Why Mavericks is the single-greatest sporting event of our time


Forget about waiting two weeks to see what homespun Doritos ads made the Super Bowl cut. Ignore the dearth of joy in sport that is the NBA regular season half-timing it up and down the court under the weight of giant contracts. Stop ruminating about how a four-team playoff is actually going to be better than, well, nothing (because it’s not) for college football. Please, don’t start your complaining about the Dodgers’ payroll, because pitchers and catchers are still grinding away the back nine of their hometown muni courses. …And stop pretending you’ve been following NCAA hoops by throwing in a tidbit about the Patriot League to your coworkers as you fight the urge to fill out a bracket before conference championships are set.

Forget all of it, because the greatest sporting event of your speck of time on this tiny, shiny, spinning blue marble starts Friday. As in this Friday. That’s right, THIS Friday. Friday, Jan. 24 the air horn blows on Mavericks, the biggest of big-wave surfing contests.

Mavericks director Jeff Clark Wednesday said the big swell coming from the west could push waves to 50 feet by the contest’s start. Though there’s a chance of south winds (read: surf-killers) coming to roost off the Northern California shores, 24 contestants are in town and ready to drop in 8 a.m. Friday for the best and biggest surf in more than a half-decade.

Can’t fly out to the West Coast on a moments notice? Don’t even know what Mavericks means besides the call sign of one naval aviator Lt. Pete Mitchell? Confused about know where or how you can even watch this ultimate high-stakes contest of man vs. nature — this living Hemingway novella. This ultimate glass-room arena. This real-time Lt. Dan on top of the yard arm daring god and his creatures all within earshot to take him down.

Fear not. Below DPB’s a tutorial on what makes Mavericks the single greatest, unblemished sporting event of its time… and how to get some on your home screen or in person:

• The contest is conditions-pending: Mavericks does not take place unless Mother Nature complies (see: why this weekend’s event can be called off at a moment’s notice.) No squeaky hardwood. No artificial ice. No knee-tearing turf. Just one giant wave vs. several sinewy men. And it is rare when the timing does come together, when the weather cooperates with schedules cooperates with athletes’ fitness. In fact, the last Mavericks of note was in 2010. Or, (warning: egregious movie quote dead ahead) in Point Break terms: “I’ve been to every city in Mexico. I came across an unclaimed piece of meat in Baja, turned out to be Rosie. I guessed he picked a knife fight with somebody better. Found one of your passports to Sumatra, I missed you by about a week at Fiji. But, I knew you wouldn’t miss the fifty year storm, Bodhi.” While Mavericks doesn’t have the added element of intrigue of straw-haired Swayze robbing banks in an ironic Reagan Mask while Gary Busey grinds on a pair of meatball subs, it is about the wave and the wave’s nature and the wave cooperating (or no). And by cooperating, I mean scariest conditions imaginable. Think about it like this: Weather creates waves. Storms create big waves. Ultra-big waves are products of volatile conditions and unpredictability. Stepping in to Mavericks is the equivalent jumping out of a four-story building onto a slippery piece of fiberglass and seeing only a clear, blue, endless void waiting to swallow you, not your ego or your id — the actual, physical you.

• Half Moon Bay: The town whose name is torn straight from the pages of a Capra script, was, until a couple decades ago, known only for a giant gourd-growing contest each fall. Though if you were to push pin it on the map of the US it’d be casting a tiny shadow over the heart of San Francisco, the road south to Half Moon Bay from the city feels more like a California postcard stuck at the bottom of grandma’s shoe box garnished with gray clouds and cliffs imported from Moher. The “discovery” of the wave off Half Moon Bay’s modest shores was sort of like revealing there was a reason behind Brigadoon, besides simply just being. In other words, in spite of the taxes, the airbnb rent control takeovers, the crumbling infrastructure, the overcrowded schools and the housing prices that would’ve made your great-great-grandparents pack back up and point wagons East, there is an emotional curdle, a germ of facing down the impossible and turning it into the improbable, a kernel of truth that maybe if you surround yourself with beauty you can become beautiful; the why behind the why people still come to California in spite of odds telling them no …and staying when the savings has drained and the rent is due. Half Moon Bay might not be the reason, but it is a reason.

• The weather and physics geekiness of Mavericks: The contest’s official surf forecaster/meteorologist Mark Sponsler said earlier this week the strongest storm (i.e., the first storm) of the season is barreling toward the golden state with “60-knot winds and seas in excess of 50 feet” aimed “particularly at Mavericks” which means it’s time to charge. Contest conditions are supposed to be ideal with the most optimal waves peaking at the highest points since the Bush administration. These waves crashing two miles off shore at their apex are more than four stories high, but they just don’t rise on call like the Kraken. Like all of nature’s wonders, they’re built slowly and without notice over time. Mavericks waves are manufactured in the Gulf of Alaska from October to February. When a low-pressure system from the south hits a high pressure system from the north, the result is the seed of the Mavericks wave. The strength and long-lastingness of the wave depends on three additional wind-related variables, which is why potential wave-crippling southern winds are being so closely monitored. Wind factors that affect Mavericks waves are: velocity (speed), fetch (how much water the wind is covering) and duration (length of time). Mix all three together at the right moment, pre-heat your oven to 375, and you’re ready to bake the biggest of big waves. The frosting on top? Tide and water depth also coax the Mavericks wave to unfathomable heights. As the tide moves to low, the wave’s power is sucked to the sea floor, making it slower, but growing it bigger. But that’s not all. The underwater topography just beneath Mavericks is mountains rising from the ocean floor. This concentrates all that wave energy into one. Single. Magic. Spot. When the wave hits this area, it will slow down even more and bend all the way over (refract) and can more than double in size in the time it takes one contestant to inhale the moment before leaning in. At Mavericks, this burst of energy is so profound, it literally registers on the Richter scale. Watching this all all take place while a mortal, just like yourself but disguised as a neoprene seal, points his head into this monster as his toes curl in fear, is like the wave itself — quite simply — unfathomable.

