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It Takes a Village: Inaugural Mavericks Festival Honors the Community That Makes Mavericks

“Everybody comes here to test their metal…because Mavericks will test you to the max.”

The undeniable truth of Northern California’s famous big wave was spoken on October 1, 2022, at the inaugural Mavericks Festival by Jeff Clark, the man credited with pioneering and surfing this rugged wave alone for 15 years.

The day-long event marked the launch of the 2022-23 digital submission big wave contest, and over 10,000 people enjoyed the music and local vendors gathered at the Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay.

The expansion of the winter season kickoff from the annual paddle-out of Mavs devotees that’s stood for over 20 years into a full-on festival featuring local fishermen, businesses, food and beverage vendors, photographers, shapers, famous surfers, environmental nonprofits, and bands is part of the reimagining of a contest that has been fraught with controversy like permitting issues and discord over who’s running the show for years.

Footage of colossal waves paddle-surfed from the shoulder to completion between October 1, 2022 and April 15, 2023 can be submitted for consideration at the 2023 Mavericks Awards, an event launched during the pandemic by Clark and his friend and business partner Chris Cuvelier.

Mavericks pioneer Jeff Clark enjoys the Mavericks Festival. (Photo by Kyveli Sophia)

The pair had brainstormed ways to keep those brave enough to charge Mavericks on the global big wave radar after the spot was dropped from the World Surf League’s Big Wave Tour in 2019, ultimately agreeing on a digital submission format.

“Surfers surf when the waves are good, not when somebody sounds a horn,” Clark said in praise of the new format. “A surfer can have a bad first swell and have the opportunity to come back and shine on the next one.”

Clark and Cuvelier had always planned on having an opening festival bringing the whole community together to start the season, and an awards show to end it.

The 2022 Mavericks Awards was a successful live event in May, but due to the pandemic, this year was the first opportunity to kick off the Mavericks season the way it had always been envisioned.

“Our mission is to celebrate Mavericks and support the brave men and women who surf it,” Cuvelier said, outlining the core values behind the Mavericks Awards as respect, inclusion, equality, safety, and environmental stewardship. “Those five values are our North Star, and that’s what drives everything we’re doing today.”

The overarching good vibes buzzing around the harbor that Saturday were all born from the respect carried in the community, starting with honoring of those who have come before and streaming all the way to the kind welcoming for every individual connected to the ocean and this beloved big wave community at any level.

Honors were shown through dozens of towering guns displayed near and even on the stage, which was flanked by Bob Pearson’s homage to the earliest California surfing in history: perfect recreations of the 17-foot, 240-pound redwood olo boards ridden by the Hawaiian princes that first surfed the waters off the coast of Santa Cruz in 1885.

Bob Pearson on stage at the Mavericks Festival with the recreation olo boards. (Photo by Kyveli Sophia)

Pearson snagged measurements for the recreations from the actual princes’ boards which were briefly shared with the Museum of Art History in Santa Cruz in 2015 to honor 130 years of surfing in the area in after they were found in the basement of Honolulu’s Bishop Museum.

They are two of 13 ceremonial redwood boards of varying shapes and sizes made by Pearson and adorned with the princes’ royal Hawaiian crest, a half dozen of which were on hand at the Mavericks Festival.

The Gun Show on display at the inaugural Mavericks Festival. Photo: Diener

The other boards displayed next to the stage included Channel Islands guns belonging to attending legend Peter Mel near Pearson’s tent, which showcased the redwood boards and Pearson-Arrow’s history not only by honoring the dearly departed Jay Moriarty but also showing off boards ridden by modern Mavericks champions who won on Pearson-Arrow boards, including Bianca Valenti and Jamie Mitchell, both of whom were at the event.

“It’s a great thing for the community and I’m happy to be here,” Mitchell said. “Mavericks, for me, has always had that community feel, that small town feel. When you come into town, you see everyone within a couple of hours. It’s always great when you get a small community together, and when you have this iconic thing like Mavericks it’s easy to bring everyone together.”

Mavericks legend Jamie Mitchell with his Pearson-Arrow boards at the Mavericks Awards. (Photo by Jack Sandler)

Mitchell has been on the road to recovery all year after breaking his back at Nazare in February, but he says he’s feeling good and definitely plans on catching waves that can be submitted to the 2023 Mavericks Awards.

