World Surf Spot 3 : Mavericks (Half Moon Bay)
On the road to Half Moon Bay
"The first time that I heard the name Mavericks was in 1968, when I surfed inside the rocks there with Walt Von Hauffe and a couple of friends," explains Mavericks surfing pioneer and legend Jeff Clark. "At that time Walt owned the Von's Cinema in Half Moon Bay, a popular hangout for the kids in the neighborhood. This was a time when you could drive to the end of Pillar Point and park right at the beach, then walk up the hill to see past Sail Rock where the big waves would break.
"The first time that I heard the name Maverick's or Mavericks is a world-famous, but for some a notorious and deadly, surfing location in Northern California. It is located approximately one-half mile (0.8 km) from shore in Pillar Point Harbor, just north of Half Moon Bay at the village of Princeton-By-The-Sea. After a strong winter storm has occurred in the northern Pacific Ocean, waves can routinely crest at over 25 feet (8m) and top out at over 50 feet (15m). The break is caused by an unusually-shaped underwater rock formation.
Mavericks is a winter destination for some of the world's premier big wave surfers. Very few riders become big wave surfers; and of those, only a select few are willing to risk the hazardous conditions at Maverick's. An invitation-only contest is held there every winter, depending on wave conditions.
The Origin of the Name
In early March 1961, three surfers, Alex Matienzo, Jim Thompson, and Dick Knottmeyer, decided to try the distant waves off Pillar Point. With them was a white-haired German Shepherd named Maverick, owned by a roommate of Matienzo. Maverick was used to swimming out with his owner, or with Matienzo, while they were out surfing.
The trio left Maverick on shore, but he swam out and caught up with them. Finding the conditions too unsafe for the dog, Matienzo paddled back in and tied Maverick to the car bumper, before rejoining the others. The riders had limited success that day, surfing the tail end of the break and generally deeming the conditions too dangerous.
They decided to name the point after Maverick, who seemed to have gotten the most out of the experience. It became known as "Maverick's Point", and later simply "Maverick's".
In the Special Features section of Riding Giants, Jeff Clark is said to be the next person to surf Mavericks (1975) mentioning that his junior high teacher used to refer to this distant break as Mavericks.
Jeff Clark's Discovery
Jeff Clark, having grown up near Half Moon Bay, learned about Maverick's at an early age. At that time the location was deemed too dangerous to surf. He spent time watching the break, and conceived the possibility of riding Hawaii-sized waves right there in Northern California. One day in 1975, with the waves topping out at 10 to 12 feet, Clark paddled out alone to face Maverick's. He was successful, catching a number of left-breaking waves, thereby becoming the first person to tackle Maverick's head-on.
For the next 15 years, Clark continued surfing Maverick's alone. It was Clark's secret winter 'giant north shore-sized surf' surfing spot. Other than a few close friends who had paddled out and seen Maverick's themselves, no one believed in its existence. The popular opinion of the time was that there simply were no large, Hawaii-sized waves in California.
The next two people to surf at Maverick's, on January 22, 1990, in the company of Clark, were Dave Schmidt (brother of big wave legend Richard Schmidt) and Tom Powers, both from Santa Cruz. John Raymond, from Pacifica, and Mark Renneker, from San Francisco, surfed Maverick's a few days later.
Sea floor mapping
Sea-floor maps released by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2007 revealed why Maverick's waves form where they do. A long, sloping ramp leads up to the surface under the wavebreak. The presence of this ramp slows the propagation of the ocean wavefront over it. The wavefront in the deep water troughs on each side of the ramp continues at full speed forming two angles in the wavefront centered over each of the boundaries between the ramp and the two troughs. The result of this is a V-shaped wavefront on the ramp that contains the energy from the full width of the ramp. This V-shaped wave then collapses into a small area in the center at the top of the ramp with tremendous force.
Popular Discovery of Maverick's
In 1990, a photo of Maverick's taken by Steve Tadin, a friend of Clark, was published in Surfer magazine. This event triggered a flood of interest in Maverick's as surfers realized that world-class big waves could be found in California. Over the next couple years, more photos of Maverick's began showing up in surfing magazines, and before long, filmmaker Gary Mederios released a movie about Maverick's, Waves of Adventure in the Red Triangle. As news of Maverick's spread, many big-wave surfers came and surfed the new break.
The Death of Mark Foo at Maverick's
The next major event occurred on December 23, 1994. During a week of huge swells Mark Foo, Ken Bradshaw, Brock Little, Mike Parsons, and Evan Slater came from Oahu, Hawaii's north shore to surf the big surf of Maverick's. Such was a major event in the history of Maverick's for reputable Hawaiian big wave riders to travel to the U.S. mainland to sample the waves of this little-known big wave riding beach. Unfortunately, the joyous occasion is remembered for its tragic outcome. One of the visitors, the popular and famed Hawaiian big-wave rider Mark Foo, would die while surfing Maverick's with the other Hawaiian visitors and local riders.
