When is the Mavericks Competition?

512px 2010 mavericks competition
By Shalom Jacobovitz (SJ1_8558) [CC BY-SA 2.0]

“When is the contest?” seems to be the question on everybody’s ever since the World Surf League Mavericks Challenge Surf Competition window opened.

“Wasn’t it supposed to be Monday? Or was it Tuesday?”

Tuesday was a no-go, but I heard the surf was up on Thursday!”

“Yes, but I read that conditions were far too dangerous to hold a competition.”

“So, when is the contest?”

The answer seems impossible to find. The official date on the World Surf League’s event page is a broad window from Jan 1 to Feb 28. And with so much speculation about the contest being called with just a few day’s notice, only to be called off time and time again can be discouraging to anybody trying to make the trip out to Pillar Point to witness the legendary competition.

Pillar Point
A low-visibility day at Mavericks. Photo by Dawn Endico [CC BY-SA 2.0 ]

Why is there so much uncertainty here? As you can probably imagine or may have already learned, a successful big wave surfing competition requires a lot of variables to match up perfectly; actually having big waves is an obvious requirement, but it’s only one small piece of the equation. There needs to be near-perfect visibility (read: no fog), low winds for air and watercraft to operate nominally, and the hundreds of people involved in putting on the competition need to be ready to go in what can be literally tens of hours’ notice. This perfect alignment is difficult to attain, and it often results in no competition at all. Indeed, with all the perfectly viable seasons since the first competition in 1999, only ten official contests have been held at Mavericks.

So, for the World Surf League Big Wave Tour’s debut at Mavericks, the organization is learning first-hand how finicky this notorious surf spot is.

A Bigger Problem for Spectators

While uncertainty in timing for the contest is a big problem for spectators making plans to visit, there exists an even bigger fundamental problem for people hoping to physically watch the event: there is really no way for spectators to view the competition in person at all. This is an important detail that event organizers warn about on their website:

“Unfortunately, the permits issued to the WSL by the San Mateo County Harbor District and the California Coastal Commission prohibit spectators from observing the break from the nearby beaches or the overlooking bluff occupied by the US Air Force tracking station. In past years there have been serious accidents with widely reported injuries caused by high waves sweeping through previously dry areas and from rock falls from the crumbling cliff and these public safety concerns remain ongoing. Additionally, the adjacent marshlands of Pillar Point are recognized as environmentally sensitive wetlands that are home to a number of endangered species and are required as a condition of the event permits to be protected from large crowds passing nearby. Due to these governmental requirements there can be no public access allowed on contest day shoreward of the downtown Princeton-by-the-Sea area.”

-Statement from the World Surf League site 

Mavericks competition 2018 Half Moon Bay California
These crumbling cliffs offer little safety for contest spectators.


Unfortunately for aspiring spectators, news reports about the contest do a pretty lousy job relaying this important information. The powers that be, however, have plenty of reasons to prohibit spectators from coming. During the 2010 competition, a rogue wave swept spectators, cameras, equipment, and really everything on the beach away. This was a seriously powerful event that caused a number of serious injuries. And considering the number of people and the carnage on the scene, it’s a miracle the damage wasn’t any worse. So it’s really understandable that these rules have been established; the very same elements that make a great big wave competition (namely, huge waves) do not mix well with crowds.


What to Do?

In light of your inability to watch the contest in person, what are you to do?

Well, one thing to consider is the fact that huge waves are happening at Mavericks regularly during this time of year. I was there on Tuesday (1/16) and crowds were gathered just watching the monster waves. They were reaching 45 feet, which is huge by most any standard, but it’s really pretty typical for Mavericks in January. The best way to admire these waves from the shore is to go on a day when there’s no competition. And when a competition is in the cards, there are usually internationally-acclaimed big wave surfers in the area biding their time, which can mean that there are surfers to be seen mounting these giant waves on good days all throughout January and February.

So, if you’ve planned or are thinking about planning a trip out to Pillar Point to see the contest, there’s no reason to let uncertainty get in your way. Make your plans and come, contest or not, because there’s a great chance you’ll see something epic here.

If you do happen to be in the area for the contest, there are a number of options for viewing the contest remotely. My personal recommendation is Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, where they usually do a great viewing party and event. You can even see the monster waves crashing against the breakwater in the distance from their dog-friendly patio. The only challenge is actually getting there; on contest day, traffic can be prohibitive on the two-lane stretch of SR 1 that serves as the only means of access to the site.


Mavericks big wave competition 2018 Half Moon Bay California
By PPNF (Own work) [Public domain]

The Takeaway

In the words of Tyler Fox, Mavericks is “an absolute wonder of nature.” The honest truth is that the competition, as amazing and inspiring as it is, can actually be more of a hindrance than anything else for anybody coming to admire these waves.


Make the trip. Come see the waves and get to know the beautiful and terrifying place where the competition takes place. And when the competition is called, call in sick, go to your favorite sports bar*, and watch the competition comfortably and in good company while enjoying your drink of choice.

That’s the official recommendation from a local.

Half Moon Bay Coastside Tours specializes in trips to the coast, with guided tours of the Mavericks surf spot at Pillar Point. Contact us for more information for group or private tours!


 - Michael Klear, Half Moon Bay Coastside Tours Guide and Blogger

* The competition will be streamed live from www.worldsurfleague.com and to viewing parties at the locations on this page from the site.

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