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MOUNT MAVERICK: Evan Slater (top) drops into a wave while Flea Virostko looks on.

Belly of the Beast

Mavericks pounds surfers and spectators with record waves

Story and photos by Curtis Cartier

LIKE SOME old mariner's nightmare, the Pacific swell that rose up around Half Moon Bay last week brought the sort of waves that sink ships and swamp islands. It also brought the sort of surfers who willingly paddle out into such monsters and the sort of fans who travel for hundreds of miles just to watch from a squinting distance.

By all accounts, the 2010 Mavericks Surf Contest was one for the record books. And though not every surfer walked away with a huge cash prize, and few of the 50,000 fans relegated to the shore could see any actual surfing, when all was said and done, few left disappointed.

"I never thought I would be standing here today," said a jubilant Chris Bertish of South Africa, who won the contest and the $50,000 first prize after mounting two frightening curls in the final heat. "What a lot of people don't understand is that it's just such a great honor to put on a Mavericks jersey and participate in this contest."

For the contestants, simply surviving the day was a tall order. Surfers faced arguably the largest waves in paddle-in surf contest history—40- to 50-foot abominations of white and blue foam that crashed unpredictably to the west and the north. Even holding the competition was not a unanimous decision; several of the 24 surfers who vote on whether conditions are good enough to give the green light to compete worried that the swell might simply be too big and too dangerous. Yet after last year's contest cancellation and a tumultuous off-season that saw event founder and big wave legend Jeff Clark fired by Mavericks Surf Ventures from his position as contest director, nobody wanted to go another year without a contest.


Shane Desmond takes a pounding in the second heat.

And it was dangerous, in fact. Bertish, who arrived in Half Moon Bay fewer than eight hours before the contest started and without a toothbrush or a surfboard after an airline misplaced his gear, said he nearly drowned after being sucked under a bone-crushing breaker in the first heat. Other surfers suffered bloody lungs and lacerated scalps.

"I just remember finally seeing the blue sky. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen," Bertish told reporters, recalling his near-death experience after his win.

Spectators were not spared nature's wrath, either. Around 9am, the first reports began rolling in that a "rogue wave" had crashed into the shore where thousands of fans had set up to watch the action. Emergency officials said 13 people were injured, one with a broken leg and another with a fractured ankle. A sound booth that had been erected for an awards ceremony following the contest was also ruined by the wave, and the award ceremony was subsequently moved to a hotel nearby.

David Espino of Redwood City was on the beach at the time and described the scene as "complete chaos."

"I've never seen anything like it," said Espino, sporting a Mavericks T-shirt and clasping a Budweiser. "No one could really see anything going on with the surfers, so everyone was just chilling, hanging out and having a good time. Next thing I know, this huge wave comes ripping through and knocks everyone off their feet and people start screaming. It was pretty crazy, but that's what happens if you come to watch the biggest waves in the world."


Anthony Tashnick accepts an award for gnarliest drop on top of his third-place prize money.

Santa Cruzans Go Big

Though a South African won overall, Santa Cruz was well represented at Mavericks. Shane Desmond and Anthony Tashnick took second and third place, winning $25,000 and $15,000, respectively. Tashnick also picked up a $5,000 prize for the "gnarliest drop." Other locals, like three-time Mavs winner Darryl "Flea" Virostko, advanced through the first heat, as did crowd favorite Peter Mel. Yet as Desmond explained after the contest, just surviving waves that powerful was an accomplishment all its own.

"Those were the biggest waves I've ever seen anyone paddle into," said the highball-clutching, barefoot Westsider, sporting his red Mavericks jersey. "This was a special day and I'm really proud to have come out here and competed with all these guys."

In anticipation of huge crowds, Mavericks event planners had encouraged fans to head to AT&T Park in San Francisco where, for $25, they could catch the action close-up on the Jumbotron. Regardless, some fans arrived at the Pillar Point beaches and cliffs as early as 4am with high-powered binoculars and lawn chairs, looking to lay claim to prime viewing spots.

Closer to the action, scores of boats, yachts, dinghies and jet skis jockeyed for position a few hundred feet from the break zone. The colossal waves made for nearly six hours of stomach-churning misery for seasick-prone spectators and journalists as the vessels bobbed up and down ceaselessly. On the press boat, reporters and photographers from around the country and the world popped Dramamine and clung to the boat's railing, steadying their cameras and microphones to catch the action and occasionally leaning over the side to wretch. The massive waves seriously damaged two boats, shattering windows and cracking hulls.

The violence of the surf, however, only further convinced onlookers and surfers that they were watching history being made. After the competition, a shirtless, grinning Dave Wassell, the fourth-place finisher and recipient of the coveted Jay Moriarity Award, said that even at home on Oahu's North Shore he'd never seen waves quite like what broke that day.

"This was undoubtedly the largest surf that any paddle-in contest has ever seen," he said to the great cheers of fans gathered for the awards ceremony. "The contestants have set the bar so high today it's unbelievable, and I don't know if it will ever be topped."

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