Mavericks founder Jeff Clark’s latest venture to monetize his big wave filed for Chapter 11 this week. As the World Surf League waits in the wings to start its own event off the shores of Half Moon Bay, it may be time for Clark to paddle toward the horizon. Either way, read while listening to this.
Jeff Clark is used to paddling out in big waters, alone.
That’s where the Mavericks founder finds himself yet again.
In 1975, at the age of 17, the Half Moon Bay native took what he thought might be a one-way trip out to a giant breaking wave about two miles from shore. It is there he found the West Coast’s heaviest, most treacherous and most famous big wave. For the next 15 years, he and a small group of friends called that little secret Mavericks and they surfed it exclusively in anonymity.
The wave became internationally known in December 1994, when Hawaiian big wave rider Mark Foo — arguably the best at his craft at the top of his game — came out to Northern California to sample the wave. At 11:20 a.m. on December 23, Foo died after falling head first off a 20-foot wave during take off.
Any wipeout at Mavericks is cause for concern, but the glassy wave that engulfed Foo in whitewater was only medium-sized and others in the water as well as onlookers from the shore expected Foo to pop out and paddle back into the lineup. He never did. It is believed Foo’s leash got caught on some rocks and the current from consecutive waves pinned him down and made it impossible for him to tear away the ankle strap.
The death made international headlines and the ripple outside the surfing world became legend: Mavericks was a wave not only to be reckoned with and respected, but to be feared.
In 1998, capitalizing on the wave’s newfound prominence, Clark teamed up with Huntington Beach clothing manufacturer Quiksilver to sponsor the Mavericks Surf Contest which began to bring the best big-wave riders in the world out to the West Coast for one weekend a year usually in the late-winter or early spring, to wax up their guns and dust off their 4/3 (or thicker) suits, booties and hoods to withstand the 30-degree waters.
But the contest’s success was short-lived. Some say the wave became a vengeful force the day Foo died and has been no friend to Clark or any of his or others attempts at generating capital from it ever since.
In 2003, Clark partnered with San Francisco-based Evolve Sports (founded in 2001, now defunct) to represent him as an athlete. That year, Clark and Evolve also created Mavericks Surf Ventures, Inc. (MSV) to run the Mavericks Surf Contest, which happened with the help of longtime friends and co-directors Keir Beadling and Mark Dwight.
In June of 2009, Beading and Dwight terminated Clark as the contest director. Clark immediately resigned from the board. He in turn filed a lawsuit in early 2010 against MSV. The complaint stated MSV had breached its contracts with Clark, withheld payments on those contracts and did not meet its fiduciary duties to shareholders.
Clark said the board was guilty of self-dealing, squandering of corporate assets and failure to disclose basic financial and other corporate information. A mediation agreement in March of that year would make Clark fiscally whole over time through 2017. MSV did not honor that agreement and Clark’s attorneys filed a motion in 2012, this time for a summary judgment. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Peter Busch ruled in favor of Clark, saying the parties had entered into a valid and enforceable contract and that MSV failed to honor that contract.
“When I signed on to partner with Keir and Evolve Sports, I trusted them to do the right thing, to honor my spirit and passion for surfing,” Clark said in a statement after the settlement. “I made a mistake and I trusted the wrong people. They refused to honor the contracts they created and turned the contest into a circus.”
As a result of the lawsuits, MSV disbanded and Clark and a handful of Half Moon Bay surfers and local businesses in 2014 reformed the contest as the Titans of Mavericks in conjunction with Los Angeles-based Cartel Management, which handled the promotion, branding and event sponsors.
The marriage with Cartel seemed doomed from the get-go. Cartel (whose site is now disabled) had no previous record of hosting sporting events much less surfing contests. Cartel’s ownership, however, does have a record of ending up in court over other failed enterprises.
In 2015, the event didn’t happen due to lack of a title sponsor. That same year, the World Surf League (WSL), which is now the standard brand (think: NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) for professional surfing, submitted an application to host a contest at Mavericks as part of its Big Wave World Tour. But the San Mateo County Harbor District did not approve the permit request as they allow only one contest at Mavericks at a time.
When Clark first learned of the WSL’s encroachment on his wave, he was incredulous: “I’m always wary of an organization that wants to come in and make this just one stop among many obscure events,” he said. “This is the best big wave in the world and we have the best standalone event on the planet. We found that our vision for Mavericks and their vision for Mavericks were very different.”
…In spite of incoming monster swells this winter, the competition remains in certain limbo as a result of a Tuesday filing of Chapter 11 bankruptcy by Cartel.
Those who followed the event closely could see Cartel had been struggling. Last year, they lost a $1 million lawsuit by former Titans of Mavericks sponsor Red Bull Media House North America for breach of contract and unjust enrichment. For its part, Red Bull provided the live stream of Titans of Mavericks.
The San Mateo County Harbor District is listed as one of the debtors in the bankruptcy filing, which means their level of intimacy with the WSL may change, soon. But for now, in spite of the potential for an epic swell, the contest remains in feduciary limbo. San Mateo County Harbor commissioner Sabrina Brennan told a Bay Area NBC affiliate Tuesday, “there will not be a contest this year.”
For its part, the Titans of Mavericks event did do some good. It raised money for the local Boys and Girls Club. Rocky Raynor, one of the nonprofit’s board members and Half Moon Bay-based surfer, said the relationship with Cartel grew testy quickly as they hedged their donations in time with the bullying of remaining sponsors. A $10,000 check from Cartel to the nonprofit in 2015 was meant to “buy us off for one year,” he said. “I could run through the list of people who came in from L.A. and thought they could run this surf contest. It’s not about the money. They’re trampling over the community.”
Mavericks pioneer Jeff Clark may not get a third shot at branding and marketing his own discovered wave. He might never recapture those first quiet moments bobbing in the ether two miles off shore, all darkness and secrets beneath his pale submerged toes. All signs point to the WSL stepping in and running Mavericks starting as soon as 2018. And that may be a good thing at least as far as Clark’s own financial well-being goes.
On March 26, the original Maverick of the surfing world turns 60. No doubt the wave he discovered will be firing that day. And with no burden of contests or sponsors or media or lawsuits, he can officially begin his sixth decade as he did his seventeenth year, unencumbered.
Just a man, a board and an impossible wave.