Just 20 minutes south of San Francisco, and 1/2 mile offshore from Pillar Point Harbor, Mavericks rises from the wintery horizon to form perfect, massive waves that reach up to 60 feet, exploding with such ferocity that it can be recorded on the Richter scale.
In the early 1960s, a group of surfers would paddle out just inside the rocks off of Pillar Point. Back then, locals drove their cars out to the point and surfed waves that would reach up to 10 feet in a good swell. Surfers Alex Matienzo, Jim Thompson, and Dick Notmeyer would often paddle out there, sometimes followed by a white-haired German Shepard named Maverick. Worried about the dog’s safety, Matienzo tied the dog to his car’s bumper to keep the canine from paddling out to the surf. In those early days, the surfers would see the giant waves farther out to sea. On one occasion, the trio started to paddle out to get a closer look but turned back, convinced that the waves were too big and too violent for any person to surf. After all, that spot 1/2 mile offshore was known more as a navigational hazard to the fishermen and sailor who would venture near Pillar Point.
And so it went for many years, and the elusive wave would break with ferocity in the winter, and only on certain swells, making it more of a phantom only known to locals who studied the sea. In 1975, a 17-year-old high school student named Jeff Clark watched the wave carefully, learned its finicky ways, and studied it so carefully that what he saw was more than a hazard, but a playground. Clark tried to convince his friends to paddle out with him, with no success. In the winter of 1975 on a big and clean northwest swell, Clark decided to surf it, alone, riding the lefts at first as a natural goofy foot. Soon, as he grew to understand the wave, he learned to surf switch foot and began riding the rights. He had Maverick’s as his own playground for 15 years. It wasn’t until 1990 until he could convince anyone to surf with him, although a few brave souls would actually paddle out there to watch from the channel. However, on January 22, 1990, Clark led Santa Cruz surfers Dave Schmidt and Tom Powers into a monster swell and the rides of their lives. Almost instantly, the word got out that California had a big wave that rivaled Waimea, but was colder and gnarlier than anything anyone had seen before. Soon, surfers from all over started showing up, along with photographers, helicopters and the crowds to watch.
Many surfers have answered the call of Mavericks over the years, including legends Jay Moriarty, who surfed Mavericks for the first time at age 16, and Hawaiian big-wave surfer, Mark Foo. In one of the most epic swells in Mavericks history – December 1994 – Foo, along with Hawaiian surfers Ken Bradsha2 and Brock Little, paddled into the cold waters of the Pacific. After taking off late into an 18-foot wave, Foo wiped out, disappearing into the froth. It was the last time anyone would see him alive. The tragic loss of a fellow surfer led to the creation of the Mavericks Water Patrol to provide rescue and support on the biggest days at Mavericks. But in the PWC-free winter season of 2010-11, surfer Jacob Trette nearly lost his life after getting caught inside the massive waves and being rescued by a local kayaker. Two months later, Hawaiian big wave surfer Sion Milosky surfed giant swell that hit Mavericks, dredging off the main bowl in a low tide, creating massive slabs of water sucking out from the bottom. Milosky surfed for two days, but ultimately lost his life surfing deep in the pit. These tragedies symbolize the extraordinary danger posed by the wave, as well as the fearless character and strength of those who challenge it.
In 1999, the first competition was held at Mavericks, known as Quiksilver’s “Men Who Ride Mountains.” Santa Cruz surfer Darryl “Flea” Virostko won that first event that truly put Mavericks on the map as an international phenomenon. Virostko went on to win again in 2000 and 2004, making him the only three-time Mavericks Champion. In 2005, the prize went to Santa Cruz surfer Anthony Tashnik, followed by the winning performance of South African big wave charger Grant “Twiggy” Baker in 2006. The 2008 contest found Greg Long of San Clemente as the winner. And the 2010 contest, regarded as biggest paddle-in contest ever held in the world, was won by South Africa’s Chris Bertish. Clearly, the big wave world has found its stage at Mavericks.
As surf writer Marcus Sanders wrote, Mavericks has taken the brunt of human ambition, ego and conflict over the past 10 years, but has brushed all of it aside. Clark’s 1991 prediction still stands and always will: “I’ve seen a lot of people paddle out there, but only a few really ride it. I don’t care if word gets out. Mavericks will always take care of itself.”
**Note: Mavericks surf break is located within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.