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Little Giants and Big History: How a Small Season Opened Major Doors at Mavericks Awards

Even small to medium Mavericks is not for the faint of heart. Photo by Pedro Bala

Words used to describe the 2022-23 Mavericks season included “challenging,” “small,” and “limited.”

There was talk about how the Eddie swell that provided 40-foot titans at Waimea was so drastically reduced by the time it crossed the Pacific to Half Moon Bay that some people who’d showed up with lofty expectations were “disappointed.”

But beyond the talk, there was the footage shared at the third annual Mavericks Awards at San Benito House in Half Moon Bay on Saturday, April 29, and video cannot lie.

2023 Mavericks Awards Nominees.

Small to medium big wave offerings would still make most surfers without a passion for riding giants back down.

These waves with the suggested minuscule descriptions were still 15-25 feet with a sometimes 30-foot eruption of white water chasing the riders back to the channel, and the Half Moon Bay locals along with the regular surfers, filmers, and shapers who are endeared to this cold-water colossus could still see all the power and beauty they know and love from Mavericks, albeit with a more welcoming, inviting vibe than seasons past of greater size and consistency.

“While it wasn’t the giant waves we’re accustomed to, what we did get are some really quality waves and the surfers showed up and made it happen,” said Jeff Clark, the original pioneer of this spot and cofounder of the Mavericks Awards.

“It was very approachable this year. Sometimes Mavericks is not approachable — we’ve seen everybody in the lineup paddle over sets because nobody wanted any part of it. When it lets you, it speaks to you, you spin and go and get the wave of your life.”

Men's Performer of the Year winner Alo Slebir escapes an exploding wall of water. Photo by Audrey Lambidakis

The smaller size of the five or so notable days out at Pillar Point allowed for the heartwarming stories that took a center stage at the awards show, particularly bodysurfer Kalani Lattanzi being the first person to complete the big wave bodysurfing trifecta — Jaws, Nazaré, and Mavericks — and the advancement in women’s big wave surfing as contest short boarder Zoe Chait achieved her dream of becoming a big wave surfer at just 16 years old under the mentorship of the indomitable Queen of Mavericks, Bianca Valenti.

Chait’s love for surfing began when she was 10 years old thanks to Eric W. Nelson, who co-founded the esteemed Mavericks-focused production company Powerlines Productions with friend and colleague Curt Myers and served as a surf instructor for the Open Ocean surf camp.

Nelson taught Chait and her brother how to surf together, but it was Chait that he says, “you just couldn’t get out of the water.”

She went on to find great success in NSSA contests, but her eyes were always aimed higher, namely at the peak of big waves.

History makers: 16-year-old big wave surfer Zoe Chait (left) and bodysurfer Kalani Lattanzi (right), the first to ever bodysurf the trifecta of Jaws, Nazare, and Mavericks. Photo by Jack Sandler

At the start of the 2022-2023 Mavericks season in October, Chait — who turns 17 on May 5 — attended a Safety Summit hosted by Mavericks Safety and the U.S. Coast Guard to supplement the Big Wave Risk Assessment Group (BWRAG) training she’d already taken.

With big waves still but a daydream, Chait was called to the stage that day by Half Moon Bay Deputy Harbor Master Cary Smith as the youngest attendee to test what a pull vest feels like to inflate and deflate, and the glimmer in her eyes as the cartridges burst was that of a young woman hooked.

Six weeks later, Chait was out in the lineup at Mavericks receiving guidance from Valenti as the first big swell of the season arrived.

Equipped with a 9’6” Jeff Clark gun, Chait cleanly paddled into and rode out of a wave that looks to be at least 15 feet and packed all the thundering punch Mavericks is known for.

“I felt like my heart was bursting open,” Bianca Valenti said of actually witnessing and being part of the advancement of women’s surfing and big wave surfing history happening in real time. “That was the coolest moment I’ve ever been a part of at Mavericks.”

Bianca Valenti (center) celebrates sweeping the women's awards again with nutritional Big Wave Bar partner Michelle Pusateri (right) and Pusateri's husband Pete Koff (left). Photo courtesy of Michelle Pusateri

While that ride was the one that earned her Saturday’s nominations, it was far from the only big wave Chait surfed this winter. Joining Valenti on Oahu for the Eddie swell there in late January, Chait borrowed Valenti’s signature hot pink 9’4” Pearson Arrow board to join the Red Bull Magnitude women’s big wave event at Waimea Bay on January 23.

“I’m just so excited to keep pushing myself, especially at Mavericks,” said Chait, who committed to her big wave journey by massively stepping up her fitness routine this winter in addition to absorbing pearls of wisdom from her big wave guru.

“Bianca was such an amazing mentor this year,” she said, sharing that, in addition to lineup guidance at Mavs and Waimea Bay, some of the biggest lessons that stayed with her were “to watch the water, watch the waves before you go out and make sure you’re comfortable with anything you’re doing, and to be safe and send it!”

The trophies awarded at the 3rd Annual Mavericks Awards. Photo by Jack Sandler

Valenti elaborated on the benefits of keeping a calm head while out in oversized surf, explaining that, “it allows you to see everything instead of being trapped in this narrow tunnel vision where you think you have to do something or prove something. [It’s about] just letting go of your ego and connecting with the ocean, making sure you’re there because you’re heart’s in it and you’re not trying to force it or rush anything. Just go with the flow.”

