HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — Despite big wave warnings, two walls of water caught dozens of spectators off-guard and knocked them to a rocky beach as they watched a Northern California surfing contest Saturday, leaving some with broken bones but sparing them from being pulled into the ocean.
Thirteen people swept from a seawall had significant injuries, including broken legs and hands, said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Battalion Chief Scott Jalbert. He said others treated at the beach for injuries such as scrapes and bruises were not included in the total. At least three of the injured were taken to hospitals.
Jalbert estimated “a couple hundred” people were on the seawall at the southern tip of Mavericks Beach when the waves struck, upstaging the surfing competition that draws some of the world’s top surfers.
The waves were 5 feet to 6 feet high by the time they hit — “small but strong,” he said.
“Nobody was swept away into the water. They were just swept onto the beach area pretty hard,” Jalbert said. “It’s pretty rocky.”
Additional firefighters had been on the way to clear the beach because of dangerous conditions but arrived too late, he said.
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.
“It’s a force of nature that can’t be predicted,” Jalbert said. “We were very lucky that nobody was swept out to sea.”
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 tall waves, despite warnings that strong winds could make those breakers dangerously unpredictable.
Chris Bertish, who traveled 21 hours from his South Africa home, won the contest. He had just 48 hours’ notice that huge waves were breaking off the coast and the Mavericks Surf Contest was on. Second place went to Shane Desmond of Santa Cruz.
The other winners were: Anthony Tashnick, Santa Cruz, third place; Dave Wessel, Kailua, Hawaii, fourth; and Carlos Burke, Burle, Brazil, fifth.