The surf break off the Central California coast known as Maverick's produces one of the sport's most infamous waves. Part of what makes it so tricky lies in its powerful currents and frigid temperatures. On a typical winter day the water can average 48 degrees, while air temps can drop into the mid 40s. This fact alone separates Maverick's from other marquee big-wave spots in Mexico and Hawaii.
The machinations below the surface of the Maverick's Surf Contest these days have a lot of the same unsettling qualities. How those machinations might impact the 24 contestants willing to launch themselves onto Mav's unpredictable 20-foot-plus walls of ocean will be discovered this winter -- whether the event is held or not.
A dispute between the contest's principle organizers that has swirled for several years finally took under Jeff Clark, the man synonymous with the big-wave break. Clark, who founded the contest 10 years ago after surfing it alone for a stretch of 15 years, was unceremoniously dropped as contest director and stripped of any authority in Mavericks Surf Ventures, the company Clark formed to run the contest.
Neither Clark nor Keir Beadling, the MSV CEO who announced Clark was "stepping down" only to have Clark quickly respond that he had been "ousted," will cite the reasons for Clark's departure. Both claim potential legal ramifications for their silence. Sources say that Clark was booted back in June by Beadling and MSV's other board member, Mark Dwight, for everything from attempting to start a rival contest to insisting on mega-size waves to call the contest to refusing to cede the use of his name and likeness wholly over to MSV. Those same sources say Clark plans to file a suit against Beadling and MSV but has not done so yet.
"It's a classic bait-and-switch, followed by a squeeze-out, but it'll all come out in time," says Clark, who still owns shares in MSV but resigned from the MSV three-man board shortly after being removed as contest director.
The contest, Beadling says, is the "crown jewel" of a much larger enterprise. MSV has started both a clothing line and a concert tour based on the Maverick's image. That seems to be the essence of the conflict between Clark and Beadling. Clark, is a local icon who schedules commitments around his surf sessions and tee times. He sees the contest as the mainland's version of the The Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau on Oahu, a 25-year old contest revered in surfing circles for its insistence on rarely-seen conditions that have led to it running only eight times.
Beadling, a former lawyer and Duke grad who grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., sees far greater potential, what with Mav's being roughly a 40-minute drive from both San Francisco and Silicon Valley. He seems bent on tapping mainstream attention as quickly as possible. Live telecasts in both New York's Times Square and San Francisco's AT&T Park, as well as the $150,000 contest purse are credited to him. He also has created an award-winning website and puts out nearly a dozen daily messages on Twitter.
"We're a rounding error for a company like Quiksilver," he says, "but we don't plan to be a rounding error for long."
The ambition to sell Mav's to a consumer base that doesn't know surf wax from candle wax has appalled those who do. Beadling was behind a series of viral videos that include a surfer fresh from Mav's feigning to dig a massive shark tooth out of his thigh. Another has a surfer witnessing a vicious wipeout and defecating in his wetsuit.
Those cartoonish images, along with hard-selling a clothing line that several industry insiders panned as "generic" and a contestant contract that would've given MSV proprietary rights over everything and anything Mav's-related they did, have only reinforced the image of Beadling as a marketing outsider.
Then again, the invitees still ultimately sided with Beadling and MSV, inviting Clark to be an honorary participant but deciding unilaterally to take part in the contest with or without him.
"Everybody's bummed that Jeff isn't involved," says Rusty Long, an invitee whose brother Greg won the last Mav's contest held in 2008. "But it's kind of boiled down to it has the biggest contest purse ever and everybody wants to compete."
With Clark out, MSV handed the authority of when the contest is held and how it is run largely to the 24 invitees. Anytime storm and weather patterns suggest a swell favorable for big waves -- as a deep-water break, Mav's needs ample energy in the water to break at all -- a vote is taken by e-mail 48 hours in advance of the first set's projected arrival.
So far, three votes have been held, all resulting in a resounding majority of nays, which exposes the inherent problem in calling the contest by committee. Long-time contestants Peter Mel and Grant Washburn say Clark always consulted with them and others when he felt a potential contest-day approaching, but that he ultimately used his vast internal understanding of how to read the buoys and anticipated swell and wind direction based on a lifetime of observation to choose the right combination.
While the contest window is from Nov. 1 to March 31, Clark and others say contest-worthy days are extremely rare beyond December. MSV, at the behest of local authorities, have blacked out weekends and holidays, concerned the crowds would be too large for the narrow and steep cliffs that provide the best view of the break.
That rule eliminated a pristine Thanksgiving Day swell. The invitees then voted down what has been tagged a once-in-20-year swell that rolled through in early December because for many of them it would've meant competing less than 48 hours after the Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau ran on Oahu.
Several other swells that had many of the contestants surfing Mav's in recent weeks didn't elicit a vote because the indicators predicted smaller waves than actually materialized. "We'd rather see it be bigger and gnarlier than run it just to run it," says Mel.
A swell capable of producing 30-foot faces is forecast for this week but stiff south winds and the angle of the swell could make it unrideable. Winds are supposed to die down on Thursday, but it takes a day or so for wind chop to dissipate and a warbly surface means a surfer can do everything right and still get pitched off his board by an unexpected lump in the wave. A vote was held on Monday, and once again the nays were in the majority.
The question looming is whether the contest -- or, more specifically, MSV and its grandiose vision -- can survive without an event and a winner and all that comes with it a second straight year. Or if the contest is called, will it produce the kind of death-defying spectacle that will thrust it far enough into the national consciousness to sell t-shirts and hoodies and concert tickets?
"It's like having a small needle and a big piece of thread," says Washburn. "But it's not about all that for us who surf it. It's very personal, meditative. Once you're out there, you pretty much forget you have a contest shirt on."
Update: Jan. 19, 2010 -- Jeff Clark files suit against MSV, citing breach of fiduciary duties and fraud.