PRINCETON-BY-THE-SEA -- Ed and Karen Wickman scrambled up the crumbly cliffs of Pillar Point in the pre-dawn darkness Sunday just to get a glimpse of the Bay Area surfing spectacle known as Mavericks.
"I've been waiting 12 years for this," said Ed, who with his wife lives in the Sierra foothills.
The Wickmans were among the few to sneak into a restricted area because they arrived before authorities blocked most curiosity seekers from going to the beach and bluffs overlooking the iconic surf break.
But there wasn't much to see as the eighth edition of the surfing invitational had a lot more flash than power. The giant waves predicted to arrive by Sunday were late to the party as 24 daredevils of the sea scratched to catch the few beauties to crash into the rocky reef more than a half-mile from shore.
It didn't matter to Wickman, an executive chef for a casino in Jackson. He could not have been happier to make the long trek to the beach.
"Call it an oceanic experience," he said. "To see a surfer catch that wave, wow. The rest is just extra."
Winner Peter Mel of Santa Cruz couldn't agree more.
"The conditions were as good as you can get," he said, speaking of the clear sky and unseasonably warm weather.
When the pristine waves did arrive Mel knew what to do. He performed like a small-board rider with gravity-defying maneuvers because "you had to separate yourself from the others."
The day also pleased Jeff Clark, the Half Moon Bay surfer who put Mavericks on the map by tackling the dangerous waves since the 1970s.
"Surfers don't need to be horrified to go surf," he said, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt.
But that's the draw for spectators. The three-storey elevator drops and bone-crunching wipe outs are what they come to see because it's a rare day the sequoias of the sea hit the coastline.
The break at Mavericks doesn't unleash its fury until waves reach at least 25 feet. Although the big swell petered out somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean enough good rides arrived on a sun-kissed day that left a good vibe among the estimated 14,000 spectators.
Because of environmental and safety concerns government officials prohibited spectators from watching the event from the beach and sandstone cliffs for the first time since the contest's debut in 1999. It's virtually impossible to see surfers from the beach, anyway.
Organizers created a festival area with a big screen so fans could see the competition up close for once. They also offered a live stream that worked sporadically because of high demand. They put the festival in a shopping mall parking lot, not exactly the most appetizing location.
Justin Wilkenfeld of lead sponsor GoPro acknowledged the event suffered from logistical glitches that he promised will be improved in the coming years.
But he and Clark, the contest director, emphasized the positive. The event wasn't held the past two years because of less-than-satisfactory conditions and changes in sponsorship, they noted. GoPro, a San Mateo video camera company, signed on to revive the event.
With the major motion picture "Chasing Mavericks" released in the fall organizers had hoped to capitalize on the surf break's celebrity by having a competition this season.
They also hoped for a better outcome than in 2010 when an estimated 30,000 crammed onto the beach area, just north of Half Moon Bay. A rouge wave swept up about three dozen spectators sending three to the hospital.
Some local residents supported the decision to keep spectators off the beach.
"If it didn't change the contest might not be here at all," said Sherry Ingles, co-owner of Half Moon Bay Sportsfishing and Tackle.
And that would have bummed out a lot of surfers.