Santa Cruz’s Jamilah Star became the best unofficial story of this year’s Mavericks when she showed up and convinced organizers to let her paddle out. (Peter Adams)

From the rocky beaches of Half Moon Bay, Mavericks’ famous wave breaks don’t look large enough for aquatic-minded squirrels on water skis. And even during Sunday’s gridlock morning traffic on Highway 1, rubbernecking drivers couldn’t have made out the jersey colors on the surfers gliding the frigid walls of blue water if they squinted. But two miles from the shore, the most dangerous big wave surf competition on the West Coast was underway—where the ocean swell can snap surfboards like toothpicks in the mouth of a bulldog, as it did for competitor Rusty Long in the first heat. Luckily, no one was injured.

This is the Mavericks Invitational surf contest. Thousands of people who could have been at home watching the triumphant San Francisco 49ers NFC Championship game on Sunday instead paid to sit in a fenced-off parking lot near a screen with live-feed of the action happening just offshore.

It takes a perfect storm of big swells, calm winds and clear weather for the competition to happen, and that’s a forecast that doesn’t play out each winter, which is why this was the first Mavericks since 2010. The magnitude of the moment was not lost on 43-year-old Peter Mel, who finished first in this year’s contest.

“I’ve been surfing Mavericks for 25 years,” Mel said, shortly after learning of his first ever Mavericks win. The La Selva Beach native recently moved to Newport Beach for his son’s surfing career and must make a six-and-a-half-hour drive to Mavericks every time the swell calls. “It’s a relief [to win] more than anything else.”

The waves at Mavericks break so fast and so steep they don’t allow for any margin for error—or even many tricks, for that matter. Each wave is different, and even though this year’s mostly twenty-foot waves were about half the size of 2010’s monster conditions, there’s no such thing as safe day at out here. (Just ask actor Gerard Butler, who was left unconscious after a wipeout while making last year’s eventual Hollywood flop Chasing Mavericks). It’s all a seasoned surfer can do to even stay on a wave without getting eaten by the massive explosion of white water collapsing at his back. And when he does eventually wipe out, he can only fight not to get chewed up by hungry Mother Ocean’s jagged teeth that line the spot’s break and make for such an epic wave.

But with no one hurt, the day proved to be a good one for locals. Zach Wormhoudt of Santa Cruz finished second out of 24 contest surfers after chasing down every possible wave he could in the final heat. San Clemente’s Greg Long, the only former champion in the finals, finished third. San Francisco Zen-master Alex Martins, whose yoga background gives him a relaxed stance, finished fourth. Hawaii’s Mark Healey finished fifth, and Shawn Dollar, another Santa Cruzan, finished sixth.

But the best unofficial story from Santa Cruz was Jamilah Star, who like all of the parking-lot dwellers, was not invited to surf Mavericks this year. However, the accomplished local surfer—who in 2007 took on the biggest wave ever ridden by a woman at Mavericks—convinced the organizers to just let her paddle out and “watch.”

Before the final heat, the surfers had agreed to split the prize money.

“That’s how we do it,” Mel later said, without disclosing how much money each would take. “When you start a final like that, it kind of takes the pressure off. Usually when you do that too, the waves come and that’s kind of what happened.”

Parker Le Bras-Brown, a young platinum blond surfer himself, watched it all unfold as he gazed up at the large screen from the parking lot. When he decided to come see the event with his parents and younger siblings, he originally thought he’d get to watch the waves break from the shore. Still, as Parker Le Bras-Brown looked up at the screen, the rides of some of the world’s greatest big-wave surfers blew him away.

“I was hoping you could see it from the beach, and the organization [of the event] could have done better,” he said, “but just to see what these people do on these big waves is amazing.”