Years before anyone imagined a high-stakes surf contest off Half Moon Bay, Grant Washburn was among a dozen or so wetsuit-clad surfers who dripped into the Roadhouse Café to devour the sour cream and guacamole-laden “breakfast in a barrel” and tell stories about the massive waves at a largely unknown spot called Mavericks.
“It was such a great vibe then,” former café owner Katherine Kelly Clark – ex-wife of Mavericks pioneer Jeff Clark and a friend of Washburn — said of those days in the early nineties.
Since the first official contest in 1998, Mavericks has morphed from an obscure surfing phenomenon into the home of one of the world’s most famous big-wave events. Tens of thousands of spectators now flock to Half Moon Bay for the annual competition, and last year the total prize money swelled to $150,000.
But throughout the years, friends say, Washburn has remained focused on one thing: the waves. They can break as high as 50 or 60 feet at Mavericks. He studies them like a scientist, recording the data in a calendar.
He knows the waves so well that he can look at a picture and likely tell you what day it was taken. “Big wave surfing,” he said, “is something you do because you can’t help it.”
The 42-year-old grew up on the East Coast, first learning to ride the relatively lackluster waves of New Jersey. “I don’t even remember being attracted to surfing – I just did it,” he said. At Trinity College, in his home state of Connecticut, Washburn once asked a friend if he thought Washburn would be able to surf a giant wave he’d eyed in a magazine. “Nah,” said the friend, who knew the 6-foot-6 Washburn as the forward on the college basketball team.
After graduating, Washburn accepted a carpentry job in San Francisco to be close to better waves.
Because of his unabashed dedication to the sport, Washburn has become an unofficial face for a campaign by competitive surfers, local photographers and surf contest organizers to assume management of the Mavericks competition. On Oct. 20, the group was awarded the sole permit that the San Mateo County Harbor Commission issues for use of its facilities at Pillar Point Harbor during the event.
Cary Smith, the deputy harbor master, has worked and surfed with Washburn for more than 11 years and praises him for being “calm, cool and collected.”
Those attributes came in handy after last February’s competition, which early Mavericks surfer and regular contest competitor Matt Ambrose described as “the apex of dysfunction.” The waves were some of the best ever, but the event’s success was clouded by spectator injuries — 13 watching from a seawall were swamped by a giant wave — and by grumblings from surfers and staff about not being paid promptly.
In addition, Jeff Clark – the surfer who discovered Mavericks in the 1970s and co-founded the competition — had been kicked out of the management company because of unspecified disagreements over how the event should be run.
Those experiences motivated Washburn and other competitive surfers to launch their effort to take over the management.
Now that they have the permit, the surfers must hustle to make good on their promise to stage the best, most well-run contest yet. Its name will change to the “Jay at Mavericks Big Wave Invitational “ to evoke the spirit of the late Jay Moriarity, who the group said exemplified a love of the surfing.
It helps that Barracuda Networks, a sponsor of the surf contest in the past, has agreed to support the Jay at Mavericks through at least 2012 – thanks in large part to Washburn’s collaboration.
“It was clear from the very first discussion that we had with [Washburn] about helping to take the Maverick’s surf event in a new direction that he is someone (who is) respected and trusted by his peers and by the community,” said Michael Perone, chief marketing officer and executive vice president for Barracuda, an Internet security company.
Ambrose described Washburn as the perfect surfer-spokesman because of his experience dealing with the press and executives through his other love: filmmaking. Washburn directed and produced “Mavericks: A Documentary Film,” in addition to collaborating on numerous water-themed projects with companies such as National Geographic and the Discovery Channel.
With a sideways sweep to his dark bangs, an easy-going manner and sparing use of words like “stoked,” Washburn fits the cliche of a surfer – but a highly professional one.
Washburn talks with confidence about this winter’s event, citing the help of respected surf contest organizer Darren Brilhart, along with locals who have helped organize the competition for years. It will occur anytime between early December and late February, based on when the waves are best.
While reflecting fondly on the early days, Washburn said the competition must keep up with the times. “We can’t go back to [the early nineties] and have a secret surf contest,” he said, adding, “It’s going to be a big deal no matter what we do, and we have to prepare for that.”
Unlike many big-wave surfers who travel the world chasing waves, Washburn spends more time closer to home, surfing Mavericks. He almost always qualifies as one of the couple dozen Mavericks competitors, which he attributes to his “local knowledge.” He describes himself as a bit of a homebody; he divides his time between filmmaking, managing and making videos for a restaurant company, and being with his wife Kathleen and their 5- and 7-year-old daughters.
As part of an older guard at Mavericks, Washburn recognizes there will come a time when he’ll have to hang up his competitive wetsuit. But he plans to stay in contention as long as he qualifies.
For years, Ambrose and Washburn have competed privately to see which of them can make it the furthest in each competition. The winner receives a five-dollar bill mounted on a small hardwood sculpture. Right now, the sculpture sits on a mantle among Washburn’s “biggest wave” trophies, where it takes top place.
“I’m not super competitive,” he said, “but when it comes to that five bucks… I definitely raised my game. ”
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