Saturday, October 31, 2009

Grant Washburn on Calling the Mavericks 2009/2010 Contest

With the opening of the official Waiting Period for the Mavericks Surf Contest, the question that now hangs in the salt-sprayed air is: when will 'The Call' be made?

'The Call' that will have 24 of the world's greatest big-wave surfers and 15 Alternates rushing at 24 hours notice to a beach just off Pillar Point at Half Moon Bay, with an expected 40,000 surfing fans in their wake.

While millions more will prepare to be glued to webcams on computers, or TVs, or dash to the San Francisco Giants' baseball park in San Francisco, to watch one of the world's most thrilling and dangerous big-wave surfing contests.

That vital decision must be made between tomorrow, 1 November, and 31 March, 2010, now that the opening ceremony for the 2009/2010 contest Waiting Period has been held - see previous blog.

The responsibility for deciding when there is a momentous enough swell rolling in from the Pacific Ocean, rests with the surfers. None are more qualified to judge than veteran Mavericks surfer and San Francisco resident, Grant Washburn, who has been surfing the spot for 20 years.

'Hopefully, this will be a good season. All winters aren't created equal,' said Grant at the celebration party at the Oceano Hotel yesterday after the ceremony.

Grant has been surfing there for 20 years and has made a record of what the waves were like on every day of those 20 years. He is also a three-times contest finalist and documentary filmmaker who has coedited a book: 'Inside Maverick's: Portrait of a Monster Wave'.

The 'stats', never mind the surfing, are breathtaking. Of those 20 years, three have been exceptional, three or four have been 'horrible', and most have been in-between, he said.

'People don't appreciate how difficult it is to get a good day.' In one good year, he said, there might only be 30 good days, so when it comes to calling the contest, the surfers are at the mercy of the ocean.

Which is why the last - and shorter - season petered away without a contest. But this season is starting with a rosy aspect. He remembered good El Nino years in 1997 and 1998, and the long-range forecast gives a chance of that happening again.

Given the prospect of El Nino rooting for the contest this season, how are the surfers going to know when to make that magical call? If they paddle out at the first huge swell, will they bypass a chance of more tumultuous waves later?

If they wait, will they end up chasing elusive waves with a look-back at what might have been?

It's less likely, in fact not very likely, that the surfers will make 'The Call' when the waves are too small, but they might, said Grant surprisingly, 'pick a day when they are too big!'

The standard of surfing has risen over the last ten to 15 years with younger surfers 'really pushing the sport,' said Grant - pictured here with Colin Dwyer 'one of the newest hard-chargers!'

Pause the interview while two young girls came up for an autograph! Autographs were a feature on the beach (pic below)

So what are 'small' waves and 'big' waves?

For Mavericks, a 40 ft face is smallish, 'a little disappointing', he said. But a 'perfectly clean' 50 ft -plus wave, one swelling with a smooth surface, no ruffles, in nice weather....he is dreaming of the perfect wave.

Over his 20 years of documenting the waves, he would estimate there have been two perfect days. About once a decade, he said, breaking it down.

Then there are the 60-footers. In his estimation, too big for the most part. Grant, in his early forties, doesn't relish such towering waves, but considers that 'right now the guys would probably go for it!'

A jaw-dropping prospect.

In the interim, what do they do while they wait to make 'The Call'?

Some will stay in California, while others will be across the world, South Africa, Brazil, Hawaii. One surfer yesterday was about to leave for Australia - pic shows Ryan Seelbach, Alex Martins, Chris Bertish

Sponsorship money plays a role in how they live out the next few months, said Grant. They have to figure out how to budget their money, take into account the cost of following swelling seas around the world and leave enough to get back to the Pacific Coast in a hurry.

Pack into that travel fatigue, the tight time schedule - 'you can barely do it from Cape Town' - plus frustrations of lost boards by airlines, and some are surmounting challenges before they even set sight on a wave.

As the party began last night, though, in the warm air with fire-pits and a marquee, a gently-lapping ocean in the background, there was the excitement of another Mavericks season underway.

pics by Chris Flowers

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