Note: Mavericks 24-man field is the same as last year; no new faces. Only the heat alignments have changed. Based on a recent drawing, it sorted out this way:
Mark Healey: A living legend in Hawaii for his big-wave surfing and free-diving expeditions – along with a generous, humble nature – Healey has made a lasting commitment to Maverick’s. “A true waterman,” says 2008 contest winner Greg Long. “He has taken some of the heaviest floggings and ridden some of the most terrifying waves in the past few years.” Healey won the Monster Tube award in the 2009 Billabong contest, at a mysto spot identified only as “the Pacific Northwest,” and as Shane Dorian put it, “I honestly think Healey is mentally prepared to paddle into waves that NO one wants.” Even more impressively, he’s doing it backside. “I feel like I’ve got a lot to learn at Maverick’s,” he says. “Even though I’ve been going there for three or four years, it’s a new relationship. I don’t feel like I’ve got it figured out.” Coming from Healey, that’s a strong statement. This is a man who seeks out deep-water Hawaiian diving locations to swim alongside and actually ride Great White sharks.
Kelly Slater: As if it wasn’t enough to lure the deeply respected Dorian and Healey into the mix, here comes the 11-time world tour champion and, in most experts’ opinion, the greatest surfer who ever lived. You can read all about his tour exploits elsewhere; not everyone realizes that Slater has been a dedicated big-wave surfer since his early days on the North Shore, often paddling to the outer reefs for epic, unheralded sessions with the locals. He’ll surf giant Pipeline with the best of them. He has excelled at Teahupo’o (Tahiti), the world’s most dangerous break. He won the Eddie Aikau event in 2002 and nearly did it again three years ago, losing narrowly to Long after a series of masterful takeoffs at Waimea Bay. Slater has only surfed Maverick’s twice in the past, including the 2000 contest, when he stunned everyone – including himself – by finishing second to Flea Virostko. Some felt the judges wrongly advanced Slater into the finals at the expense of Jay Moriarity, and even now, Slater speaks of his good fortune that day. He was truly humbled and awe-struck by Maverick’s and the people who surf it. For Slater, that is quite a rare occurrence.
Peter Mel: He had to be amused after this year’s paddle-in ceremony when he learned he was in such a loaded heat. This Santa Cruz veteran was considered the most talented, influential Mavericks surfer for nearly a decade, but the contest title always eluded him – and his quest won’t be getting any easier. Mel did break through with his first big-wave contest victory in August of 2011 at Pico Alto, Peru, on the Big Wave World Tour. He gave credit to his Santa Cruz mentor, the legendary Richard Schmidt, “who came to Peru in the early 80s and told me about this great big wave. I have dreamed about surfing Pico Alto. I feel really proud to have won here.” Mel was a highly influential tow-in performer and ranks with Schmidt as the best-known NorCal surfers in Hawaiian events (especially the Aikau contest) over the years. He got some nice props with a primary role in “Chasing Mavericks.” When it comes to this contest, however, it’s all about unfinished business. If for nothing beyond his peace of mind, Mel covets this trophy.
Kenny (Skindog) Collins: Whether it’s tow-surfing or paddling, Collins tends to stand out on the most fearsome days at Maverick’s. He pioneered the Northern California tow-in movement with Mel in the late 1990s and was part of a titanic semifinal in the 2000 contest that will go down with the most memorable heats in surfing history. In the summer of ’06, he came out of a massive tube at Puerto Escondido – one of the most sensational performances ever witnessed at the famed Mexico break – to win both Ride of the Year and Monster Tube in the XXL awards. He also staged a spirited run to reach the finals of the 2010 Maverick’s contest. Collins’ big-wave resolve was tested two winters ago, when his good friend Sion Milosky died during a free-surf session at Mavericks. Collins endured the horror of viewing Milosky’s body on the beach that afternoon, and several months passed before he felt prepared to attack big surf again. Back in form last winter, he was nominated for Billabong’s Monster Paddle award for a massive, clean drop at Mavericks.