“Oh, for sure. I’ll be here for the first swell,” he cheerfully said without hesitation.

The ubiquitous respect for all who engage with this wave and the community flows right into the inclusion part of the Mavericks Awards mission as no facets of the community were ignored at the festival, from performing musicians Jaleh, The Expendables, and Coast Tribe to over-21 delights like 805 beer and Half Moon Bay Brewing Company to food options varying from locally-caught seafood favorite Pacific Catch to tasty tamales benefitting the high school girls’ volleyball team.

Narrowing the scope on the community to those directly connected to surfing Mavericks, the festival put a spotlight on all the parts.

“For a long time, Mavericks was about the wave — which is, of course, a massive part of it — and the surfers, which is a massive part of it, but there’s the photographers…and videographers who can show Mavericks through their eyes,” Cuvelier explained about offering a gallery opportunity to a dozen photographers like Fred Pompermayer and Pedro Bala to sell their work, as well as showing several riveting Mavericks video edits on the big screen.

Bala has been living in San Francisco for almost 20 years, and though he’s guaranteed to be at Mavericks every winter he does chase swells in the spring and summer to Brazil, Mexico, and even Tahiti, where he shot the historic Code Red 2 swell in July.

But there’s a reason he calls this part of the world home.

“It’s the community. Everybody here knows each other and everybody’s very friendly. There’s none of that local[ism], ‘You can’t surf here,’ vibe, and that’s what I love. It’s very inviting,” he said.

Bala said he also loves the eclectic mix of people one finds out at Mavs, all of whom he photographs: from big wave contest darlings Kai Lenny and Lucas Chumbo to local boy Matt Lopez, who was born and raised in San Francisco by a big wave surfer dad, making a future at Mavericks a when more than an if.

Pedro Bala's lens focused on Matt Lopez charging at Mavericks. Photo: Bala

Lopez has surfed oversized waves around the world, but says the mechanics of Mavericks are unique and reward the surfers who put their time in out there.

“The wave itself is one of the wonders of the world. It’s super unique for a big wave spot because the takeoff spot is relatively small. If you go to Jaws, Nazare, or Puerto, it’s a bigger playing field, you have to start paddling further out. At Mavericks, you can just sit there and if you’re in the right spot just take four or five paddles,” he explained. “The guys who are really good and really know the wave well just sit in the perfect spot. That wave jacks up and gets really steep on the take off, and the bigger and hollower a wave is the harder it is to catch it. But there’s something about Mavericks that allows you to ride it by putting yourself in the perfect spot. ”

Lopez can be caught at Pillar Point several times a year with his 9’2 and 10’0 Channel Islands boards — a shaper selection inspired in small part by his admiration for Mavs legend Peter Mel — and sometimes he just goes down there to stay on land and enjoy the community being honored by the Mavericks Festival.

“They have a cool scene down there with the restaurants and the boats. I like going down there, just on a random day to get out of San Francisco and go have some food, go to the OPL, maybe walk out there out at Mavericks when the waves aren’t breaking,” he said. “I like the vibe down there.”

Though Lopez doesn’t froth on contest surfing at Mavericks, he is a huge fan of the most lauded Mavericks Awards performer from last season simply for the positive role model she offers women charging the spot.

“Sometimes you don’t even know if you can do that,” Lopez said. “You look at a 40-foot wave and say, ‘Is that even possible?’ Bianca has shown: you can do that.”

The wave of equality is firing at Mavericks, and the current Queen of Mavericks is San Francisco’s Bianca Valenti, who swept the podium at the awards show in May by winning “Female Performer of the Year,” “Biggest Wave,” and “Ride of the Year.”

The humble champion made herself available to the multitude of fans she’s earned from her brave rides here, even pausing mid-interview to give audience to a speechless fan who managed to explain to Valenti how her Mavericks success is what drives the fan to get more comfortable in XXL surf.

Valenti shared that reactions like that are a big part of what motivates her out in the water as she sees more and more women charging alongside the heavily male crew of Mavs regulars.

She added that while she’s seeing this trend worldwide, she’s always felt like Mavericks was at the forefront of this important shift.

Mavericks Awards champion Bianca Valenti shares a moment with fan Louise Layson. (Photo by Frank Quirarte)

“Last season, I just recall feeling a real sense of community out in the water, and that all the men out there are our brothers and we’re a family out there,” she said. “This season, I’m looking forward to seeing more women out there and for the men to cheer on the new gals coming out the way they have for me. The spirit in the water has shifted: we’re accepted, we’re welcome, we belong.”