• Once this miracle wave is born, it gets angry: Like a steamed Hawaiian local, an unbroken mustang, or your wife rousted too early on a weekend morning to find you’re out of coffee, the left at Mavericks is rarely ridden — not just because of the above factors that cause the wave to be infrequent and unpredictable, but because it’s also temperamental even in the most optimal circumstances. Riders have compared the left to hell on water, but that’s probably giving the devil the benefit of the doubt. The wave can be smoother, albeit much faster ride to the right, shooting those who dare down a quicker pipe barrel for surf mag cover boy photo-ops. Each rider, all already equipped with a post-doctorate in big waves, has to be quick study. Mistake a Mavericks set for friendly, and it can lead to a truncated life.

• In fact, surfing’s best have given their lives to Mavericks: On Dec. 23, 1994 legendary Hawaiian big-wave rider Mark Foo had a late take-off on a 20-foot wave. he fell forward and wiped out at the wave’s base. Fellow watermen Ken Bradshaw, Brock Little, Mike Parsons and Evan Slater searched for hours until Foo’s body was recovered near the shore. In 2011, Sion Milosky, another big-wave surfer from Hawaii, died at Mavericks. Milosky drowned after he was held down for two waves, each wave can last up to four minutes. Within a half hour of his wipe out, Milosky’s body was found floating at the Pillar Point Harbor.

• Each of the sport’s elite drops whatever he is doing and comes to Mavericks; there is no guaranteed fame, money, notoriety or sponsorship: No syringe or scandal either. Imagine if Clark Kent chose a sport instead of saving school buses from going over bridges or hapless coworkers from falling into the hands of archetypical follically challenged villains. Now imagine these super heroes living among us, trying to make house payments, debating on whether they’ll wait another weekend to change their oil, writhing around at night worried that no insurance company will take them, because their free-time activities include riding down a cliff of clear concrete to an endless bottom and getting pinned under water in a washing machine on spin x1,000 for 240 seconds if the slightest miscalculation is made.

• Locals still get in: Of the 24 invited surfers who are streaming surf reports on hotel wi-fi and looking for a decent barista in the quiet hamlet just north of Santa Cruz, one third of the field of the biggest of the big riders live within 40 minutes of the off-shore break. Local Colin Dwyer, son of big-wave rider, Steve, is on the start list. San Francisco’s Alex Martins joins Santa Cruz locals Kenny Collins, Shawn Dollar and Zach Wormhoudt. And former Maverick’s winners/locals Greg Long, Grant (Twiggy) Baker and Peter Mel — who won last year — all will be in the line-up.

• It is, just pure sport: Mavericks isn’t negotiated contracts. It’s not Lance fake confessing to Oprah. It’s not ARod on drugs then on 60 minutes and then potentially out of baseball forever while the thin-lipped commissioner who was complicit comes away clean. It’s not the $20 billion/year nonprofit that still doesn’t test for human growth hormone whose brain-damaged proles have a reduced life expectancy of at least 30 years post-career. Mavericks IS athletes who have day jobs, who aren’t seen shilling sandwiches for five dollars a foot or using broken champagne bottles as murder weapons one year and thanking god for all his graces to give him a piece of a silver trophy instead of jail time the next. It isn’t Bob Costas and his Grecian formula pre-fab factoid and false plaudit spittle or Joe Buck and his latent disdain for anything diverse or exciting or different than the blank white paper with the notes of the uninspired just beyond his protruding gumline. It’s not post-game outbursts or pre-game predictions. It is one man. One board. One wave. One ride. It is life or death. It is miscalculation that gets fixed in the hospital or in the back of a hearse, not the huddle. The ocean is the arena and those who dare step in know they might not step back on land. But in all ways, in every respect, they know their world, win or lose, is grander, bigger, stronger, scarier, louder, brighter and, well, more fun for them than the 6,999,999,976 other people on this planet — whether anyone’s watching or not.

• Now how to watch: There will be no spectators on the beach, but festival organizers can watch from Oceano Hotel and Spa in Princeton Harbor. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 on contest day; go to the Mavericks Invitational web site for details. For the first time, Mavericks also will stream on the contest site and be broadcast live by the Universal Sports Network with the final rounds at 1:30 p.m. PST. Universal Sports Network is carried only by DirecTV and Dish Network.

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