Dave Wassel: Maverick’s locals welcomed this longtime underground charger from Hawaii, where he serves as a North Shore lifeguard, ranks among the most respected members of the Pipeline crew, owns a cherished spot in the Eddie Aikau contest lineup, and won the 2012 Monster Paddle award for a dramatically successful air-drop at Jaws. His first-ever wave at Maverick’s six years ago, a bomb from well outside the bowl, nearly gained him the XXL Paddle-In award. He now makes Mavericks a priority, making the 2008 contest semifinals (after gaining entry as an alternate) and finishing a solid fourth in the life-threatening conditions of 2010. “You can’t compare this place to Hawaii,” he says. “It’s got cold water, giant sharks, giant waves and giant rocks. It’s like nothing else.” What separates Wassel from most Hawaii-based surfers is that he keeps coming back, as if drawn by magnetic force. Deeply appreciated by the Maverick’s regulars, Wassel won the Jay Moriarity Award at the 2010 event.
Rusty Long: It’s not easy being Greg Long’s brother, especially if you want to ride big waves, but Rusty pulls it off with aplomb. His low-key approach has kept him somewhat off the radar, and he isn’t quite as well-traveled as Greg, but he is widely recognized as a major player in any conditions. Rusty was nominated for the 2007 XXL Ride of the Year for a wave he scored at Puerto Escondido – and he was paddle-surfing that day, while most everyone else was towing. When it comes to Mavericks, “My relationship with the wave has been a good one over the years,” he says. “I always try to be tactical and pick off waves that I will really remember. I listen to my instincts about when to surf there, too. Some days I don’t feel it, some days I really do.” He was definitely feeling it on the day of the 2010 contest, boldly pulling into the barrel of a 50-foot face during the early-morning free-surf. That unforgettable sight, as much as anything, earned him a spot in this year’s event. He is also an alternate on the Eddie Aikau list in Hawaii.
Chris Bertish: There hasn’t been a more popular contest winner, anywhere, than Bertish at Maverick’s in 2010. The 38-year-old South African is one of the most stoked, enthusiastic big-wave surfers on the planet, and he pulled out the victory after a frantic, 36-hour adventure to get to Half Moon Bay on time. He arrived to discover that his board didn’t finish the journey, and the set waves were huge: 50-60 feet on the face, the largest ever for a paddle-in surf contest. In his first heat, Bertish was caught inside a giant set wave and held underwater so long, he felt he was close to drowning. Somehow summoning the energy and will power to continue, Bertish wound up having the day of his life. Riding a board borrowed from Mavericks pioneer Jeff Clark, Bertish called it “an honor and a privilege” to be invited, describing the day as “scary beautiful.”
Nathan Fletcher: No visiting surfer has a more intense relationship with Mavericks than Fletcher, the man who discovered Sion Milosky’s lifeless body floating in the water in March of 2011 during a ground-breaking session in wave faces up to 50 feet. The two Hawaii-based surfers were close friends and traveling partners, and Milosky’s death left Fletcher badly shaken. The youngest son in the noted Fletcher family from Southern California, Nathan shied away from surfing in his youth, only to emerge as a stunningly talented, fearless rider. He’s been a Maverick’s standout on huge days, including the storied November ’08 swell described as the best ever for paddle-in conditions. And he was the star of last year’s Billabong awards, winning Overall Performance as well as Monster Tube and Ride of the Year for a wave at Teahupo’o (Tahiti) many have called the heaviest they’ve ever seen. “He has a natural talent that exceeds any of the top guys,” claims Twiggy Baker, and Hawaiian underground standout Dustin Barca says Fletcher is “my favorite person to watch surf. Dances to his own beat. Nobody even sees half the crazy shit he does.”
Grant Washburn: From his filmmaking to his work on the book “Inside Maverick’s” to his constant presence in the lineup, Washburn is probably the leading spokesman on Maverick’s. He has no problem surfing it alone, in contrary winds, in fearsome conditions that would scare most people away. It is widely believed that Washburn puts in more Maverick’s time than anyone, and not since Greg Noll has any big-wave rider been so doubly proficient at performance and documentation. Grant has produced two surf films, and with a massive personal collection of big-wave footage and interviews, he has much more in store. Always a standout at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach and the Red Bull/South Africa contest, Washburn was a Maverick’s finalist in 2004, 2006 and 2008. After negotiating the swirl of lawsuits and political chaos at the organizational level for years, Washburn has stepped aside as a contest executive and is now concentrating strictly on the waves.