Foo's fatal ride occurred in late morning of the first day (December 23, 1994) of riding when (as revealed later on video film), on a late takeoff into an 18-foot wave, Foo caught the edge of his surfboard on the surface of a routine sized big wave and fell into a 'wipe out'. No one knows whether Foo may have been knocked unconscious by his surfboard in the thrashing whitewater of the 'wipe out', got tangled in his 'leash' (the cord that keeps the surfboard attached to the surfer), the leash may have tangled into the rock beneath the ocean, or Foo may have gotten confused in the darkness underwater and failed to float or swim in the correct direction to the surface for air. After a short period of time, fellow surfers became aware that they hadn't seen Foo riding waves anymore, and began urgently searching for him and his surfboard all around the Maverick's beach, nearby parking lots, and surfing water. Sadly, a few hours later Foo's drowned body was found washed toward the shore, floating just under the water surface, with a piece of his surfboard still attached by the leash to his ankle. News of Foo's death instantly traveled to the far reaches of the surfing sport around the globe. Newspapers and watersports magazines extensively covered the loss. The citizens of the Hawaiian Islands (Foo's home) and the surfing world mourned his passing. The unfortunate loss gave Maverick's deadly surf a new warranted, but unwanted notoriety, but also prompted the formation of the Maverick's Water Patrol to protect big wave surfers when they are performing in the dangerous winter surf.
In the surfing sport, Mark Foo's death has brought about a continuing discourse regarding the safe use on extreme size waves of surfboard 'leashes' (a flexible plastic cord which connects, by an ankle belt, surfboards to the ankle of the trailing leg of the surfer when he's riding his surfboard). Many in the surfing sport believe that Foo's surfboard leash may have caused or contributed to his death. The leash proponents defend the leash as a useful convenience and as insurance against losing the surfboard, a form of flotation device, in case of a 'wipe out', and the leash is a means for the fallen surfer to find their way to the surface air by following the leash cord to the floating surfboard above them on the water surface. Opponents of surfboard leashes in big surf state that a leash can cause the surfrider to collide with his board in a 'wipe out', causing head injuries, and the leash can also loop around arms, legs or the surfer's neck when underwater, and thus dangerously restrict movement to safety or, worse, strangle the surfer with his own leash. Quick-release velcro tear-open-collared leashes have since become standard surfing equipment to address some, but not all, of these dangers. The debates and concerns continue unresolved to this date, and these worthwhile discussions of water safety are, perhaps, the legacy of Foo's unfortunate demise.
The first big-wave surfing contest at Maverick's was held in 1999. The competition resulted in Darryl Virostko ("Flea"), Richard Schmidt, Ross Clarke-Jones, and Peter Mel taking first, second, third, and fourth places, respectively. The second competition was held the following year and put Darryl Virostko, Kelly Slater, Tony Ray, Peter Mel, Zach Wormhoudt, and Matt Ambrose in first through sixth places. In 2004, with Darryl Virostko, Matt Ambrose, Evan Slater, Anthony Tashnick, Peter Mel, and Grant Washburn placing in spots first through sixth. The 2005 winner was Anthony Tashnick. In 2006, Grant Baker, from South Africa, won first place, with Tyler Smith (Santa Cruz) and Brock Little (Hawai'i) in second and third places. The 2007 contest was called off by organizers because unusually mild weather resulted in no days with suitable waves by the end of March, the usual cutoff time for holding the competition. In 2008, Greg Long, from San Clemente, was crowned Maverick's Champion, Grant Baker (South Africa) won second place and Jamie Sterling (Hawai'i) won third place, followed by Tyler Smith in fourth, Grant Washburn in fifth, and Evan Slater in sixth.
In October 2006, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary proposed barring personal watercraft from Maverick's, which led to disputes within the sport.
Maverick's in film
The first video images were shot by Eric W. Nelson in February 1990. On that sunny day Jeff Clark paddled out with Dave Schmidt and Tom Powers. Eric was shooting for his community access television show 'Powerlines Surf-Spots'. This would be the genesis of the Powerlines Productions company that showcases big wave surfing around the Globe.
Eric's first movie was 'High Noon at Low Tide' 1994/2005. In 1998 he produced another big wave documentary 'Twenty Feet Under'. Meanwhile Curt Myers, another local filmmaker, had produced 'Shifting Peaks' and 'Heavy Water' 94/95.
On December 11, 1998, during a big Northwest open ocean swell reaching 20-25 feet, Curt Myers was shooting from the water and Eric was shooting from land. On this memorable swell they joined forces and produced the mini documentary 'twelveleven'. On this day Powerlines Productions was born.
Jeff Clark and Maverick's are featured in the 1998 documentary Maverick's, a one hour PBS film that chronicles the break's early years, and the 2004 film Riding Giants, which documents the history of big wave surfing. Directed by skateboarder turned documentary producer Stacey Peralta (best known for the skating documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys), Riding Giants includes interviews and commentary materials with many of the surfers mentioned in this article.
In the film Zoolander, Owen Wilson's character's retinue includes a big wave surfer from Maverick's.