Mav's, as it's colloquially called, is an invitational. Only 24 of the top big-wave surfers in the world are invited any year. The contest is only run when the peaks at the reef are over 20-25 feet; this was only the seventh time the contest had ever been held. All the commentators and the surfers they talked to agreed that this was the biggest surf in which the contest had EVER been held.
Qualifying is settled settled in heats. Four prelims heats are 45 minutes each. Surfers are scored on their best two waves within the 45-minute time frame. Three surfers from each qualifier advance to the semis, and three from each semi advance to the finals. The purse this year was the largest ever: $150,000, with first place earning $50K.
Judges at Mavericks are renowned for rewarding late, critical drops down the almost vertical faces of these behemoth swells that pitch up onto the off-shore reef. This puts a premium on courage, but also occasions some hellacious wipe-outs. People have died taking off late at Mavericks.
The first qualifying heat went off on a rising tide with HUGE waves, at 8 am, local time. Probably the two or three best waves of the day were ridden in the qualifiers, including the only ride scored a 10 (on a 10-point scale). The final ( 7th) heat was launched at 2 pm, and concluded at about 3:25, after being extended because the receding tide had made catching and taking off on the waves a much dicier proposition than in the deeper water of the morning: with only 15 minutes of original time remaining, three of the six surfers in the final heat had not yet caught a single ride.
But the real action in the heats, and arguably of the day, occurred on the beach when, during the course of the second qualifier, the advancing tide, propelled by the huge waves, unexpectedly washed OVER the sand-spit where many spectators were watching, taking down many vendors' booths, and nearly dropping the commentating team perched on scaffolds above the beach into the drink. There were minor injuries to spectators to match the 'carnage' in the water as surfer after surfer suffered spectacular falls in the impact zones of the monstrous waves.
Some of the waves--mainly the ones which went untried--were 40-50 feet down the faces. Insanely big, strong, powerful, crashing roaring, sweeping walls of water. I am a surfer, though my courage pretty much is exhausted at about 10 feet. There is no such thing as an 'ex-surfer.' There are only surfers nearer to or further from the beach.
You could say "Surfers are swell people."
P.S.: The guys doing voice for the vid-stream from the scaffolding did a really good job under difficult circumstances. They caught a fair amount of static and abuse in the comments, but they did fine: over and over, they illustrated anothjer of my "dichos": There is no such thing as an "outside" joke.