Saturday, January 12, 2008

Sports News - Fans flock to see Mavericks daredevil surfers

By Demian Bulwa, Chronicle Staff Writer

HALF MOON BAY -- Thousands of big-wave surfing fans straggled onto a small beach north of Half Moon Bay this morning to watch - or try to watch - the greatest surfers in the world battle the worst that the Pacific Ocean can throw at them.

Watching the fabled Mavericks contest from the beach seemed nearly as challenging as riding the waves themselves, as close-in waves blocked the view of the waves that the competitors were riding about a half-mile offshore.

But the fans, many of them tugging on beers as they scrambled for position before sunrise, didn't care.

"This is world renowned, everybody wants to be a part of it," said Bryan Moore, 28, a teacher from San Leandro who arrived at 6:15 a.m. to stake out his spot. "If you watch this on television, you don't get to smell the air and feel the cold. It's not as real."

Other surf fans gathered in the third deck at AT&T Park to watch the contest on the stadium's giant monitor. Tickets were selling for $25, with beer flowing at ballpark rates.

At Half Moon Bay, some fans watched on another giant video monitor that had been erected on the beach, near the judges' and announcers' booth. Some watched through binoculars or telephoto camera lenses. Some scrambled up an environmentally fragile hillside, even though contest organizers were trying to discourage that. Some stood on tiptoes.

Fans with $275 in cash boarded a small flotilla of tour boats and watched the contest from up close. The boat captains reminded passengers that the ride would be bumpy and there were no refunds for the seasick.

Watch below the 2006 Mavericks Champion, Grant "Twiggy" Bake

The competitors, in groups of six, caught rides to the big waves on jet skis, then paddled out on their boards and waited for just the right moment to stand up and defy nature. The morning waves were 20 feet tall, and the ones in the afternoon were expected to be bigger.

Rounds last from 45 minutes to one hour. During each round, surfers may attempt to ride as many as 10 waves and are judged on their best two. The top three surfers in each group of six get to advance to the semi-finals.

In the first round, surfers Greg Long, Shawn Rhodes and Jamie Sterling advanced. In the second group, surfers Grant Washburn, Dave Wassel and Matt Ambrose advanced.

And in the opening rounds, one surfer broke his board in two. The pieces flew up in the air like a waterspout.

At midday, the tide came in and the height of the waves diminished. In the first semi-final round, the waves were far tamer than they had been during the opening heats.

"I didn't even get a wave," said Ambrose, 36, of Pacifica, on his return to the beach after being knocked out of the competition in the semi-finals. "In the first heat, the waves were epic. In the semi-finals, they were sleigh-ride waves."

Sterling, Long and Washburn advanced from to the finals.

Fans shouted, hooted, screamed - or watched in respectful silence.

"This is something that a lot of people want to do but they don't have the ability," said Debbie Hahn of Half Moon Bay, who was watching with her husband, Greg, and daughter, Shawnee.

"I'd love to do that, but I have a family and someone has to make them lunch."

Just then, one of the competitors got knocked off his board by a 20-foot wave and was flung underwater.

"There he goes," said Greg. "Did he eat it? Yeah. He went under. There's a sense of the morbid out here. It's like a hockey game - people go hoping a fight will break out."

The annual contest, which began in 1999, attracts the top big-wave surfers from around the world. Organizers are able to give competitors only about two days advance notice of the contest, which is held when weather and ocean conditions are optimal. Typically, the competitors drop everything and dash from all parts of the globe.

Only the most skilled and the most daredevil surfers are willing to challenge the up-to-50-foot-high waves, the jagged rocks, the shallow reefs and the frigid water at Mavericks, which was named for the daring dog of one of the beach's earliest surfers.

At AT&T park, about 620 fans were watching the event on the big screen and on TVs near the stadium concession stands. For those passionate about the sport, early morning is not too soon for $8 beer and $6.25 nachos.

"It's cheaper to be here than to spend $275 to go out on the boat," said Lauren Dunne of San Mateo. "The surfers just blow me away, they're so talented and courageous and maybe a little bit insane."

Jared Stivers, a San Francisco surfer, was watching the contest with his 15-month-old daughter,Alma.

"The best was to see Mavericks is on TV," he said. "At the beach it just looks like a little wave and a trail of white. You can't even see the surfers."

Watching online was even more reasonably priced. A free live online broadcast is available here.

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