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Grant Washburn Discusses Jeff Clark and the Future of The Mavericks Contest

On The Contest: "Do It Right Or Don't Do It"

| posted on July 22, 2010

Grant Washburn’s name and presence is synonymous with big wave surfing – specifically Mavericks. Washburn has the respect of the entire Mavericks surfing community, and with the recent news of Jeff Clark’s forced departure from the Mavericks Surf Contest, we thought it appropriate to check-in with Washburn and ask a few questions.

First off, what was your reaction when you heard the news regarding Jeff Clark not being involved in the Mavericks contest?

I’m ignoring it. (laughs) No, I don’t know man. Every year there is something going on there. We never know if they have a sponsor or if they have a company. It’s too early for anybody to actually know exactly what is going on.

As you mentioned, there are a lot of politics that surround the Mavericks event, probably much more than we even know. Some well-known Mavericks surfers mentioned your name as a guy that they look too for guidance. Basically, the surfers follow your lead.

You know, I follow their lead too. In the end it is up to the surfers to make it [the contest] respectable and worth doing. The company is going to do whatever it is they do, and Jeff is just Jeff; he’s had no control over a lot of the stuff anyway. For the last three or four years, he has had no managing control over it. He sometimes has his outbursts or whatever, but he has basically been under a gag order to not say anything because that’s the deal. From our point of view and for any big wave event, it’s about the spot and the ocean and the people. The company is trying to make money, obviously, everyone knows that. So it is just, how are we going to let them do that and where are we going to draw the line.

Well, this event more than any other, Jeff Clark and his name tied to it tightly. Are the surfers going to unite, sort of Hui-up, and find out what Jeff wants them to do? Or are they going to say, ‘You know, it’s 30-foot, we’re going to surf the contest with or without Jeff’s blessing?”

Well in a way we sort of already have Hui’d up. Years back the company top-loaded the prize. They didn’t tell anyone they were going to waive the appearance fee. All of us have real jobs, basically, we all have to work. When they waived the $1000 fee that we used to get just for showing up…you took the day off, maybe you flew over from Hawaii. They didn’t say anything to anybody, and all of the sudden the top prize was bigger than ever, but 18 guys got nothing. I was like, “Ah come on, you can’t do that.” They said, “Yeah it’s regrettable.”

Well, it’s not just regrettable, it’s unacceptable. So we all got together and this is a pretty disparate group, and we decided that the company is going to do it like we discussed before, which is each guy gets something for showing up. You don’t just give it all to the top guy. And that’s what we did. The next year we ended splitting the prize to the six guys in the final. That’s the vibe out there. When the company tries to come along and make the prize a big deal and make it the super bowl of surfing or whatever, that really turns off the surfers.

Are the surfers going to take off a year and rally around Jeff?

The thing is Jeff still owns a most of the company, so it is a really weird situation. To me it’s like look, I have lots of friends who surf Mavericks who would be happy if there wasn’t any event at all. They [event organizers] close down the spot and say only these few people can surf in it, and half of the guys aren’t from the local area, and that’s a pretty big deal. And what are we actually getting out of it? As far as the community and the greater surfing community, if there is no reward, it is not any fun. Nobody wants to do it that way. We will have to wait and see. It’s really a strange thing, to have the event run by somebody who … the politics can never get out of the way.

I’m of the opinion that politics are always going to be a part of it on some level. That’s just human nature. I’m sure George Downing has his moments, and if Eddie Aikau were alive, perhaps there would be politics in that regard as well. It seems odd to take Jeff Clark away from the decision-making process. Interestingly, Catherine Clark, Jeff’s ex-wife, is really the glue that has held this contest together, that’s what I’ve been told by surfers close to the situation. She is positioned with the marketing company, at least according to press reports.

Well I think it’s too soon to say that. I don’t know what the deal would be. They way they’ve always operated is week to week. The reason we’ve had the waiting period start in January is because they never have any sponsors, and never could hang on to any sponsors. They always say, “Yeah we are still doing it. It’ll be bigger than ever.” You know Catherine is kind of just along for the ride. She’s involved because she loves the guys and loves the place and loves the community and she always trying to give back. And as far as taking sides – she is not with the company or with Jeff. She is the den mother. She has always run the behind-the-scenes stuff. When Quiksilver was running it, she helped out. But she is not a surfer and she would never call the swell or call the day. That’s what is weird about this news, who is going to be calling the day? Jeff, despite his flaws, is really, really great at calling Mavericks and knowing when it is going to be good. We wouldn’t have had some of those events if it weren’t for Jeff. Because nobody, not Sean Collins or Mark Sponsler would have ever called it on those days that Twiggy won or Greg Long won, and that’s because Jeff has that instinctive knowledge of the place, and without that you are going to have a lot less events.

