Surfing Community Reflects on Future of Mavericks Contest in Wake of Cancellation

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Tyler Fox rides a wave during the second heat of round one of Mavericks Invitational on Jan. 24, 2014, in Half Moon Bay.  (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Twenty years after the first competition was held off the coast of Half Moon Bay, Northern California's annual Mavericks surf contest has been canceled indefinitely.

The World Surf League delivered the news on Aug. 30, along with the announcement that it would be revamping its circuit of big-wave surf competitions overall. In its press release, WSL cited "various logistical challenges, as well as the inability to run the event the last two seasons" as reasons for the cancellation. WSL took over as sponsor of the Mavericks contest in 2017 when the previous organizer filed for bankruptcy. Bad weather conditions prevented the contest from happening in 2018.

Mavericks is infamous for its massive swell and unforgiving — sometimes fatal — conditions, from frigid water temperature to rocky ocean floor. Still, since the 1970s, experienced surfers have risked their lives to paddle out from the coast to surf the waves, which tower as high as 60 feet during winter.

Contestants at the 2008 Mavericks surf contest. (Flickr Creative Commons: Steve Jurvetson)

The window of time for the contest to happen is from Nov. 1 to March 31, and because a perfect storm of weather conditions is needed for the contest (big enough waves, no fog and not windy), surfers are typically given only a day or two of advance notice before the competition's start. Coupled with the complex process of obtaining a slew of permits from the California Coastal Commission, the San Mateo County Harbor District, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, a business license from San Mateo County, a lease from the State Lands Commission and coordinating road closures with the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, the Mavericks contest has never been an easy competition to host.

Steve Hawk, former editor of Surfer Magazine, says he wasn't surprised the contest was canceled.


"It's very difficult for a sponsor to stay on board for an event that might or might not run every year," he says.

Still, the contest has been held 10 times since 1999, and each year tourists flocked to the area to watch the surfers from shore (and later from a parking lot with a Jumbotron feed.) And the local economy noticed.

Half Moon Bay Brewing Co. (Courtesy of Half Moon Bay Brewing Company)

Mary Oldham, director of marketing at Half Moon Bay Brewing Co., was "very encouraged" when the World Surf League took charge of the Mavericks competition.

"We welcome the surf contest and what it brings to us and our community," she adds. And while she understands the difficulty of sponsoring an event so beholden to bureaucracy and Mother Nature, Oldham acknowledges the brewery and other businesses along the coast will lose revenue if the event doesn't happen.

Santa Cruz-based Arrow Surf & Sport owner Bob Pearson makes custom surfboards for many of the surfers who ride and compete in Mavericks.

"Personally, financially, yes [the cancellation] will hurt me ... but I'm still going to be making a lot of [boards] for the people who just love surfing big waves," he says.

He contends that the competition didn't happen because there was "flat-out ... not enough money to see this thing through," and is adamant that when it comes to the possibility of a new sponsor picking up the contest, "it's got to be run professionally or not at all."

Professional surfer Bianca Valenti rides a wave at Mavericks. (Katherine Zacarian)

Bianca Valenti has surfed at Mavericks hundreds of times — but never as an official contestant. For the last five years, the professional surfer has been crusading for Mavericks to open its competition to women. So when she got the news that this year's contest was canceled, she was "so sad and shocked."

"I was assuming we were good to go. This is the world's Surf League. They're the biggest league in surfing." she says, referring to the confidence she and other surfers felt about the management of this year's contest. "I think every single athlete is bummed ... we always want the opportunity to perform on the world's greatest stages ... and Mavericks is one of the world's greatest stages."

Despite her disappointment, Valenti is hopeful that it's not too late to create some good out of the bad news.

"No matter what, I know that my commitment is to keep catching big waves and to use them to advocate for equality and for opportunities for athletes," she says.

While the surfing community is certainly disappointed that the Mavericks surf contest was canceled so close to the start of the season, many say there is no doubt that there will still be people surfing the massive waves come winter.

"Contest or no contest, if they get a swell that is big enough ... there are still going to be dozens of amazing surfers in the water. It's not like the place isn't going to be ridden," Valenti says.

As for the future of the Mavericks contest, right now that's as murky as a 60-foot wave.