Saturday, 25 January 2014

Mavericks Invitational: South African Grant Baker takes Top Position

 PRINCETON-BY-THE-SEA -- Grant Baker of South Africa didn't sound like the courageous champion he was Friday after taming treacherous waves at the Body Glove Mavericks Invitational.Mavericks Invitational: South African Grant Baker takes top prize

"Every single time you wanted to pull out," he said of riding the raw, roiling surf that smacked the Northern California coast off Half Moon Bay this week.

Baker, who six months ago lost sponsorship that sustains professional surfers, picked his waves wisely in difficult conditions. He had two remarkable rides that garnered perfect 10.0 scores on his way to the second consecutive title on the big-wave tour.

The latest swell to shake the famed surfing break out of its long hibernation did not arrive with the biggest of waves at an average of 15 feet. But with a low tide and shifty southerly winds, the conditions were less than ideal for the 24 invitees of the contest that has become one of the Bay Area's big winter attractions.

A devil's wind, San Francisco surfer Ryan Steelbach called it.

A devil's wind, San Francisco surfer Ryan Steelbach called it.

"Whoa, I don't want any of that," he added.

As if taking a 40-foot freefall isn't scary enough, the contestants had to contend with the bumpiest of descents.

"I'm just glad everyone was safe out there," said Santa Cruz veteran Anthony Tashnick, who cracked a board when it collided into a prominent rocky outcrop just off Pillar Point.

Tashnick finished sixth by using another board to scratch his way into the final. But it wasn't easy for the surfers because of the wind chop.

"It's like riding a bicycle down a giant stairway going 50 miles an hour," Tashnick said. "And the stairs aren't the same. After awhile you're going to mistime it."

Cameron Dollar, one of seven Santa Cruz surfers to advance to the semifinals, underscored what happens when the timing is off. He had one of the day's worst wipeouts that strained his back.

"It could be worse," Dollar said. "I could be really hurt."

The NASCAR nature of the sport keeps fans drawn to the action. The surfers get it. They live on the edge in an insane pursuit of an adrenaline fix.

But they also have a deep respect for their competitors, realizing their only real opponent is the supreme power of Mavericks.

The most dramatic moment came in the morning when Hawaiian Mark Healey had to be rescued from the impact zone after a nasty fall.

At the time Baker, known as "Twiggy," was commenting for the livestream broadcast.

"That put me on the back foot immediately," he said of the wipeout. "It just made me really nervous, looking like he did after that beating. I've never seen Healey like that."

The surfers become supporting characters in the aqueous play because Mavericks is one of the world's most challenging surfing breaks. The waves are steep and fast. The water is frigid. And the bone-sharp bottom can become a graveyard.

Add the south wind and "it amps everything up," Steelbach said. "It pushes our limits of everything we can handle."

The gusts arrived for the semifinals and final, but one man remained calm.

Baker, who spends part of his winter in San Francisco to ride Mavericks, kept his poise by staying in front of the raging waters.

He was too good on this day for runner-up Shane Dorian of Hawaii and third-place Ryan Augenstein of Santa Cruz.

Baker attributed his success to having the right equipment for the conditions. He switched boards when the winds kicked in and looked smoother than his competitors.

"He's textbook," Steelbach said. "You never see his arms waving, board out of control."

He just harnesses all the energy the seafaring gods can muster and let's it ride.

Complete History

The big wave contest now called the Mavericks Invitational has been held eight times since the first event was held in 1999 off the coast of Half Moon Bay, a mile offshore from Pillar Point Harbor.

For the most part, this brutal break as been dominated by Santa Cruz surfers.

The number of spectators, thrills and spills and purse have grown over the years, making it the Super Bowl of surfing for many, including the entrants.

Santa Cruz's Peter Mel topped the 24-competitor field at the storied break in 2013, taking home $12,000 for the victory. Though conditions weren't as unforgiving as they were in 2010, the win was fulfilling for Mel.

In 1975, according to, a 17-year-old high school student named Jeff Clark watched the wave carefully, learned its finicky ways, and studied it so carefully that what he saw was more than a hazard, but a playground.

Clark tried to convince his friends to paddle out with him -- with no success. In the winter of 1975 on a big and clean northwest swell, Clark decided to surf it alone, riding the lefts at first as a natural goofy foot.

Soon, as he grew to understand the wave, he learned to surf switch foot and began riding the rights. He had Maverick's -- named for his dog -- as his own playground for 15 years. It wasn't until 1990 until he could convince anyone to surf with him, although a few brave souls would actually paddle out there to watch from the channel.

On Jan. 22, 1990, Clark led Santa Cruz surfers Dave Schmidt and Tom Powers into a monster swell and the rides of their lives. Almost instantly, the word got out that California had a big wave that rivaled Waimea, but was colder and gnarlier than anything anyone had seen before. Soon, surfers from all over started showing up, along with photographers, helicopters and the crowds to watch.

Nearly a decade later, in 1999, the first competition was held at Maverick's, known as Quiksilver's Men Who Ride Mountains.

Santa Cruz's Darryl "Flea" Virostko won the first event, helping cement Maverick's as an international phenomenon.

Virostko repeated as champion in 2000 and earned his unprecedented third title 2004, making him the only multi-title winner. He retired from competitive big wave surfing in 2012.

In 2005, the prize went to Santa Cruz's Anthony Tashnik.

A year later, Santa Cruz's run of champions ended. South African charger Grant "Twiggy" Baker won in 2006.

When conditions were next deemed suitable, Greg Long of San Clemente prevailed in 2008. It was only fitting since he was the one who suggested to his fellow finalists that year that they split the winner's purse. To their fortune, they agreed.

The 2010 contest -- regarded as biggest paddle-in contest ever held in the world -- was won by South Africa's Chris Bertish.

"It was scary, very scary," Bertish said of the waves, which regularly featured faces of between 40 and 50 feet.

Bertish had to borrow money from friends just to get to the contest -- which was his life's dream -- and then overcame a nasty spill early.

"It was an amazing experience, but I didn't think I was going to be the one that took first here today," he said.

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