The Mavericks Surf Contest in Half Moon Bay was no day at the beach for participants or spectators.
Unexpected waves breaking on shore Saturday swept dozens of spectators from the man-made jetty at the southern tip of Mavericks beach.
Most spectators escaped with minor injuries but three people were hospitalized with broken bones. Others needed plucking from the water. It could have been so much worse – a very real reminder of the power and danger the sea holds.
Authorities spent the rest of Saturday warning the thousands of people attending the event about the dangers of the ocean. They closed off vast portions of the beach and ushered people away from the edges of nearby cliffs.
"We were very lucky that nobody was swept out to sea,'' said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Battalion Chief Scott Jalbert, whose department tended to most of the wounded.
Attendees and some competitors questioned the wisdom of allowing people so close to the waterline when high tides and epic surf were predicted.
Others said that no one could have predicted that several waves would have jumped over the jetty and injured people.
"It's a force of nature that can't be predicted,'' said the fire chief Jalbert.
Only after the unexpected large waves swept in during high tide did the National Weather Service post a high surf warning until 10 p.m. Saturday. The agency previously posted a less severe high surf advisory.
The surfing contest offers a $150,000 purse, making it the most lucrative big-wave contest in the world, even though it is held only when conditions are prime.
Competitors voted to schedule it because forecasts called for record-breaking waves, despite warnings that strong winds could make those breakers dangerously unpredictable.
South African Chris Bertish beat 23 other surfers to win first place and $50,000.
"It's hard to explain how much water was moving around out there,'' said Bertish, who spent 36 hours traveling from South Africa to Half Moon Bay. ``I took the worst beating of my life out there.''
The surf reached 40-foot faces, and a shore-break of five to six feet washed over the beach and a seawall.
Finishing behind Bertish were: Shane Desmond, Santa Cruz, second place; Anthony Tashnick, Santa Cruz; third place; Dave Wessel, Kailua, Hawaii, fourth; Carlos Burle, Brazil, fifth; and Kenny Collins, Santa Cruz, sixth.