PRINCETON-BY-THE-SEA -- When Ryan and Janene Purdie, of Riverside, booked their room at the Oceano Hotel & Spa back in August for their 14th anniversary, they thought they'd found the perfect spot for a sleepy vacation.
What they got instead on Friday was a lively introduction to the Mavericks Invitational, which in 15 years has grown from a local curiosity to a global phenomenon that has helped push big-wave surfing into the mainstream of sports and culture. This year, for the first time, the finals of the contest, won by Grant "Twiggy" Baker of South Africa, were broadcast live on cable television.
"We actually thought it would be quiet," said Ryan, "because it's cold this time of year."
Cold or not, this tiny community was ground zero for one of the world's premier big-wave surfing contests, held a mile away in the ocean off Pillar Point. Thousands of people, including tattooed surfers wearing flat-brimmed baseball caps and families with young children, gathered in the parking lot of the Oceano for a party. Starting in the early morning, they sipped beers and snacked on paella and fish and chips as they watched the action on enormous video screens.
Craig Barranti grabbed a hefeweizen from the Sierra Nevada tent about 10 a.m., but who could blame him? Friday was his first day of retirement, so the 55-year-old former electrician and a buddy celebrated by roaring over to the coast on their motorcycles.
"I've been looking forward to coming," Barranti, 55, said of the contest, but until this year, he "always had to work."
Mavericks' popularity has grown steadily since its start, but it accelerated after "Chasing Mavericks," a 2012 movie starring Gerard Butler. Even Silicon Valley took notice; last year Apple announced it was naming its latest Mac operating system after the contest.
San Francisco resident Mary Rokow helps illustrate the contest's broadening appeal. Rokow came to the festival with her 37-year-old son Joe, drawn not only by the competitors' daring and but also by their brotherly respect for one another.
"I'm a timid person, but I like that people take these risks and make something beautiful for other people to watch," said Rokow, 65. "You don't have to be an athlete to love it."
As the contest has grown in stature, it has seen some wrenching changes, from leadership squabbles and failed sponsorships to safety problems that led organizers to close the beach at Pillar Point to spectators after the 2010 contest. More than a dozen people were injured that year by waves that rushed all the way to the bluffs.
Mavericks pioneer Jeff Clark and a team of local business owners regained control of the contest after that fiasco, instituting the viewing festival, which appears to have found its footing after a poorly attended debut in 2012. This year the contest also picked up key sponsors in Body Glove and GoPro.
"Things have changed -- we have a really solid group of people that are business owners on the Coastside," Clark said Thursday afternoon as his team raced to put the contest together. The competition was called on two days' notice to capture perfect ocean conditions. "It just seems to be moving in the right way right now."
Organizers did not immediately provide an estimate Friday, but the crowd appeared to be smaller than last year's, when roughly 14,000 people attended on a Sunday. Still, the contest and festival were a boon for local businesses, including bars and restaurants that opened early and provided streaming Internet footage on their TVs.
"It's obviously a great day for the community, especially down at the harbor," said Pete Overfelt, co-owner of Old Princeton Landing, a local bar. "A lot of businesses, it's their biggest day of the year. The fact that (the organizers) pull it together really benefits all of us."
Although some people miss the days of informal congregations on the beach, many seem to have adapted to the new setup.
"The reality is you couldn't see anything (at the beach), even with binoculars. And it wasn't safe," said Don Iglesias, 65, as he sat in the VIP section of the festival with two old Santa Cruz surfing buddies. "This is a much better scenario."
Although they're not surfing fans, the Purdies clearly grasped the peculiar appeal of the festival. It's a bit like tailgating outside a big game -- close to the action, and yet not really there.
"That's kind of what it feels like," said Ryan, "where everybody's around it, eating and drinking and having a good time, but nobody's actually at the surfing event, other than the ones who are surfing."