HALF MOON BAY It was a text message awaited around the world: "Mavericks Invitational is a go!"
That simple sentence sent two dozen of the world's best big-wave riders into overdrive. They scrambled to book flights from South Africa, Brazil, Australia, Florida and Hawaii. Meanwhile, fans and local competitors canceled plans to watch the 49ers in Sunday's NFC title game.
Super Bowl drives come every year; Mavericks the Super Bowl of big-wave surfing is more elusive.
"This may be the only big-wave contest this year anywhere on the planet," said contest founder Jeff Clark. "People don't want to miss it."
Unlike past Mavericks, fans will be kept off the beach and bluffs, although hundreds will watch on the water from sold-out charter boats.
By invitation only, the competitors form one of the most formidable lineups to assault this wave, including past Mavericks winners Greg Long, Anthony Tashnick, Grant Baker and Chris Bertish. Expected from Florida is 11-time world champion Kelly Slater; he's seeded in the first heat at 8 a.m.
"I'm trying to lure Kelly here with golf," said Clark, who caddied for Slater at the Pebble Beach National Pro Am. "Most people don't realize what a great big-wave surfer Kelly is, but he finished second here in 2000 in 50-foot surf."
Waves topping 30 feet are forecast for Sunday's contest.
"This is a very powerful swell, and we will have dramatic conditions that will push the competitors to their limits," said invitee Shawn Dollar, who represents surfers on the planning committee. "Sunday is going to be beautiful and very scary at times."
Almost three years have passed since the last Mavericks surf contest at the infamous break off Pillar Point. Since 1999, the contest has been held only seven times because of a lack of humongous waves on clear days.
This winter, conditions again looked sketchy. But an Alaskan storm churned up 60-foot seas, with swells now heading for Half Moon Bay.
The biggest obstacle this weekend? The 49ers play the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at noon about the same time as the Mavericks semifinals. It was a conflict the surfers could accept.
"Not Sunday?!" a volunteer yelled to Clark while passing outside Clark's surf shop. "Why not Monday?"
Said Clark, "Winds expected to whip up (Monday); it's got to be Sunday if at all."
The last time there was a contest in February 2010 it proved disastrous as Mavericks became too big for its narrow beach, part of a marine sanctuary. With 1.5 million people viewing online, an estimated 40,000 fans crowded the sand and bluff for a squint at the action a half mile offshore. A sneaker wave plowed into a group gathered on a beach seawall, injuring 13 spectators. That could have been the end of Mavericks. Lawsuits and public hearings followed.
Clark, who had been ousted as the contest director, regained control of the event aided by other surfers and community representatives. Part of the professional Big Wave World Tour, the retooled Mavericks Invitational is streamlined for safety.
"It will be a lot better for the fans," Clark said. "They'll be able to watch amazing, epic action and actually be able to tell what's going on."
Personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard, State Parks, San Mateo County Sheriff, state Fish and Wildlife and harbor master departments will enforce the new safety measures.
The festival lets fans feel like part of the event while avoiding danger.
"People have been making the pilgrimage to Pillar Point for years, and almost none of them ever came close to seeing the surfers," noted ESPN.com columnist Mark Kreidler, author of "The Voodoo Wave: Inside a Season of Triumph and Tumult at Mavericks." "Opening the beach on contest day was always more about business, and closing it is more about safety and lawsuit concerns."
In the contest's absence, the wave's legend only grew. "Chasing Mavericks," a docu-drama of surfer Jay Moriarty's life, spread the surf break's reputation. So did the near drowning of actor Gerard Butler during filming.
Hawaiian pro surfer Sion Milosky wasn't so lucky; he died surfing at Mavericks in March 2011.
That year, Clark moved his Mavericks Surf Shop to a larger location in Pillar Point Harbor. For many fans, Clark's shop is a surf history mecca.
"(Mavericks) established California as a big-wave epicenter," Clark said. "It attracts people from around the world. That's why we started this event in the first place."