Matt Ambrose: Take a close look at the man who has been surfing Maverick’s for 20 years. That’s the definition of a committed big-wave rider. He was there from the beginning, part of Jeff Clark’s original, Pacifica-based crew in the early 90s, and if you want to know who rides the deepest, just find out where the 41-year-old Ambrose has positioned himself. Grant Washburn likes to joke that if there were no official contest, “We’d just hold the Matt Ambrose Challenge. Whoever gets the biggest, nastiest wave – an Ambrose wave – would win.” Once known as an underground warrior, Ambrose became an established name after reaching the finals in four consecutive Maverick’s contests between 2000 and ’06.
Shawn Dollar: In the break between the semifinals and finals of the 2010 contest, a few non-invited surfers hit the water. One of the day’s biggest sets blackened the horizon, and Dollar – a longtime Maverick’s regular from Santa Cruz – successfully negotiated a 60-foot drop that earned him Monster Paddle honors in the Billabong awards and a spot on the alternate list of the Eddie Aikau contest for the first time. “Don’t know his name? You will soon,” wrote Surfing Magazine. Now a main-list entrant for the first time, Dollar says, “Maverick’s is the place where it all matters. The wave is so good, so challenging for paddling, and we haven’t seen its full potential yet. I love and fear that wave. It’s my obsession.”
Jamie Sterling: Bouncing back from a dislocated shoulder that sidelined him for several months, Sterling won the 2010-11 Big Wave World Tour – a worldwide circuit created by Maverick’s head judge Gary Linden – on the strength of three solid performances: fourth place at Punta de Lobos, Chile, winning the Pico Alto (Peru) contest, then finishing third at Oregon’s Nelscott Reef. None of this is surprising to anyone who has followed Sterling’s career, back to the days when he broke into the big-wave hierarchy as a North Shore teenager. In the 2006 Billabong XXL awards, he was honored for Best Overall Performance. He finished an impressive third in the 2008 Maverick’s contest, after dominating his first two heats, and he won the Jay Moriarity Award that day for the spirit best exemplifying the late, great Santa Cruz surfer. At home in Hawaii, he’s a main-list entrant in the Eddie Aikau event.
Shane Dorian: Widely considered the best big-wave surfer in the world, and he’s proven it beyond a doubt by spearheading the paddle-in movement at Peahi (“Jaws”) on Maui. Until recently, even the hard-core locals felt the place was suited only for tow surfing. Thanks to Dorian, Danilo Couto and ever-growing crew featuring several young Maui surfers, an old-school movement is in full force. Dorian’s surfing earned him the Billabong 2011 Monster Paddle award at Jaws, and he was nominated again last winter. Now we’re about to see him in his first Maverick’s contest, although he has already approached legendary status in Half Moon Bay. In the early-morning hours before the 2010 event, Dorian took off on a massive wave, disappeared inside the barrel, and came out – something that virtually never happens at Maverick’s. The following day, with the surf just as large, Dorian endured a two-wave hold-down that kept him underwater so long, “I really felt like I wasn’t going to make it.” Emotionally crushed, and thinking about his family back home in Hawaii, Dorian did a lot of soul-searching before settling his mind and resuming his quest for big waves. Although there wasn’t a contest last winter, Jeff Clark gathered some local insiders to examine video footage and hand out the first annual Maverick’s Awards. From a single session on February 8, Dorian walked away with Barrel of the Year, Bomb of the Year, and Performance of the Year.
