One of the most dangerous, awe-inspiring waves in the world is starting to come to life just a 30-minute drive from San Francisco.
A typhoon originating off the coast of Japan is creating a major swell in Northern California on Thursday, marking the second major Northern swell in what’s likely to be a tumultuous winter for the region’s frigid waters.
There are very few places better to witness the phenomenon than Mavericks, a world-famous surf spot located off Half Moon Bay’s Pillar Point Harbor.
The wave at Mavericks sometimes tops 60 feet and regularly draws the most talented surfers from across the world.
Many people have dedicated their lives to surfing the reef, which has claimed the lives of two prodigious surfers. But for the average person, finding a spot to view the wave from a nearby cliff is likely enough of a thrill.
Here’s how you can get close to the action without putting yourself at risk.
The actual height of the waves may be much larger than forecasted, as rogue “sneaker waves” sometimes stand out from the rest. Surfline is currently predicting Thursday’s waves to stand up between 10 and 15 feet at Mavericks, but veteran surfer Grant Washburn told The Standard it could get much larger than what’s forecasted.
"In these first season swells, like we're going to get this week, it really is like a lake and then all of a sudden here comes 20-foot waves," Washburn said. "A lot of times people are getting washed off of beaches that don't usually get big waves."
Park in the lot at the end of West Point Avenue, or in the surrounding neighborhood if the lot is full, and walk about a half mile down the beach along the Pillar Point West Shoreline Trail. Once you reach the jetty, to your right is what’s called Mavericks Beach. One of the beach's original watermen named the spot after his roommate's dog Maverick, who would swim around the beach while he surfed.
The wave is visible from the beach, though it can be hard to see from sea level beyond the jagged rocks. If you plan to watch the wave from the sand, be aware of rising tides and “sneaker waves.” Keep your children and pets close to you at all times.
At the jetty, look for a trail leading up the cliff. On a busy day, dozens of people will cram on the cliffside to get a view of the waves. Locals advise using extreme caution, as the cliff has been slowly eroding in recent years.
The wave is also visible using binoculars from Pillar Point Bluff or Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, which is a 10-minute drive north from the parking lot and a nice spot for a picnic. You can access the Pillar Point Bluff from the trailhead on Airport Street.
Mavericks attracts surfing talent from around the world to the small, foggy coastal town of Half Moon Bay, but many of the spot’s best surfers hail from less than 50 miles away.
Santa Cruz local Peter Mel caught what some have called the greatest big wave ever surfed at the spot in January 2021.
It’s hard to miss San Francisco local Bianca Valenti, who rides bright pink boards and is taking women’s big wave surfing to a new level.
It’s also easy to spot Half Moon Bay rising star Luca Padua, who often goes in the opposite direction of most on the wave.
In recent years, several people who used to offer boat tours have stopped amid concerns about liability.
Locals strongly advise against taking your own watercraft out to the spot, for obvious reasons. If you’re absolutely itching to get closer to the action, try trawling the harbor’s docks to find an experienced captain who may take you for a price.
If you’re contemplating surfing the wave, the likely answer is that you probably shouldn’t. Washburn recommended anyone thinking about taking such a leap to try their hand at Ocean Beach in San Francisco first.
"I would definitely not have anyone go out there unless they really know what they're doing," Washburn said.
David Sjostedt can be reached at email@example.com