it solo for 15 years.

3) A pro surfer named Mark Foo drowned there.
But other than seeing magazine photos, or a video snippet of Foo's death on the news, very few of the people in this bar have witnessed The Wave in action.

As the lights dim, the pub becomes deathly still. People set down their pints of beer to stare as a churning, roiling, 60-foot-tall tube of water collects ant-sized surfers and flings them over its top, or shoots them down toward the jagged rocks under its surface.

From the rear of the balcony a single, Jeff Spicoli surfer voice groans across the silence: "Ohhhhhh, duuuuuude!"

In the last eight years, Maverick's has grown so popular as a big-wave surf spot that Universal Studios and Tom Hanks are considering a feature film about Mark Foo's much-publicized death there in a freak 1994 surfing accident. And the Maverick's mystique is ever increasing, fueled, in part, by corporate interest.

Nov. 1 marks the start of the Northern California surfing season, and two separate surf contests are planned for Maverick's. If the weather generates big waves, those contests are expected to draw overflow crowds and the biggest media hype the small town of Half Moon Bay, located 22 miles south of downtown San Francisco, has ever seen.

The Maverick's Men Who Ride Mountains surf contest, sponsored by the Quiksilver Inc. clothing company, begins next month. Entry is limited to 12 competitors -- eight from the area, and four from elsewhere -- all handpicked by the contest director, Half Moon Bay surfer Jeff Clark, who has been instrumental in Maverick's rise to fame, and who has become the focus of controversy over the popularization of this once-obscure spot.

Between Nov. 1 and Jan. 27, whenever The Wave starts breaking, Clark will send out the alert: Contestants from all over the world will have 48 hours to get to Half Moon Bay and paddle out, or they will lose their chance to compete. A press release doesn't list criteria for judging the winners, but the prize purse totals $40,000.

Immediately following the Quiksilver contest, from Feb. 3 to 28, another surf clothing company, Reef Brazil, will hold its own contest at Maverick's. This competition is open to two-man teams representing countries around the world, surfing for a chunk of an undisclosed amount of prize money.

There is a third contest involving the once-little-known Maverick's. Last year the K2 Corp., a ski and snowboard maker, entered the lucrative surf market by absorbing the Katin surf shorts company. As a promotional idea, K2 stunned the industry by sponsoring a big-wave competition, offering $50,000 to the surfer who could ride the biggest wall of water. Surfers attacked the largest waves they could find in the Pacific Ocean, accompanied by photographers from all over the world. Tow-in assists by boat or Jet Ski -- a new offshoot originating in Hawaii, which places surfers into waves not possible to reach by paddling -- were not allowed. Maverick's was deluged with new surfers.

"We had people coming out of the woodwork," recalls Jeff Clark. "We're really lucky nobody was killed."

In a highly controversial contest -- which many feel urged surfers to push beyond their limits -- the finalists were Santa Cruz star Peter Mel, photographed at Maverick's, and Taylor Knox, who caught his wave at Todos Santos, an island off the coast of Baja California. Although both waves measured just under 50 feet tall, the judges favored Knox based largely on the angle of his photograph; he collected $50,000. The judges awarded $5,000 to Mel as a second prize.

Maverick's essentially lost a beauty contest.
But this year The Wave gets another shot, with K2 again sponsoring its $50,000, big-wave photo competition, open to anyone surfing the Pacific Ocean.

Last year El Nino produced record-breaking swells in both California and Hawaii. This winter La Nina, a weather pattern that often follows the Nino phenomenon, is expected to do the same, and surf magazines are hyping the dry, cold, clean, big-wave conditions expected for Northern California. Photographers are planning their winter schedules. Maverick's regulars are surfing the small breaks to stay sharp, practicing a familiar hurry-up-and-wait routine. Half Moon Bay surf shops are ordering extra sunglasses and videos.

But Half Moon Bay can expect more than increased media coverage and financial opportunities from the surf contests on The Wave at Maverick's. Sooner or later, if the contests continue, someone else is going to die.

Spanish explorer Capt. Gaspar de Portola and a party of 60 arrived in the area of what is now Half Moon Bay in 1769, and discovered 150 Indians there, fishing and raising crops. A diary kept by Father Juan Crespi provides a visitor's first impression by a non-Indian human being:

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