A Day at Mavericks: Not Living Up to the Legend

MavericksI wrote a blog on this for San Francisco Magazine at sanfranmag.com. I had to shorten it up for those purposes, but worked hard on the original. So here it is:

There is nothing quite like taking a drive down the Great Highway on a clear, sunny day. Blessed with weather fit for May, a few friends and I ventured South to Half Moon Bay, hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary waves and epic contest that makes up the Mavericks Invitational.

Even after waiting in a line of traffic to park, and a longer pedestrian line to get into the $10-a-pop festival grounds (a small, gated area of a parking lot), excitement still reigned. We knew ahead of time that watching the surf contest unfold in person would be a fool’s errand, even with binoculars. But the official Mavericks website promised a live stream of the event at the festival grounds, so we gladly took the bait.

Unfortunately, the festival grounds was more like a low-quality drive-in movie with very few, overpriced vendor options. In the small space, we counted three food trucks and one very crowded beer garden; plus the “Jumbotron” looked more like the flat screens being sold at any electronics store on a daily basis. The conditions weren’t ideal.

And neither were the waves. Rumors of postponement dotted the early morning heats after it was mentioned that some surfers were angry that the contest was still on, given the mediocrity of early sets. As the day grew longer, the waves grew bigger and the contest squeaked by as legitimate, even with Kelly Slater and Shane Dorian, widely considered the best big wave surfer in the world, pulling out at the last minute due to a technicality and an injury, respectively.

Though we couldn’t hear the play-by-play of the contest, their footage was clear enough that we could see some nice rides being had on the not-so-monstrous waves. Don’t get me wrong — 25 foot waves sound terrifying to the average human. But the legend of Mavericks calls for four or five stories of deadly whitewater being tamed by a group of daring men in wetsuits. Last time the contest was held, in 2010, competitors faced curling ocean walls over 50 feet high.

Our experience wasn’t just a product of four non-surfing city boys with high expectations being let down by a little beach town and its magical contest — social media users and grumpy patrons in long lines echoed our sentiments throughout the day and after. As one Chronicle story begins, “Thousands flooded into Half Moon Bay on Sunday to witness…many seagulls.”

Standing in line to enter the festival grounds brought on many impatient conversations with other patrons who were confused and annoyed with how everything was being run. According to a San Jose Mercury News article online afterwards, a representative for lead sponsor GoPro acknkowledged the logistical difficulties and vowed to improve in future events.

Most negative comments on Facebook circled the shoddy feed on the Mavericks website, which was allegedly freezing, cutting out, and skipping before dying all together after the second heat. And some Tweets deemed the contest and the feed an “epic fail.”

And the disorganization of a famous tournament run by a well-known sponsor was simply baffling for fans who had flocked from all over to witness the event. Sure, the contest itself was okay (Santa Cruz surfer Peter Mel eventually took home the title, and the top four finishers all hail from the local region), but the fan experience took a hit.

It begs the question — does the legal battle between Mavericks godfather Jeff Clark and his former business partner Kier Beadling gain steam now? Will Beadling pounce on the general disappointment of many fans with how the festival was run this year?

But I digress. It was worth the drive and the money to explore Pillar’s Point, watch the 49ers advance to the Super Bowl, and hang with the locals. Would I go back? Maybe. With lower expectations.

Between the frustrated viewers, grumpy contestants, and lackluster event planning, the contest did manage to end on a good note. Mel and his fellow finalists decided to split the $50,000 prize between them before the last heat, regardless of the victor. And the last few incredible runs on the biggest waves of the day assured me that there is a lot more to Mavericks than sponsors and festival grounds and 10 dollar tickets.

One thing is for sure: despite the raging battle over who owns the wave at Mavericks, which we detailed in our January issue, the contest in Half Moon Bay and the spirit of surfing that goes with it, will never change. Everything else can go wrong, but one good ride will change a day for everyone involved.

It was a tough day to be a spectator at Mavericks, but a great one to be a surfing fan. And for Clark, that’s probably all he could ever hope for.

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