The Surfing Super Bowl: Facing the Mavericks

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Ben Margot / AP

Greg Long, left, and Jamie Sterling surf a giant wave during the Mavericks surf contest in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Jan. 12, 2008

Ion Banner has been told that the waves have come. And he is ready for Mavericks, the legendary surf contest timed to the optimal moment when winter storms push the Pacific's waters over singular underwater reefs to create enormous and deadly waves off the Northern California coast not far from Half Moon Bay. Like a matador choosing his cape before facing a bull, Banner, a contestant, pauses between two of his sleek surfboards. One is 9 ft. 8 in. and curved like a bow. More maneuverable, it will let him slash his turns across the face of the monstrous 40 ft. waves that he and 23 other top big-wave riders will confront on Saturday, Feb. 13. But if the giant waves "wall out" — imagine free-falling down the glassy side of a four-story building that suddenly explodes — then Banner reckons that a longer, straighter surfboard might give him a chance to outrace his destruction.

Most sensible men of Banner's age (he's in his early 40s) prefer to watch extreme sports rather than experience them. But nearly half of the 24 top riders in the Mavericks contest are in their 40s. It isn't really a competition for punks. Indeed, Banner sees surfing almost as a higher calling: "When I get out of the water, I feel cleansed, like it's what God intended me to do."

Banner is wiry, with a goatee and a quiet, self-assured manner. He is ranked just outside the top 10 surfers vying for the $150,000 prize, but having surfed this windy California point break since he was a teenager, Banner figures he knows Mavericks' moods and furies better than anyone. "I've been humbled out there — really blasted — so I try to respect the wave," he says.

Preparing for the waves, Banner tries to center himself, to push aside thoughts that a giant wave could grind him against the spiky reef that a surfer described to me as being "like an underwater Manhattan, with all its skyscrapers." Says Banner: "Being mentally prepared is not having that stuff mess with you." He adds, "You need to feel lots of air in your body, light." He will wait on his choice of surfboard until the morning of the contest, when he sees the size and direction of the massive Pacific swells calved from a storm off northern Japan.

Surfers speak of Mavericks with awe and dread. The surf break was discovered in the 1970s, when a few intrepid teenage surfers from Half Moon Bay, led by Jeff Clark, thought it might be possible to ride the giant waves without ending up on the rocks. They survived. "It isn't like Hawaii, where you just ride it straight down to the foam. At Mavericks, you have a long ride — over a minute — and you find yourself dancing with the massive power of nature," says Clark, now 52. For years, Clark tried to spread the word that Mavericks existed, but the pros scoffed. The common assumption was that really big waves broke only in Hawaii. But Mavericks gained its fearsome notoriety in 1994 when one of surfing's greats, Hawaiian Mark Foo, wiped out in an 18-footer and drowned, presumably snagged in the rock-filled cauldron. One of this year's contestants, Darryl (The Flea) Virostko (who, friends say, once surfed Mavericks while tripping on LSD) is credited with undergoing the most spectacular wipeout ever filmed when he rode an 80-ft. wave there.

Clark, now a surfboard maker, became the driving force behind the Mavericks Surfing Contest, which he started in 1999 with a novel idea: the competition would be called at 48 hours' notice and only when the waves topped 20 ft. Once a storm with swells that size was predicted, Clark alerted the 24 best big-wave riders from around the world, and they scrambled to reach Half Moon Bay, better known for its fog and eerie fields of pumpkins. Advertisers figured out swiftly that nothing sells better to the youth market than the heroic (and rebellious) image of a lone surfer eluding an awful pounding by nature at her nastiest. This year's contest is sponsored by, among others, a whiskey distiller, a telecommunications giant and a private-equity fund — enterprises that, on the surface, have little to do with either water or sports. Clark has since broken with the contest organizers, explaining to TIME, "I don't want to lose the whole reason why we surf. It's not for the paycheck. It's a way of life."

Banner agrees. He says he could use the money. He clears trees and works in construction, giving him the flexibility to surf whenever the titanic swells roll in. But when he takes off on a wave, he says, "I'm not thinking about the money or the contest. It's about you and the ocean. It could be the end of your life, and that's what gives the moment its purity."