If you want to see a Big Wave Surf Competition up close Mavericks in Half Moon Bay, California is one of the few places to do so. The waves can reach up to 60 feet (18 m). The window for the competition to take place is usually from December through March. Contestants are given as little as 48 hours to get there from all around the world.
I ventured out to experience the 2016 Titans of Mavericks competition up close and to cross this off my travel bucket list. It was a great experience seeing brave contestants conquer huge waves. There also have been some scary wipeouts.
Here are some useful tips for you if you are planning to see future competitions.
Be on a boat
Being on a boat is probably the only way to see the competition up-close (short of being on one of the new helicopters that cover the competition). Since competition is about 0.5 miles from the shore you wouldn’t be able to see too much. In addition to that the shoreline has been closed ever since a rogue wave injured 13 people at a competition in 2010.
It’s best to be on a smaller boat so you have some room to move around. A spot on a smaller boat is going to be more expensive but is probably worth it (I paid $285 for a spot on the Whacky Jacky). Nevertheless for the budget conscious there seem to be other ways to see the competition up close. I kid you not but some people actually paddled out with their kayak. It might be difficult to see too much though since you’ll not be able to see over all the other boats there.
I booked my spot through Half Moon Bay Sportfishing and Tackle. Their boats left directly from Pillar Point Harbor which is just a few minutes from Mavericks. There also seem to be boats leaving all the way from San Francisco but with the rough waves you might be exhausted by the time you get to the competition spot.
Make sure you do your research ahead of time because of the short notice for the competition to take place.
Be there early
The competition usually lasts all day but the lighting is usually best to get a spot on a boat in the morning to take photos. In addition if you leave from Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay you can probably see the contestants arrive in the morning.
Bring a big zoom lens
Even though you’ll get closer on a boat you’ll still need a decent zoom lens. I used a Nikon DX 3200 with a 70-300mm lens (which effectively becomes a 105mm-450 on a DX camera). Almost all photosphere shot zooming all the way at 300mm. Everything smaller than 200mm is probably not very suitable. Of course there will be a fair share of professional photographers but these lenses can get heavy after some time.
Depending on the boat you are on you probably don’t have to worry about getting yourself or your camera gear wet. Only on the way out you might experience some spray.
Don’t just focus on the surfers
While you are out there you might be tempted to take photos of waves and surfers only. Don’t miss out on all the other photo opportunities of the event like other people on your and other boats, sea lions, support team and police zipping around on their jet skis.
Sign up for a notification.
Since the competition is called with as little as 48 hours you should sign up for a email notification so you don’t miss the event.
Other things to consider
Because of the amount of boats out there on competition day the coast guard makes all the boats go in a revolving carousel. Unfortunately this prevents your captain from finding a good spot enjoy the competition and you’ll catch some waves and you’ll miss some.
If you are prone to seasickness make sure you take some motion sickness pills the day before (if you take them the morning off or while you are feeling sick already they usually don’t work well anymore). Personally I prefer Bonine since it doesn’t seem to make you drowsy so you actually don’t miss out on the event.
Also make sure you dress in layers and bring a jacket. Especially in the morning it can be quite chilly on a boat. Later in the day when the sun comes out it usually does get pretty warm.
Since you’ll be out on the water for a few hours you probably want to bring your own snacks and drinks since most boats don’t seem to provide any catering.
I hope you'll be enjoying the competition as much as I did if you decide to go.