They call it the "Hidden Mt. Everest." And for the sixth time in 13 years, no surfers got a chance to conquer the Northern California ocean swell better known as Maverick's this past season.
"It's kind of good there wasn't a contest this year," said Mark Sponsler, a surfer and official contest forecaster. "We were having some growing pains as a community and organization, but, like having a child, it's painful. Now it's out. Time to start living."
Today's calm end for the Maverick's contest season is stark contrast to a stormy start for organizers. The famous point break near Half Moon Bay, roughly 40 miles south of San Francisco, is notorious for generating monster surf for big wave riders in an annual winter contest. But while the newly named The Jay at Maverick's Big Wave Invitational 2010-11 did not see waves big enough for competition, it did see waves of infighting among organizers.
This year was also a dry season for giant Pacific waves like The Eddie in Hawaii. Both events close today, but Maverick's almost didn't open at all this season. "Last year, El Niño juiced storms. This year La Niña brought high pressure, no storms, no nothing," said Sponsler.
"This isn't baseball. You don't just show up and expect to play," he said. Maverick's is treacherous even on an off-year. Sponsler said there was "one little break in late January." That's the one that nearly drown surfer Jacob Trette.
For The Jay to run, the 24 competing surfers are notified when forecasters expect waves to consistently reach the 40-foot mark. The surfers examine the forecast information and then vote on whether or not they think the conditions warrant calling the contest on. But this year, according to local pioneer Jeff Clark, "The surfers didn't even vote." Clark was the first to surf Maverick's in 1975 and has mentored many of the surfers who now compete at the break.
Long before the event window opened on December first, the event made headlines as two groups vied for control of the permits issued by the Harbor Commission in Half Moon Bay. Mavericks Surf Ventures, which held the permits for the past several years, was challenged by a group calling itself the Jay Moriarty Group, after a beloved local big wave surfer who died in 2001. In contrast to the San Francisco-based Mavericks Surf Ventures, the Moriarty group consisted of many of the surfers who have competed at Maverick's over the years, as well as members of the local surf community. Ultimately, it was the latter group that won the permits for this year's event, but Clark himself chose not to accept an official role.
"There's still some bad vibes and I just don't want to subject myself," he said. "Some are in it for themselves, not for surfers, community, or environment." Clark did recently move his store closer to Maverick's. "Looks like a lake in the afternoon," said Clark, glancing at Maverick's out his surf shop window Monday.
"He'll [Clark] always be involved. Even when technically fired [by MSV], he was still out there," said Grant Washburn, an organizer with The Jay and a 20-year Maverick's veteran. "When we're surfing, none of this matters. Guys are just rooting each other on. Everyone's an underdog, you just want to survive with dignity."
In past years, the event has seen as many as 50,000 spectators, which local businesses say they'll miss. "The community is bummed," said Mike Laffen, General Manager of Half Moon Bay Brewing Co. Laffen said contest day last year was his best sales day ever. Maverick's generates $24 million for the Half Moon Bay area, according to a study by The University of Hawaii.
"This wave drought can't continue forever," said Washburn. "When it lifts, we'll be ready."