PRINCETON-BY-THE-SEA, Calif. - A first visit to Mavericks, the big-wave surf contest held 25 miles south of San Francisco, could trigger vertigo for the typical American sports fan. It would have nothing to do with riding waves, or even seeing them.

 

The audience for the eighth edition of Mavericks had to gather in a parking lot Sunday, about a half-mile from the two-story swells and dramatic cliffs that make this event what is, without so much as a drop of water that didn't come in a bottle. The closest thing to a wave at the fenced-off lot that made up the festival grounds came in blue plastic, with a small surfboard attached at its base. Fans could climb aboard, ride the synthetic wave and have their pictures taken for $10 to $35. At a nearby booth, one could buy a pancake-and-bacon cupcake for $4. At $10 a head -- except for the 3,000 locals who, according to the organizers, received gratis tickets and wristbands -- one could see the action on the Pacific only via the festival's jumbo screen.

What one could not do was see the event in person without a space on a charter boat ($225 to $400, according to quotes at the nearby harbor), serious skill on a paddleboard or kayak, or a proclivity for trespassing. 

The 2010 version of the event had ended the tradition of gathering on the beach. Two waves encroached, turning spectators into bowling pins. Nobody died, but a few bones broke and two spectators had to go to the hospital. Authorities soon declared the beach and the ecologically fragile bluffs above the Mavericks site off-limits for the event's spectators. 

Some intrepid souls challenged the order, hiking to the bluffs before dawn. But for the timid and law-abiding, the converted parking lot became the only vantage point. For long stretches, the screen brought only a frozen image, while the competitors waited out lulls on a disturbingly tame sea.

The surfers and organizers monitor weather maps constantly at this time of year to determine the proper date for Mavericks. With as little as two days' notice, the surfers will hear "It's on'' and prepare to converge at Pillar Point.

This year's event allowed a luxurious five days' advance notice for the competitors, and four days for the public. Turns out, everyone who hankers for Mavericks waves with a touch of life-threatening fury might have been salivating a tad too quickly. Relatively speaking, the 2013 event favored finesse over hang-on-for-your-life style points.

The essence of Mavericks is uncertainty, some of it thrilling, most of it requiring extreme patience. Will it take two or three hours to travel the last eight miles along Highway 1? How many roadside walkers will leave drivers in the dust?

For the last two years, the event didn't go off at all. The necessary conditions didn't appear those winters, when the most prominent sign of the contest was the Gerard Butler movie, "Chasing Mavericks.'' There was a festival in 2012, the inaugural version, but no live surf contest.

Even certainty about the winner came slowly. It turned out to be Peter Mel, a 43-year-old who works for Quiksilver, a surf-gear company. He had come to Mavericks every year, but never won before. Mel went through the festival lot and talked with the media about 45 minutes after the end of the competition. Even then, though, it wasn't entirely clear whether the judges had picked him.

On stage, he was named the champ of the 24-man field, collecting a new surfboard and prize money officially listed as $12,000. But that figure, too, was not firm. Mel said later that he and the five other finalists had decided to split the total purse of $50,000 equally, in keeping with what he called a "brotherhood'' of big-wave riders. And subsequent reports put the prize money lower. More uncertainty.

In theory, live streaming carried the competition outside the point and the festival grounds. But the event's website, as viewed from the hotel just 100 yards from the festival, delivered halting coverage or crashed outright for much of the day.

No one knew exactly when the semifinals would start or when they'd segue into the finals. On a visit to the media tent around 3 p.m., a woman told me and another reporter that the contest was over. We looked baffled. The end had come rather abruptly. Oh wait, she said. She had overheard that from someone else, who might have been talking about the 49ers game.

This is not, by the way, a complaint. Accustomed to blizzards of stats and quote sheets, assigned seating and regular announcements about all manner of minutiae ("This is Gregor Blanco's fifth game with two hits and a stolen base in August''), I found the alternative as amusing as it was disorienting.

I did wish, however, to smell the ocean, to see the swells. I just didn't have the guts to trespass. I also lacked a paddleboard, kayak and the requisite talent to use either on the Pacific. A walk to the harbor brought a nice water view and the revelation that all of the $225-a-head trips organized by the Half Moon Bay Sportfishing and Tackle shop had been booked in advance. The other vendor a few doors down said likewise.

This news made the expense report a lot simpler, but who could have imagined that one needed so much preparation for an event ritually scheduled on the spur of the moment?

At a typical sports event, fans require very little frustration to turn unruly. Some bend in that direction when they're deliriously happy. 

But apparently, fans of the surf don't do hostility. They might not even do disgruntled. Some locals who bailed out early smiled wryly as they said friends had told them at the festival entrance: "Don't go in.'' Nostalgia for the lost days of clamoring onto the bluffs were mixed with a hefty portion of pragmatism. 

According to a volunteer who asked not to be identified, local residents would climb on their bikes, pedal to the cliffs, settle in with their coffee and watch the majesty of the huge waves ridden by … tiny specks. On the beach, a huge rock in the water would block the view, and spectators couldn't see the biggest waves. They occurred a half-mile away, and only the smaller shore-break played out in front of them.

Binoculars can help viewers on the bluff. But this sport's future belongs to technology, to the kind of cameras that a surfer can take inside a wave, thereby taking fans inside it with them. It's like snowboarding, which delivers some of its best performances via film rather than as live entertainment.

Many of the fans understood that the 2010 incident threatened to change the essence of the event from "location, location, location'' to "litigation, litigation.'' They brought beach chairs and hunkered down on the festival pavement.

 "If it didn't change, it might not happen at all,'' said the co-owner of the sportfishing store, Sherry Ingles. She chatted as an employee sorted worms, one of the finer encounters with nature one could experience near the Mavericks festival.

Organizers said the festival had sold out, 14,000 tickets gone by 8:30 a.m. The lot never looked packed enough to contain that many people, but the customers would come and go, visiting bars and restaurants in this little village, bellowing whenever the 49ers made a big play.

Mel said he had noticed the absence of crowds on shore, but he didn't think it seemed odd, just different. The boats appeared to pose potential trouble earlier in the week, during a practice. They'd jockey for a prime viewing spot and then block other craft from a good sight line.

 "Before it was like a cluster, pardon my French, a cluster-f---,'' he said, "and I yelled at them, 'you need to circulate.' ''

Now, imagine Kobe Bryant or LeBron James telling fans to sit down and let other people see. (Or, for that matter, seeing that quote turn up on one of the NFL's weekly reams of paper.)

On the day of the event, Mel said, the Coast Guard made sure every boat did slow laps and opened up viewing space. During lulls, people in the boats would sunbathe and check in on the 49ers' advance to the Super Bowl.

"You'd hear people yell 'Touchdown,' and everyone would start high-fiving and cheering,'' said Bob Pearson, a longtime surfer aboard one of the boats to help a competing friend.

The vertigo vanishes pretty quickly at this event. You adjust to the pace, the concrete venue and the not-so-concrete updates. And if you're smart, you start plotting your paddle-boarding lessons.