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The tricky business of forecasting Titans: Monster waves hit Mavericks, contest organizers consider conditions
January 14, 2016, 05:00 AM By Samantha Weigel Daily Journal

Daily Journal file photo
Before the 24 invited Titans of Mavericks competitors will be able to astonish fans by riding towering 40-foot waves, the elements must align. Last week’s El Niño-pumped swell didn’t coincide with favorable conditions.

Despite a literal bone-breaking swell attracting some of the world’s best big wave surfers to Half Moon Bay last week, organizers of the revamped Titans of Mavericks surf competition say El Niño is making the already tricky process of forecasting contest-worthy conditions even more unpredictable.

While the welcomed rains have recently provided some relief to the long-standing drought, Mavericks officials are awaiting a calm in the storm partnered with some gnarly waves.

Should favorable weather align with touted El Niño-fueled towering walls of water in time, it will be the first competition since the Los-Angeles-based Cartel Management took over before a lackluster 2014-15 season.

A local crew of prestigious surfers known as Cartel’s Committee 5, which includes Mavericks maven Jeff Clark, is responsible for coordinating with seasoned forecasters who are now monitoring the ever-changing ocean conditions 24/7. The objective — consistent monstrous waves paired with clean weather during daytime hours.

“There’s plenty of potential swells, that’s not the issue. The issue is the weather,” said Mavericks forecaster Mark Sponsler. Contest criteria is based on a “convergence of four things: sunlight, swell, tide and wind. … We’re watching every storm figuring out when it’s going to arrive, looking at the local weather, and trying to see if there’s a window of opportunity there. Pretty much every day the picture changes.”

El Niño comes with active and inactive oscillations and forecasters are now banking on strong waves with favorable weather arriving in late January. After that, it may be several weeks before powerful swells strike with concurrent contest-worthy conditions — late enough in the game that it could butt against the open window period, which officially closes March 31.

Many are hopeful for a supercharged season courtesy of El Niño, but that same momentum caused by the warmer storm system also exacerbates how quickly the weather can flip, said Brian Overfelt, event relations and head of photography.

“The ocean and the winds and these swells in these El Niño years are extremely volatile, so it can change on a dime,” Overfelt said, noting failing to call a contest when the elements align could be perceived as worse than hosting one in unfavorable conditions. “It’s hard to call a contest and what’s sad, is nobody wants to understand why.”

Sponsler and Overfelt noted even when a favorable future swell seems to be just days away, it can peter out or appear with a downpour by the time it arrives in Half Moon Bay.

Although towering 50- to 60-foot waves were reported at the renowned surf break just north of Pillar Point Harbor last week, poor wind conditions prompted officials to hold off on sounding the alarm — the 24 competitors are typically given just 48 hours notice.

Even pro Garrett McNamara, who holds a world record for largest tow-in wave ever surfed, suffered the unforgiving force of Mavericks Thursday, Jan. 7, by taking a tumble and breaking an arm. In years past, other legends like Hawaii’s Mark Foo and Sion Milosky died at the perilous surf break.

There were also rumors of bystanders being injured while out on a boat at Mavericks last Thursday and officials question whether it’s safe to hold a contest during unfavorable conditions.

“Everyone knew it was going to be giant, but it was also pretty well known it was going to be unruly,” Sponsler said of last week’s set. “It’s not to say that directly contributed to Garrett’s accident, but it didn’t help the situation. It increased the odds.”

Yet it’s these powerful towering waves that attract adrenaline seekers — many with an undeniable bravado and seemingly intrepid attitude toward danger — to conquer Mavericks and seek a title at the Titans competition.

This year, a $120,000 purse is offered to the top contenders. New prizes also include the $10,000 Peet’s Coffee Boldest Drop award; the $5,000 Clif Bar Best Barrel Award; and the Sion Milosky Memorial Award, which is presented to the competitor who displays profound character in and out of the water. In memory of the belated Foo, Milosky and Santa Cruz native Jay Moriarty, Cartel has also established a Titans Fallen Fund that would be presented to the families of competitors, according to Cartel’s website.

Although the public won’t have a festival to attend this year, Cartel is partnering with premier videographers and offering broadcasting rights to local establishments that will host fans.

Viewing parties will be held in Half Moon Bay at the Old Princeton Landing, Half Moon Bay Brewing Company and Cameron’s Restaurant. In San Francisco, fans are encouraged to visit Wipeout Bar and Pete’s Tavern; and in Santa Cruz parties will be hosted at Pleasure Pizza East Side Eatery as well as the Reef Bar and Pono Hawaiian Grill, said Cartel’s Chief Operations Officer Brian Waters.

“We’re doing a top-of-the-line broadcast so every person in the whole world can watch this on the Internet,” Overfelt said.

Cartel is continuing to make new additions to the local contest and is considering ways to bring back a revamped viewing festival — an event that began once the beaches and bluff tops were closed off to the public after the 2010 contest.

This year, Cartel has promised larger audiences via TV and Internet broadcasts that will culminate with an awards ceremony held at It’s Italia restaurant in Half Moon Bay.

“We’re excited to bring forward a production yet seen or experienced by the fans. Our central goal for us as we’ve developed Titans of Mavericks was to ensure fans get access to these great athletes in ways yet seen in surf,” Cartel CEO Griffin Guess wrote in an email, adding an element of surprise saying more will be unveiled as the event proceeds.

But before Cartel and the 24 invited competitors are able to astonish fans by riding the perilous giants, the elements must align.

Last week’s El Niño-pumped swell didn’t coincide with favorable weather and organizers are seeking towering 40-foot waves — sometimes referred to as a 20-footers by those who use the Hawaiian standard of measuring from the back of a wave instead of the face.

“You know the old line, ‘only fools and tourists try to predict the weather,’” Overfelt said, noting they’re working closely with Sponsler to ensure a they don’t miss an opportunity while hoping El Niño will supercharge what would normally be a less active swell during clearer weather. “We’re hovering over this as a group with Mark to try and run the event before January is over. … Who wants to be sitting around in March going ‘come on man, please?’”

Sponsler said the storm systems have arrived so close to one another that it has created a “washing machine” effect further west and it could take days to settle down. As far as he can tell, the end of January should be productive before the current system dies down in February then hopefully picks back up in March.

Sponsler said he’s on constant lookout for how El Niño is affecting the forecasts that can change by the minute and ultimately they need big waves during daytime hours with minimal winds and a low tide — a tall order worthy of a Titan.

“We’re keeping a close eye on it, but basically we’re looking at everything and anything,” Sponsler said. “In the prediction game, it’s a little too much of a good thing. But that also means at any moment we could have our window of opportunity and we’d have to jump on it.”

Visit for more information.

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106



Tags: weather, mavericks, contest, sponsler, waves, cartel,

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