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California and the West

Fame Shatters a Surfer's Solitude

Sports: Jeff Clark used to have Maverick's mostly to himself. Now a championship competition is planned there next year.


HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — More than anyone else, Jeff Clark knows the surf spot called Maverick's, where winter waves can be as exhilarating--and treacherous--as any in the far reaches of the Pacific.

He has surfed those 40- to 60-foot wave faces for two decades in frigid temperatures, carried toward foreboding rocks along the shore.

"You're tapping into so much power and you're riding this explosion of water," Clark said recently, sitting outside a seaside cafe while the waves were mild. "If you make a mistake, it blows you up. It takes every sense you've been refining over the years of surfing just to harness that power."

Clark had Maverick's mainly to himself until 1990, when other surfers began making pilgrimages to test their skills at the surf break off Half Moon Bay, 30 miles south of San Francisco. Popularity continues to swell, fueled in part by publicity surrounding the 1994 drowning death of a champion surfer who tried to ride at Maverick's. The biggest crowd is expected sometime over the next few weeks for California's first big wave surfing contest.

Surf clothing manufacturer Quiksilver, which is sponsoring the Maverick's contest, has invited 20 of the world's top big wave surfers to compete for a purse worth a total of $45,000. Some contestants are regular Maverick's surfers from the stretch of coast between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, while the others are from Hawaii and Australia.

The contest is scheduled to take place sometime before Jan. 27, with the exact day to be determined by wave conditions as judged by Clark. Maverick's, named after the dog of an old-time local surfer, has its largest waves between November and February.

"It's become a big, big proving ground," said Jamie Brisick, executive editor of Surfing magazine in San Clemente. "At Maverick's, you've got this 'Old Man and the Sea' phenomenon. The water's freezing cold and it's not inviting."

Grant Washburn, an invited contestant, agreed. "I think it's blatantly obvious that if you screw up, you could get killed," said Washburn, 30, who lives in San Francisco and has surfed Maverick's almost 250 times. "But most of us feel we're ready."

The site has become the latest arena in a sport that is seeing more and more lucrative contests being put on by large corporations.

Quiksilver has hired the usually low-profile Clark to coordinate water safety and watch weather patterns via satellite feeds. He will send out the summons to the 20 contest surfers at least two days before he expects the swells to be at peak conditions.

"Jeff's the man up there and has the respect of everyone," said Taylor Whisenand, marketing director at Quiksilver. "We wanted to go right to the source and get the guy who's associated with it."

In 1966, Clark's father moved his family from Redwood City to Half Moon Bay to work as a fisherman. That enthusiasm for the sea caught on quickly with his two sons, who took up surfing. Back then, Clark said, the local surfing scene was almost nonexistent. The town was a quiet farming community untouched by the population boom that would hit the Bay Area less than two decades later. And most surfers still used 10-foot longboards, which made it harder to tackle the turbulent, rock-strewn waters so common off Half Moon Bay.

Clark said he cut classes in junior high to catch the waves. He quit his high school football team for the kind of adrenaline rush he could only find in the sea. Partners such as his younger brother Lyle, now 39, and a few schoolmates joined him.

"He was pretty much crazy about going surfing," said Jim Reimche, 38, who surfed with Clark in high school. "He never smoked weed, never did any drugs, it was just a natural high. He had total control of everything he did all the time."

To hear Clark tell it, he first just watched the waves at Maverick's for four winters. Then in 1975, he decided to take them on. He said the conditions that day were perfect, with a smooth, glassy surface on the water. His partner watched from the beach while he paddled the 600 yards or so out to the swells. The wave he caught, with its 20-foot face, was relatively small for Maverick's, but larger than anything he had previously encountered. He was hooked.

"I surfed so much of Maverick's by myself, or maybe with one other person out there," Clark said. "Maverick's was this really special, perfect place. There wasn't anybody out there. It was my world."

That solitude ended in 1990 when Clark told his friends about the waves. Surfer magazine featured it a year later. Local surfers such as Mark "Doc Hazard" Rennecker, Darryl "Flea" Virostko and Jay Moriarty began forging their own legends there.

Then tragedy struck in December 1994 when Mark Foo, considered one of the world's best big wave surfers, arrived from Hawaii to take on Maverick's. He lost his balance on a wave, was pulled under by the currents and drowned. Hours later, Foo's body and broken board were dragged from the ocean.

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