Some might argue that you have that instinctive knowledge. It seems to me that the company will ask the surfers themselves to make the call, if, in fact, the surfers agree to move forward without Jeff Clark.

Yeah, and it’s not like Jeff was pulling the trigger completely on his own. But he was always pulling the guys. Greg Long knows about as much about the ocean as anybody, even though he’s just a kid. For sure, each of the surfers has the ability. There is a lot of pressure on making the call. It’s easy to sit back and go, “Yeah, we should do it,” if you’re not the guy who has to take the fall if the waves are bad that day. That’s not an easy job and I don’t want to do it, and I don’t know anybody who does and, yeah, good luck (laughs).

Are there sponsors secured already, because according to what I’ve seen, I think they secured some sponsors?

Yeah, you know, I’ve learned not to pay attention to anything they say; (laughs) those guys are rarely up front about anything. I’m not involved with it, but I think they have some money, they threw together a highlight show from last year. They have had money. I wasn’t involved with it I don’t know, It’s basically money rolled over from last year. It’s not new money. The thing about Mavericks is that it is a fantastic place. It is obviously very marketable. And there is a lot of good energy that comes in, in the form of those sponsors and they really are supporting the place and the surfers. It is sort of the middleman that creates the politics.

Are the surfers over it? If it’s 30-foot let’s just go surfing.

I think we’ve been there before. There is no difference. We are prepared if there is a contest or no contest. We will be surfing. Look what happened in November last year. The guys couldn’t have been pushing it any harder. Twiggy was surfing harder and more intensely than he ever has. I don’t think anything that happens changes what happens out there. What’s become distressing to us is all that it is humped onto this thing.

It has to be done right. The mood of the place and the spirit of Jay Moriarty that’s what we have to be true too. When we start wandering away from that, and when you say to yourself, “What would Jay think of this?” That’s when you get kind of depressed about it. The guys are getting tired of it. Do it right or don’t do it. There is plenty of good media coverage with or without the contest. You are going to see pictures of the biggest waves. Mavericks will win awards, even on bad years, Mavericks won the biggest paddle award. That’s what is so cool about the place and the contest is sort of a sideshow.

The surfers, the heart of it all, just want the big waves, they don’t care. They just need a tent on the beach.

Yeah, Matt Ambrose, one of my good friends was saying we should just have the Matt Ambrose challenge. Ten bucks to anybody who gets the biggest wave.

Grant, thanks so much for the insight, we look forward to seeing how this affair plays out..

Right on Scott, have a good day.

Jeff Clark’s blog: “Over the past several years, it has been obvious that my vision and priorities are not in line with those of Mavericks Surf Ventures. I have had in the past, and continue to have, strong differences of opinion with the present CEO and Board about the direction, image and priorities of the company and the contest.

The press release issued by Mavericks Surf Ventures this week stating that I ’stepped down’ and I am ‘passing the torch to the next generation’ is wrong. The reality is that I was ousted as Contest Director by the current CEO.

I must also note that, while the company’s news release states that this year’s contest will be held to celebrate ‘the 35th anniversary of Jeff Clark’s first session at the now world-famous break,’ the 35th anniversary is actually next season, in 2010-11. I will not allow the company to use my accomplishment as a marketing tactic.

Effective today, I have resigned from the Board of Directors of Mavericks Surf Ventures.

My vision for the Mavericks Surf Contest has been unwavering: it is about the family of big wave surfers, the spirit of the ocean, and this amazing wave. I never wanted that to be compromised for the sake of money or marketing opportunities. I think that focus is obvious to anyone who knows me or who has seen my priorities over the years.

Mavericks has been an integral part of my personal and professional life for more than 30 years, and I hope that it continues to be a part of both in the future.

I wake up looking at Mavericks, and I have watched and surfed those waves most of my life. I started the contest 10 years ago, and I can say one thing for sure: Mavericks is Mavericks. The waves will come – or not – when they will.

The one thing I would truly regret would be to see a committee deciding, based on sponsorship money and media opportunities, when the best day to run the contest would be, and have it turn into just another 10 foot swell with a lot of hype and not a lot of substance. Any true Mavericks surfer wants and deserves a real test of ability.

I wish everyone well, knowing that Mavericks will always take care of itself.

I wish I could say more at this time, but I have had limited time to absorb these changes and will have more to say about this situation as things become clearer.” — Jeff Clark