The safety of the diverse Mavericks crowd is a Goliath task that rests on the shoulders of a half dozen Mavericks Rescue volunteers who put themselves through training and into harm’s way to rescue anyone who gets in trouble out there.

Lead rescue operator and EMT Drake Stanley said that the current volunteer rescue effort was started about six years ago, motivated — like all rescue teams that have ever worked Mavericks — by the deaths of Hawaiians Mark Foo and Sion Milosky in 1994 and 2011, respectively.

Stanley explained that a lot of the team’s most important work protecting Mavs chargers is actually done out of the water.

“A lot of what we do is preventative, and that’s when we’re doing the best job we can do,” he said in reference to the upcoming Ocean Safety Summit hosted by Mavericks Rescue on October 13 at the Old Princeton Landing Public House & Grill (locally known as the OPL).

The Mavericks Rescue volunteer team at the Mavericks Festival. (Photo by Kyveli Sophia)

“That’s for the surfers, the photographers, the public, anyone who gets out there, so they know how to get rescued. It’s one thing to get out there, but if you have to meet me in a heavy situation I want you to know how I’m going to get you to safety,” Stanley said. “And aside from that, you should know how to help your fellow surfer out there.”

Matt Lopez also echoed the importance of preparation for Mavericks, saying, “If you’re gonna be out there, you should be able to survive a wipeout without being rescued. Like if someone else is getting rescued and you have to go through the rocks, you should be prepared to do that or lose your board and have to swim the whole 9 yards.”

The last tenant of the Mavericks Awards’ North Star, environmental stewardship, was teeming throughout the October 1 event at every level.

The event was almost zero waste, with local beer being served in embossed aluminum cups and local wine being sipped from commemorative glassware.

A water source for refilling reusable bottles was keeping people hydrated, and those without their own reusable could buy water bottles that were actually aluminum and will offer multiple reuses.

These measures, along with the wood utensils in compostable packets, were all in accordance with San Mateo County’s new Disposable Food Service Ware Ordinance that went into effect on the day of the Mavericks Festival.

The ordinance stands on three tenants: utilizing reusables above all; choosing fiber-based service items if reusables aren’t an option; and ending the use of any kind of plastic container, including the apparently compostable containers that actually aren’t as green as we thought.

“A lot of those products, even though they’re plant-based, their end-of-life is a very high-heat compost facility, of which there aren’t that many, so they end up going in the trash. If they do end up in the ocean, they act like plastic in that they break down into smaller particles. They’ll eventually biodegrade, but not for a very long time,” said Shell Cleave, a Half Moon Bay local who fought for the new ordinance’s passing and is also the founder of Sea Hugger, the local nonprofit that has partnered with Mavericks Awards since the beginning.

Cleave said the new digital format has a massive impact on protecting the ecosystem at Mavericks, as well as the people drawn to the thundering wave.

“There’s been a couple events where people got injured because there were too many people on the beach,” Cleave recalled. “In one, the very vulnerable cliff actually had a slide and rocks came down on spectators; in another, a rogue wave came in and took out all the staging equipment and someone broke their leg; and I know someone got a concussion when that slide happened. It’s too fragile, the ecosystem here, for the number of people that come in here [for a one-day contest].”

Cleave was a tech executive before her passion for diving and surfing — and her dismay over the amount of trash she’d tuck into her wetsuit or collect from the sand on every outing — led her to founding Sea Hugger in 2018 and now working in three countries through their partnerships with Tokens 4 Trash in Mexico and Litter 4 Tokens in South Africa.

Mavericks Awards’ global environmental partner, Save the Waves, was also at the festival to complement Sea Hugger’s local perspective on protecting Mavericks.

And local Cleave is. She was at the first contest in 1995 and she remembers a time when the event was called “Men Who Ride Mountains.”

Her home at the top of the hill rumbles every time Mavericks awakens. She, with her nonprofit and her activism to improve the city and county where she lives, is one of tens of thousands of people in the global oceanic community who value Mavericks and the Half Moon Bay community for all it is.

Stay tuned to American Surf Magazine for coverage of the 2022-23 Mavericks digital submission big wave contest.


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