Thursday February 11th, 2016

It’s hard to believe that Cartel Management took over organization of the Mavericks surf contest in 2014 and Friday will be the first time the group will stage its event.

Thus is the fickle nature of big wave surf competitions and waiting on Mother Nature. The Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau on Oahu, which was scheduled to go on Wednesday and hasn’t run since 2009, was canceled the morning of as the giant swell predicted to pound Waimea Bay didn’t materialize. (It came too late.) But models and graphs show favorable conditions for Friday, as a bigger swell is expected to make landfall in California.

And so 24 of the best big wave surfers in the world are booking plane tickets and hauling their boards through airports around the world to congregate in the small village of Half Moon Bay, 45 minutes south of San Francisco, the epicenter of the world’s most important big wave contest.

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But as we reported this summer, the Mavericks contest has never been without controversy. Just as waves from the northwest are sure to pound Pillar Point, hiccups are part of the game when organizing this contest over the years; from management issues to permit miscues, the drama follows. And while Cartel Management—with its creation of the smartly-built Titans of Mavericks contest and associated marketing—has certainly created much more stability than in the past, the controversy has still followed. And lately it has been about who’s in and who’s out of the actual competitor lineup.

Two past champions—Peter Mel and Grant (Twiggy) Baker—were left off the roster for different reasons (Mel because he’s commissioner of the WSL’s Big Wave World Tour, which is perceived as a competitor of the event, thus creating a potential conflict of interest, and Baker because he distributed a petition to have Mel reinstated). But not having these two, who’ve combined to win the last two Mavericks titles, definitely leaves a hole in the field.

“In my personal opinion, there have been some politics involved in this event that probably weren’t necessary,” Greg Long, one of the top surfers in the field and a past champion, tells SI.com. “This is a really tight-knit community and there’s a lot of mutual respect and camaraderie. I’m of the mindset that the best surfers deserve to be out there. Peter Mel does great work for the WSL and is one of the most standout, honest guys in the world. Twiggy’s [exclusion] was more about political issues that weren’t handled in the best of ways. The best big wave surfers should be out there and I’m going to miss surfing alongside them. But it’s an honor and privilege to be one of the 24 and I don’t take it for granted.”

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Regardless of where one stands on the competitor lineup, this much is indisputable: Mavericks is the ultimate natural playing field, and other than Mel and Baker, the field is set to put on a show. Since its inception in 1999, the contest has only run nine times and Long (2008) along with Anthony Tashnick (2005) and Chris Bertish (2010) are the three remaining former champions in the field.

Long—who also was the last person to win the Eddie (2009)—is an obvious pick in this year’s contest. Many would also look to Shane Dorian as another standout, but reports have him hanging around Maui surfing Jaws on Thursday before catching a flight to San Francisco, so who knows how much he’ll have left in the tank for the contest? One also has to take into account two of the youngest competitors, Nic Lamb and Colin Dwyer, when trying to pick possible winners as both have been extremely dedicated, rarely missing a Mavericks swell, and Lamb is currently ranked fourth in the Big Wave World Tour rankings.

The conditions are expected to be big and clean in the morning but a midday high tide and strong winds in the afternoon could seriously hamper organizers and safety crews. But this is standard fare when riding the world’s wildest waves. Mother nature doesn’t always abide.

“I’m looking forward to getting the event going,” Long said. “There’s a lot of waiting and so many hurdles to get over with all these big wave events that aren’t known by the general public, from blackout dates to logistics—there’s a lot of things that keep them from happening when people feel like they should run. But at this point in the season, everybody is used to the emotional roller coaster of chasing big swells around the world.”

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