HALF MOON BAY, Calif. - As swells lumbered across the Pacific toward Northern California, nearly two dozen of the world's best big wave surfers went to meet them on Sunday, a half-mile offshore at the famed surfing break known as Mavericks.
For the first time since 2010, the Mavericks Invitational surf contest - which requires wave faces of at least 20 feet - got under way at the bone-crushing break that has claimed the lives of two expert big wave surfers.
Wave forecasters this week saw an excellent mixture of swell, wind, tide and sunny skies, though the waves Sunday morning were not quite as big as expected.
Once the decision was made to run the contest, the call went out to the surfers, giving them a couple of days to pack their boards and wetsuits, and hop a plane.
Surfing the wave at Mavericks is a feat that takes athletic skill, experience and nerve.
The swells travel through deep water for five days before hitting a small, finger-like section of shallow reef that juts out into the sea.
When the swell meets the reef, the wave jumps upward and crashes back down with a fury, eventually washing through a section of craggy rocks.
The takeoff is often so steep that the surfers' big-wave "gun" surfboards leave the wave face, forcing the surfers to land near the bottom and make a quick turn before being pummeled by the wave's lip.
The spot - named after the dog of Jeff Clark, who is credited with being the first to surf Mavericks - has earned a nasty reputation. Mark Foo, a legendary big-wave surfer from Hawaii, died while surfing Mavericks in 1994. In 2011, another seasoned waterman, Sion Milosky, died there just weeks after another surfer nearly drowned.
This year's contest will be different: spectators are forbidden access to the beach or bluffs. After a large set of waves crashed into the crowd in 2010, injuring dozens, local officials barred crowds from congregating there.
Also, people congregating on the bluffs and along tide pools during previous contests caused environmental damage.
This year organizers have set up a festival at a nearby hotel, featuring a large screen that will broadcast the surfing live. The surfers will hold the awards ceremony there at the end of the contest.
The Coast Guard has issued a high surf advisory for the weekend, and is warning people throughout the region to watch for "sneaker waves" and other hazards.