Greg Long: You saw his stoic countenance as one of the featured surfers in “Chasing Maverick’s,” and no one was more deserving of the role. This Southern California-based surfer has racked up a staggering list of big-wave accomplishments. At Maverick’s, he finished second in the 2005 event and took first prize in 2008, memorably sharing his winnings with the other five surfers from the final. In December of ’07, he surfed a single swell in Hawaii, Northern California and Todos Santos (Mexico) over the course of 72 hours, a feat of titanic endurance. In December of 2009, he became the first Californian to win the prestigious Eddie Aikau contest, held in all-time conditions at Waimea Bay. He has won Billabong awards for Biggest Wave (Dungeons, South Africa, 2006), Biggest Paddle-In (Todos Santos, 2008), Best Overall Performance (2007-08 winter) and Ride of the Year (Dungeons, 2009). Just this year, he won the Nike-sponsored Wave of the Summer award for a giant right at Puerto Escondido, Mexico – and he gave his acceptance speech in Spanish. That’s typical of the studious, soft-spoken Long, respected as much for his spot-on surf forecasting as his performances. “I may be biased, because we travel together,” said Baker, “but if you can show me anyone with a higher big-wave count over the past few years, I’ll eat my words.”
Zach Wormhoudt: Among the most respected of the West Side crew from Santa Cruz, Wormhoudt got some long-overdue recognition in 2004, when he won the Billabong XXL Award for the biggest paddle-in wave of the winter. He is among the most accomplished tow-surfers in the world, earning a Biggest Wave nomination in the 2009 XXL awards for a ride at Nelscott Reef. But he is most true to his paddling and is among the most consistently solid performers in the history of the Mavericks contest, having finished eighth in 1999, fifth in 2000 and fourth in 2005. Zach and his brother, Jake, represent Old Maverick’s in the most positive sense, having ridden the place responsibly, time and again, and lived to tell about it. Longtime Northern California surfers were stoked to see Zach alongside Long and Mel as the featured big-wave surfers in “Chasing Maverick’s.”
Ryan Augenstein: Other Santa Cruz surfers get more publicity, but Augenstein can match Maverick’s water time with any of them. A well-established lifeguard in his home area, Augenstein got his first contest invite in 2005 and made a big impression, reaching the semifinals. And he’s drawn respect over the years by surfing one of the shortest boards (8’4”) ever ridden by the Maverick’s regulars. In an interview with Surfing Magazine, Augenstein described his relationship with Maverick’s as “a pre-arranged marriage. We were born to dance together.”
Ryan Seelbach: Out of San Francisco, where he hones his big-water skills at the challenging Ocean Beach, Seelbach is no stranger to Maverick’s chaos. He managed to advance out of his first heat in the 2005 contest despite having to retrieve his lost board from the distant lagoon. He missed much of the ’06 winter after breaking his foot during a tow-in session. But he has become a highly esteemed regular, reaching the semifinals five years ago and again in 2010, and he was a standout during the epic December ’07 tow-in sessions that marked some of the biggest waves ever ridden at Maverick’s. He ranks right near the top of all entrants when it comes to high-performance surfing in waves of all sizes.
Tyler Smith: Here’s just one example of the type of surfer who would draw Slater’s respect, a man with a long and successful commitment to Maverick’s and all big surf in Northern California. A few winters back, people saw photos and videos of Smith riding the surrealistically large “Ghost Tree” break, in Monterey, and wondered, “Who is this guy?” They have found the answer in Maverick’s contests, where the Santa Cruz-based Smith finished third in 2005 (sliding into the main draw as an alternate and surfing his way into the final), second in the 2006 event and fourth in 2008. Over the course of those contests, he was the only surfer to reach all three finals. And he did it all surfing backside.
Grant (Twiggy) Baker: Nearly seven years have passed since Baker, at the time a virtual unknown, stunned the surfing world by winning this contest. He’d only been surfing Maverick’s for a few weeks, but with his uncanny precision and wave knowledge, this unassuming South African mastered what some feel is the most difficult drop in big-wave surfing. In the words of fellow competitor Mark Healey, “Twiggy’s timing, when he’s paddling into big waves, is probably better than anyone else I’ve seen. He has a knack for putting himself as deep as possible and still making it.” One of the few surfers to dedicate his life to surfing big waves worldwide, Baker is a constant factor in the annual Billabong XXL big-wave awards, earning the 2010 Ride of the Year (from the Maverick’s contest) and winning for Biggest Wave and Best Overall Performance in 2009. Twiggy shared the experience of a lifetime with Long, Mike Parsons and Brad Gerlach in January of ‘08, venturing out to Cortes Bank (off the California coast) to tow-surf waves still widely recognized as the largest ever ridden.
