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Waiting for the Big One in Half Moon Bay

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(photos by Brian Overfelt)

Of all the bucolic villages that line the California coast, it’s a safe bet to say that Half Moon Bay — 25 miles south of San Francisco — has the ability to dishearten and mystify tourists the most. Due to its unpredictable weather and its position nestled against low-lying mountains, Half Moon Bay is often banked in fog during the summer, even while the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area roasts in 80—90F temperatures. 

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Instead, tourist high-season occurs in fall and winter. It begins when Indian summer sets in, helping to produce monster pumpkins as well as artichokes for some of SF’s best restaurants. Even more importantly, from November—February
there’s the potential for Mavericks, a mammoth wave that break a half-mile off-coast. This murky green wave kicks up to anywhere from 30—70 ft. high, enticing the world’s best big-wave surfers to come each year to partake in The Mavericks Surf Contest. From shore, the wave resembles angry white froth, but those who attempt to ride it get a different perspective. After being whipped onto a crest by a jet ski, surfers must navigate 50F waters, a razor-sharp reef, and even the stray great white shark, whose breeding ground is located a few miles to the north.

Of course, the wave only appears if conditions are just right, so each day contest organizers monitor the pressure gradients percolating near the Gulf of Alaska, the source of storms and giant Pacific swells that move southward toward California. When they detect a storm, organizers make the call and the invited contestants have 24 hours to get to Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay. Hundreds of spectators also turn up, climbing the cliffs and lining the narrow beach to watch the surfers via zoom-lens cameras. Fans can monitor the contest here — right now we’re in the official waiting period.

If you go, enjoy some of the area’s best seafood safely onshore at Mezza Luna or Ketch Joanne’s, a local staple that’s attached to the Harbor Bar, the town’s best watering hole.

— Maggie Overfelt

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