Countdowns don’t get any more exciting than this. When conditions are just right, ocean swells pile up against an offshore reef, about three-and-a-half kilometres off the Northern California coastline near Half Moon Bay. The resulting break, known as Mavericks (or just “Mavs” to its big-wave fans) creates behemoth breakers regularly cresting at 7.6m, with some topping out at more than 24m. When that happens, a select group of 24 surfers (plus alternates) gets invited to compete. The catch? Start time is only announced 24 hours in advance, so wave riders have to be ready to pack up their boards and go as soon as they get the green light. And so do the fans—waterfront lookouts are lined with people peering through telescopes, telephoto lenses, and binoculars to take in the opening ceremony and to try to catch a glimpse of the out-at-sea action.
An easier option is to join the festival atmosphere in town, usually centered around the car park of the Oceano Hotel & Spa. Expect plenty of food and beach and surf music; when the competition wraps, stick around for the awards presentation, when surfers often linger to chat with fans.
The Mavericks Challenge competition has made the news in recent years for reasons other than the amazing skills that are always on display. During the 2017/18 season, it became part of the World Surf League, and took its place as one of three events on that organisation’s Big Wave Tour, one of the most high-profile competitions in surfing. And during the 2018/19 season, women were welcomed as competitors for the first time in history.