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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.

FOR MORE THAN A DECADE, CHRIS BERTISH, a South African from Cape Town, longed to get the coveted invitation to compete at Mavericks. “It was really my only dream,” he told me recently over the phone from his home. Finally, after seven or eight winters of staying on friends’ couches in San Francisco and Half Moon Bay and nearly bankrupting himself while risking life and limb to impress Clark, he got the call in the fall of 2008.

As bad luck would have it, there was no contest that year. Beadling had raised enough money, but Clark wasn’t going to give it the green light until he thought that the waves were big enough. According to Kreidler, this had become a constant issue between Clark and Beadling. Clark always wanted to spring for the absolute best weather day. Beadling contends that he did, too, but that he didn’t have the luxury of moving forward before business conditions were right: sponsors solidified, apparel line ready to sell.

Long story short, Beadling and Clark started driving each other batty—Beadling constantly calling to check on wave forecasts, Clark repeatedly saying “not good enough.” In the end, Mavericks didn’t happen that year, and Beadling, apparently at the end of his rope, suddenly fired Clark. He announced Clark’s departure publicly as a resignation because, he says, he wanted to give Clark the opportunity of a graceful exit. He also claims that what triggered his decision was more than just a clash of personalities, but he offers no details other than to say that “with the information we’d gotten, we had no choice.”

According to Clark, that “information” was false. Beadling and the MSV board had accused him, he says, of trying to solidify a contract with mega–surf company Billabong behind MSV’s back. Clark would later produce a letter from the president of Billabong and the company’s attorney testifying that they had never even talked about such a deal, but by then the damage was done. Although this part of the story may never be fully understood as long as the legal settlement remains sealed, Clark did go on record, in a press release published a week after his termination, to deny that he had left voluntarily. Beadling had little choice but to grin and bear the rumblings that surfers would boycott the next contest if Clark truly had been ousted. But Clark told them not to.

Bertish had every intention of competing in the 2009–2010 contest, for which he was eligible because the previous one had been canceled. He flew to the States to wait, but had to return to Capetown when his girlfriend was diagnosed with cancer and needed surgery. Several months later, though, he got an urgent call: A northwestern tempest was forming that looked like it might create some of the biggest waves ever ridden in competition. Within 24 hours, Bertish rallied enough money from his brother and friends for a one-way red-eye from Cape Town, landing in San Francisco on the morning of the contest with just $40 dollars in his pocket. His board had been lost by the airline, and he had no idea how he would get back home. But hell, maybe he’d win. He sort of had to.

Never mind that the waves were bigger and deadlier than any that had ever been surfed in an international contest. Never mind that Bertish had barely slept. And never mind that he was riding a loaner board. Like a man surfing for his life, his dream, and his financial solvency, Bertish soared over the edge of 50-foot walls of saltwater like a South African Aquaman. At the end of the day, so beaten by the crushing surf that he could barely paddle, Bertish was declared the winner of the biggest big-wave event in history and awarded the largest prize ever: $50,000.

“It was amazing,” Bertish told me, “but I was mostly excited about finally being able to pay back my friends and family who’d been supporting me for so long.” Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Surfers are usually handed a check immediately after winning a contest, but Bertish got nothing for weeks and was essentially stranded in the States because of it. He recalls Beadling saying something about the money being caught up in taxes, but the excuses rang hollow, given that Beadling had recently told Outside magazine that he’d raised $1.4 million of private equity for Mavericks. Still, Bertish didn’t want to make a stink about it—on account of Clark. The month before, Clark had finally decided to take legal action against Beadling for a host of issues. “I knew that Jeff was in the midst of a lawsuit with him,” Bertish says, “and Jeff had been so kind to me over the years that I didn’t want to mess up his chances of getting paid, which seemed far more important than my prize money.”

Washburn contends that the only reason Bertish did eventually get paid—and even then only partially, in dribs and drabs—was that Washburn talked Bertish into threatening Beadling with taking the story to the media. Beadling denies this contention, saying that revenue that was supposed to come in for the 2010 contest hadn’t materialized, making everyone at MSV go without pay. “I was on the streets trying to scrape together money to pay Chris,” Beadling says, “and every dollar that came in went to Chris first. That’s why the money came in slowly.” He also says that “to my knowledge, Chris Bertish was paid in full.”