A wide open lineup awaits more women out at Mavericks. Photo by Audrey Lambidakis

Trophies were doled out for both men and women in the categories of Biggest Wave, Best Ride, and Performer of the Year with a $25,000 equal prize purse, 60% of which goes to the athlete and 40% to the filmer of the winning wave.

While Valenti and Chait faced off for all three of the women’s categories, it was the mentor who continued to school her mentee as Valenti swept the women’s awards for the second consecutive year.

Both ladies of Mavericks shared the same sentiment: they want to see more women out at Mavericks to balance the vibe, advance women’s big wave surfing, and stiffen the competition for the women’s awards.

Local legend Ryan Augenstein navigates a perfect barrel for his Ride of the Year victory. Drone shot by Daniel Gorostieta courtesy of Mavericks Awards

“We definitely need more women to come surf Mavericks,” Chait said in the video presented about her journey this season, a wish Valenti echoed when she said Florida’s Izzi Gomez was the only other woman to join herself and Chait this year at Mavericks. “Bianca and I were completely outnumbered this year [by men]. I just want more women in the water, more women’s energy, more women just giving it a go out there.”

On the men’s side of the draw, Ryan Augenstein, a Santa Cruz native of “Chasing Mavericks” fame, took home the Ride of the Year award for rolling into a double-up that offered an open barrel ride at the end, which Augenstein navigated perfectly.

The Male Performer of the Year award went to Mavericks mainstay Alo Slebir, who gratefully accepted via video appearance.

Big wave legend Greg Long took home the Biggest Wave award for the only wave he caught during the whole window, which came to him during the first swell of note in late November.

Paddling in from the peak of the glassy green wave as it rose over well over 20 feet before starting to break behind him, Long’s clean, lengthy descent drew a line across the full face of the wave on his 9’6” Chris Christenson board that would have any rider of mountains — land or ocean — frothing.

Over 400 people attended the 3rd annual Mavericks Awards in Half Moon Bay on April 29. Photo by Jack Sandler

“I rode one wave at Mavericks this year, and it was apparently the right one,” Long said in his acceptance speech, adding that at this point in his career he prefers to surf more of what would be considered small to medium big waves. “I’m grateful to have lucked into my one small big wave of the year that happened to fall on a challenging time for big waves surfers here in Northern California, I’m grateful for what you guys have created [with the Mavericks Awards], and as for the prize money there are people much more deserving than myself, so it’ll all be going to the Mavericks Rescue.”

The rescue team that has been protecting lives at Mavericks for over a decade is entirely volunteer based and locally funded, with individuals of all professions providing support as needed like assisting the jet ski rescue by spotting surfers in distress from the cliff and radioing information down or utilizing drones to help lifeguard the surfers. To donate to the Mavericks Rescue team, visit the GoFundMe created by Frank Quiarte.

While the awards clearly commended the surfers, shooters, and shapers who made the captured rides possible — including Maui-born and Brazil-raised bodysurfer Kalani Lattanzi with his simple yet crucial equipment of a hand plane by Hand Ski and fins by Yucca — the local businesses that make the community unique and vibrant, including Pacific Catch, 805 Beer, and Half Moon Bay Brewing Co., were also present at the Awards as local sponsors and vendors.

As a founding nonprofit partner of the Mavericks Awards, locally-based oceanic environmental nonprofit Sea Hugger received 10% of all ticket and drink sales at the sold out event.

The donations support Sea Hugger’s educational outreach and partnerships with Tokens for Litter in Mexico and South Africa, which supports locals who help remove waste from the environment by directly helping them access basic needs.

As the evening came to a close, Mavericks Awards founders Jeff Clark and Chris Cuvelier announced that this year’s Mavericks Festival would be even bigger than the day-long event featuring three bands, dozens of vendors, and the talented photographers and shapers presented last October.

The 2023 Mavericks Festival will be a two-day party on September 30 and October 1, featuring six bands and allowing attendance by even more than the 8,000-10,000 fans of the “Wonder of the World in our own backyard,” as Mavericks pioneer Clark affectionately calls it.

The two-day kickoff this fall is sure to keep the well-oiled machine of the Mavericks Awards rolling into the progressive, inclusive, and exhilarating future of big wave surfing that the third annual awards show foreshadowed.

Mavericks Awards founders Jeff Clark (right) and Chris Cuvelier (left). Photo by Jack Sandler

“The gifts we have in our life, especially the resources of the knowledge and wisdom we’ve accumulated, are only really valuable if we pass it on and share it. I wouldn’t be who I am today if it wasn’t for the gift of Grant Washburn inviting me up here at 18 years old and sharing all the surfing wisdom he accumulated with Jeff [Clark], and it continues to be passed along,” Greg Long told the crowd.

“Awards like this are always amazing, but what [Jeff Clark and Chris Cuvelier] have created, money aside, it’s the community and the love and appreciation for the town, the wave, the family that’s been brought together and will continue to do so for all the years to come.”


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