February 7, 2006 12:54 PM PST

Science hangs 10 at surf contest

HALF MOON BAY, Calif.--Surfing is a human vs. nature kind of sport, without the technological crutches found in other competitions--or so wave riders like to think.

Beyond the Jet Skis that towed surfers away from the waves' impact zone and the wet suits that warmed the athletes' bodies, science and technology played a large role in kicking off the 2006 Mavericks Surf Contest off Pillar Point Harbor here Tuesday.

The $55,000 contest is one of surfing's showcase big-wave events, featuring 30-foot walls of water and 24 men willing to risk being smacked and smothered by them. Though huge waves are known to pound the shores of this Northern California bay annually, event organizers need someone to give them a heads-up when the grand swells are due.

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That's where Mark Sponsler comes in. He constructs weather models, studies wind analysis and tracks currents and storms all over the globe. Sponsler is the man contest founder Jeff Clark counts on to crunch the data and help him decide when to launch the event.

This is no small responsibility. The official contest period began Jan. 1 and was set to go through March 31. Contestants, some of whom travel from overseas, must arrive within 24 hours. It would be a major bummer if they came and found no surf.

"Are they cursing me, or are they happy?" Sponsler asked a reporter during a phone interview.

Promptly at start time, riders began tackling waves that ranged from 15 to 25 feet high and seemingly rolled in one after another.

Sponsler is not a trained meteorologist. A surfer, he began studying weather so he could catch more waves. He also wanted to understand the hurricanes he lived through while calling Florida home.

The massive waves that surfers rode Tuesday traveled from Japan and were driven by hurricane winds as fast as 70 knots, Sponsler said. He estimated that swells grew to 100 feet at some points along the journey.

Mavericks

He said not even the best-trained scientists can predict with certainty what the sea will do, any more than they can faultlessly predict the weather. But satellite tracking and other weather data told Sponsler that these giant imports from Japan were "pointed directly at us."

"You're always apprehensive," said Sponsler, who separated his shoulder surfing Mavericks last December. "You're never sure until you see them roll in."

Nobody appreciated Sponsler's skills more than the estimated 50,000 fans who watched the action from the beach or perched atop the bluffs overlooking the beach.

Barnaby Williams, from Great Britain, hung on a chain-link fence to try to glimpse the action. The 32-year-old has surfed Hawaii's North Shore, Indonesia and some of the best spots in Europe. What did he think of the monsters that rolled in for the Mavericks competition?

"They're pretty sick," Williams said. "I don't think I've seen this size before other than Waimea (a renowned big-wave beach in Hawaii)."

That a spot along California's coast can be considered in the same class as Hawaii's famed North Shore is a geological stroke of good luck.

In addition to the powerful energy unleashed by the hurricane in Japan, water is funneled by a deep-water canyon to the West. Waves slam into a set of rock formations that help propel the water up while boosting its speed.

"What's happening is that the top is moving faster than the bottom," said Churchill Grimes, director of the National Marine Fishery Service Laboratory in Santa Cruz, Calif.

What's produced is a thick, speeding wall of water that has earned the respect of people all over the world--and especially the locals. The death of big-wave rider Mark Foo, a legendary Hawaiian surfer, in December 1994, proved that the point was deadly, even for the best.

Eric Berner and Andrew Murray, 15 and 14 respectively, live in Half Moon Bay and say they want to ride the waves at Mavericks.

"Only maybe when they're not so big," Eric Said. "Not many locals surf (them). I don't even know anybody who knows someone that's gone out there."

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