He was sitting alone on his board in the perfectly glassy water, triangulating his position in the 20-foot swell with the help of a distant tree line and a tower on a hill. Waiting, calculating, then recalculating. He spent 40 minutes feeling the power of the water as it moved beneath him. Then the peak formed and the wave thundered down to the shore about a quarter-mile from Mavericks Beach.

Clark’s history runs deep here. Not too far away, his little league coach used to take the team surfing, and he hasn’t stopped since. By the time he was 18 in 1975, living in a one-cop town in Northern California, Clark was a less-than-dedicated high school student with a surfing addiction. Back then, he would cut class with his friend Brian and hit the spots just north of Mavericks Beach. That’s when he first saw the peak of the wave and couldn’t imagine what might lie on the other side. So he began to study it: what it looked like when the waves came in from the west, when the wind whipped in or the tide was out. He studied in order to understand what was going on below by reading the clues on the surface.

After all that research, the young Clark was ready. He narrowed his takeoff point to a patch in the water about five yards across and waited again for the wave to pass underneath him, listening again for the crash. Then, in his thick neoprene wetsuit, he laid down on his 7’3” surfboard and began to paddle.

Today, at 59, Clark has a lot of Ray Liotta about him. Even with the burst blood vessels—from saltwater and sun—on skin pulled taut over a chiseled face, his baby-blue eyes still stand out under a scrub of black and gray hair.

“Who’s Ray Liotta?” he asks.

Around these parts, it’s Clark who’s the local celebrity. The wave here is what put the town of Half Moon Bay on the map, much more so than its family farms and fall pumpkin festivals. Mavericks now beckons the world’s top big-wave riders every year, when the conditions are right.

If the swell hits this winter— typically around February—it will mark the 11th time a competition has been held at Mavericks since it all began in 1999. The winners have been both well known in the big-wave scene and obscure, local upstarts. That’s because the difficulty and size of the wave levels the playing field almost every time. The contest itself has undergone a number of reincarnations due to different sponsors and infighting between partners behind closed doors. But the ambition of those looking to make money off of Mavericks pales compared to those wanting to surf it.

“It is still one of the most amazing waves you will ever see,” says Clark. “When it’s breaking, I don’t think there’s a greater or more pure paddle- in wave on the planet.”

In 2007, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a study on Mavericks revealing the underwater source of its shocking size: A sloping ramp, made of rock sediment dating back to a time when lumbering mastodons roamed the rolling West Coast, that tails off in a northward direction.

Santa Cruz surfers Tom Powers and David Schmidt finally tried Mavericks in January of 1990. Locals from down the coast began trickling up, and once the story came out in Surfer magazine in ’92, Mavericks was a secret no longer. Clark couldn’t have been happier.

After suffering some serious wipeouts while he was surfing by his lonesome, Clark began tinkering on his equipment. As a union carpenter, he shaped boards that were long, skinny and quicker to catch the steep waves. Soon he started shaping for others as well.

“If you’ve got the mindset and the skills to do it, then you need the right tools to accomplish the goal,” he says.

As more surfers joined, the danger factor grew. Between the shore and where Mavericks breaks a half-mile out, there are rocks both exposed and underwater that can trap boards and knock out surfers.

During a particularly massive week just before Christmas in 1994, Hawaiian legend Mark Foo got caught underneath after a wipeout. He wasn’t discovered missing until it was too late. So Clark and a few others set up the Mavericks Water Patrol dedicated to the safety and rescue of surfers on the biggest days. In 2011, Mavericks claimed respected surfer Sion Milosky.

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