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 Three surfers, one wave at Mavericks.

Jeff Clark surveying the Mavericks site in Half Moon Bay. (Patrick Trefz)

Keir Beadling (left) and Jeff Clark in 2006, before their “breakup.” (Seth Migdail)

Clark and competitors on the opening day of Mavericks in 2010. Even after being kicked out as contest director the year before, Clark says he “wasn’t about to be removed from the grounds.” (Seth Migdail)

Who Owns This Wave?

After three years in exile, Mavericks godfather Jeff Clark has won back the world's most aggro surf competition. But whether it'll remain in his hands—as well as thrive under his leadership—is a whole other question.

ON ONE OF THOSE BALMY DAYS LAST NOVEMBER, standing on the dunes that front the Great Highway across from Ulloa Street, I could just make out the silhouette of a stand-up paddleboarder skimming across glassy waves. Brawny, with shoulders slightly slouched forward, the man caught three or four rides in the time that younger surfers caught one or none. Any passerby could tell that he was something special—those broad, powerful turns, that graceful poise even in waves that crested well overhead—but die-hard surfers knew why he was special. There was no mistaking that silhouette: It was Jeff Clark.

Among surfers, Clark, now 55, might as well be Neil Armstrong. He’s the guy who, at the ripe old age of 17, was the first to surf Mavericks, a surf break off the coast of Half Moon Bay that in the dead of winter produces waves cresting up to 80 feet. Before Mavericks became a pilgrimage for big-wave fanatics the world over, before it was dubbed “the Mount Everest of surfing,” and before it killed two of the best big-wave surfers in history, Clark surfed there alone—for 15 years. His brazenness earned him such respect that when the global surf brand Quiksilver wanted to run the first competition at Mavericks in 1999, it tapped Clark to direct it. Thus was the Super Bowl of surfing born, a contest in which 24 of the best big-wave riders from around the globe would compete on some of the scariest waves ever seen, with Clark deciding when it would happen and who would get the coveted invitations.

That first contest 14 years ago was a huge success. Photographs of its amazing waves graced front pages worldwide, and Clark was described with a reverence usually reserved for saints and war heroes. But trouble arose within just a few years. Quiksilver dropped out as a sponsor after the 2000 contest, and three years later, Clark joined forces with a lawyer turned sports agent turned extreme sports marketer by the name of Keir Beadling to form Mavericks Surf Ventures (MSV). Perhaps it was a mismatch from the beginning: the aggressive businessman and the beach bum. But after years of butting heads, the former lawyer and his board of directors fired Clark from his position as contest director in 2009. It was as if National Geographic had fired Jacques Cousteau.

A lawsuit followed in which Clark won a huge chunk of money for breach of contract. But the bigger prize is that for the first time in three years, the contest (set for sometime between November 2012 and March 2013) is back in Clark’s hands. On that November day, I paddled out to Clark and, bobbing in the swells, chatted briefly with him about how the competition might shape up. Still panting from sprinting between breakers, Clark said that he had a good feeling. Forecasters were predicting a light El Niño year, which often means big waves. And that very morning, GoPro, a San Mateo camera company, had announced that it would be the presenting sponsor. Solidifying a big sponsor for an event that has cost about $500,000 to run, has no set date, and sometimes doesn’t even happen is extremely difficult, which may be why Clark was grinning like his wily 17-year-old self.

Mavericks fans are ecstatic about the return of their hero, but it’s not clear that all the maneuvering is over. Beadling still hasn’t paid Clark a dime from the 2011 court order, claiming that Clark hasn’t upheld his end of the deal (the terms of which, Beadling says, are confidential). Beadling also contends that nobody can hold a Mavericks contest without running afoul of his company’s legal rights. “I wouldn’t count Keir out,” says Mark Kreidler, an ESPN.com columnist who spent more than a year investigating the Clark-versus-Beadling imbroglio for his 2011 book, The Voodoo Wave. “It’s a misreading of who he is.”

So while surfers flock to San Francisco this winter, preparing to risk their necks for our entertainment (and relatively paltry prizes of up to around $30,000), some key questions remain. How, exactly, did the king of big-wave surfing and pioneer of the world’s most exciting surfing contest get fired from his own event? What will it mean now that he’s back, and will he be able to retain control? And, after two seasons of subpar surf conditions that didn’t allow a contest at all, will Mother Nature cooperate this year?