Measuring risk and reward at Mavericks

During Mavericks competition season, everything is big.

The official marketing promotes “the world’s premier, high adrenaline, big wave surfing event,” the crowd on event days regularly numbers in the tens of thousands, and the cash prizes and sponsors attract top-ranked surfers.

Begun in 1999, the Mavericks surf contest is dependent upon time and tide. Under favorable winter weather conditions, the waves off Pillar Point, to the north of Half Moon Bay, can reach heights of up to 70 feet. To help ensure the perfect confluence of factors, competition organizers keep open a window from November to March, often giving competitors notice of ideal conditions only 24 hours in advance.

Over the past 14 years, the contest has come and gone — some years thriving, other years cancelled because of poor surf. For this year’s competition, 24 professional surfers have been invited, traveling from as far as South Africa, Australia and Brazil. Sponsors include some of the most prominent names in the action sports industry, including camera manufacturer GoPro and wetsuit maker Body Glove.

But underneath all the festivities, there is the place itself.


For most of the year, surfing spots like Mavericks remain local playgrounds. The San Mateo County coastline has few swells that rival the popular breaks of Hawaii, Fiji or Mexico in height or crowds. Local surfing professionals — with the exception of a few high-ranked surfers based out of Santa Cruz — generally don’t attract big-name sponsors and career-defining paychecks.

In the video above, local surfer Tim West and surf photographer Dave Nelson discuss the industry, the Mavericks experience and the careful measure of risk and reward they perform when they enter the ocean.

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