Carlos Burle: Considering his relentless pursuit of big waves around the world, and the savage beatings he’s taken, it’s amazing this 45-year-old Brazilian charger still has the stoke. His track record dates back to 1998, when he won the Reef Big Wave event at Todos Santos (Mexico) against a star-studded field. Burle has caught some of the biggest tow-in waves on record, including a kelp-ridden monster at Ghost Tree that earned him 2009 Billabong XXL award nominations for Monster Tube and Ride of the Year. He also won Biggest Wave honors in 2002 for a Maverick’s wave measured at 68 feet on the face. He finished fifth in the 2010 contest and showed more brazen courage than anyone in the final, taking a couple of mid-face wipeouts on waves most surfers wouldn’t have gone near. And he reached a career peak that winter by taking overall first place on the Big Wave World Tour, a five-venue event organized by Maverick’s head judge Gary Linden. (This winter, for the first time, Maverick’s is part of that tour.) Highly respected in Hawaii, Burle is on the Eddie Aikau contest’s main list (Waimea Bay) for the sixth straight winter.
Anthony Tashnick: When the “Chasing Maverick’s” film crew needed a stunt double, someone who would take off on huge waves or take intentional wipeouts for the sake of a good shot, they made certain to include “Tazzy.” A legend at 16, when he stepped up to ride what many called the “wave of the winter” at Maverick’s in 2001, Tashnick is now a mainstay in the world of big-wave riding. The latest in a long line of chargers from the West Side of Santa Cruz, he won the 2005 Maverick’s contest in such dominant fashion, there was no question who would take home the trophy. Well-traveled in his thirst for big waves, Tashnick has made the alternate list of the prestigious Eddie Aikau contest six straight years. He finished third and won the Gnarliest Drop award at the 2010 Maverick’s contest – quite a distinction, considering the historic size – and was a finalist at the Pico Alto contest in August of that year.
Shane Desmond: Undoubtedly the most respected backside surfer in Maverick’s history, having ridden the place with fearless abandon since the mid-1990s. Some say only a crazy man would consistently surf Maverick’s with his back to the wave, but Desmond – a low-key bartender for years in his native Santa Cruz — has proven to be an extremely smart, calculating performer. He won the 2005 XXL Paddle-In award for an astounding ride during the Maverick’s contest, and he staged a dynamic performance three winters ago to finish second behind Chris Bertish. Hardly a big-wave specialist, Shane is an accomplished contest surfer on longboards when the waves drop to more normal levels.
Alex Martins: Originally from Brazil, Martins moved to Northern California and established residence near Ocean Beach, so he could surf that punishing San Francisco beachbreak with regularity. But that was just the start. Graduating to the Maverick’s lineup, Martins has become one of the most dedicated, respected surfers in the lineup. He had three separate photographs nominated for the 2009 Billabong Monster Paddle award, all from a November session at Maverick’s. And he drew a similar nomination in 2010 for a wave at the Maverick’s contest, where he reached the semifinals.
Ben Wilkinson: With three-time champion Darryl (Flea) Virostko announcing his retirement from the event, contest director Jeff Clark had his choice of replacements. He went with this 30-year-old Australian hellman, saying, “Ben shows up every swell and stays in the water longer than most people, charging the biggest waves. His dedication makes him a real threat in the event.” Originally from Narabeen, New South Wales, Wilkinson now makes his living as a carpenter in Hawaii, where he’s been an alternate on the Eddie Aikau list for two years. “If you’re talking about underground big-wave guys who don’t get the recognition they deserve, it’s Ben,” said Healey. Wilkinson still has crystal-clear memories of his first session at Maverick’s in December of 2007, a day he got brutally caught inside a “swing” set. Proudly, and with a smile, Wilkinson says. “Pound-for-pound, Maverick’s has handed me my worst beatings to date.”