HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — Mother Nature saved the best for last, with some of the largest swells of the day arriving during the final heat of Sunday's Mavericks Invitational big wave surfing contest as thousands of spectators invaded a quaint coastal town known more for its annual pumpkin festival than for surf.
The waves weren't the largest ever seen at the famed Northern California Mavericks surf break a half-mile offshore of Half Moon Bay — the biggest faces reached 25 to 30 feet — but surfing fans still got their fill of steep drops, wipeouts and powerful, booming surf.
In the end, Peter Mel, of Santa Cruz, took home the crown. He decided to split the $50,000 pot with his six competitors, a symbol of good faith that has become a Mavericks Invitational tradition.
"We as a brotherhood decided to split the money," Mel said, saying the group agreed to the split upon paddling out for the last heat.
"When you start a final like that, it takes the pressure off ... and that's when the waves started to come too," he said.
Surfers are judged on a number of factors, but those who make the largest drop down the steepest wave usually end up on the winner's podium.
Mel, 42, had a number of hair-raising drops and long rides. But it was a spectacular wipeout that was most memorable. On one giant wave, he stood up as the crest pitched over him, completely engulfing him in the "tube." He never made it out, getting slammed by a two- to three-story wall of whitewater.
Sunday's contest was the first since 2010 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.
Because there were long intervals between the swells, there were a lot of 20- to 30-minute lulls between waves.
"But when the waves came they were pretty exciting," said Jeff Clark, who is credited with being the first to surf Mavericks and is a key part of the event's organization.
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 Clark's dog — 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.
Eleven-time world champion surfer Kelly Slater was scheduled to surf Sunday but pulled out at the last minute after a reported conflict with another pro tour association. Shane Dorian, who is considered the world's best big wave surfer, pulled out at the last minute due to a shoulder injury.
This year's contest was different than previous years: 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.
A festival was set up in the parking lot of a hotel near the beach, where spectators could watch a live broadcast. If there was disappointment, there was no evidence of it in the large crowd that gathered to watch, oohing with each great ride.