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Who Owns This Wave?

Jaimal Yogis | December 20, 2012 | Story News and Features

ON ONE OF THOSE BALMY DAYS LAST NOVEMBER, standing on the dunes that front the Great Highway across from Ulloa Street, I could just make out the silhouette of a stand-up paddleboarder skimming across glassy waves. Brawny, with shoulders slightly slouched forward, the man caught three or four rides in the time that younger surfers caught one or none. Any passerby could tell that he was something special—those broad, powerful turns, that graceful poise even in waves that crested well overhead—but die-hard surfers knew why he was special. There was no mistaking that silhouette: It was Jeff Clark.

Among surfers, Clark, now 55, might as well be Neil Armstrong. He’s the guy who, at the ripe old age of 17, was the first to surf Mavericks, a surf break off the coast of Half Moon Bay that in the dead of winter produces waves cresting up to 80 feet. Before Mavericks became a pilgrimage for big-wave fanatics the world over, before it was dubbed “the Mount Everest of surfing,” and before it killed two of the best big-wave surfers in history, Clark surfed there alone—for 15 years. His brazenness earned him such respect that when the global surf brand Quiksilver wanted to run the first competition at Mavericks in 1999, it tapped Clark to direct it. Thus was the Super Bowl of surfing born, a contest in which 24 of the best big-wave riders from around the globe would compete on some of the scariest waves ever seen, with Clark deciding when it would happen and who would get the coveted invitations.

That first contest 14 years ago was a huge success. Photographs of its amazing waves graced front pages worldwide, and Clark was described with a reverence usually reserved for saints and war heroes. But trouble arose within just a few years. Quiksilver dropped out as a sponsor after the 2000 contest, and three years later, Clark joined forces with a lawyer turned sports agent turned extreme sports marketer by the name of Keir Beadling to form Mavericks Surf Ventures (MSV). Perhaps it was a mismatch from the beginning: the aggressive businessman and the beach bum. But after years of butting heads, the former lawyer and his board of directors fired Clark from his position as contest director in 2009. It was as if National Geographic had fired Jacques Cousteau.

A lawsuit followed in which Clark won a huge chunk of money for breach of contract. But the bigger prize is that for the first time in three years, the contest (set for sometime between November 2012 and March 2013) is back in Clark’s hands. On that November day, I paddled out to Clark and, bobbing in the swells, chatted briefly with him about how the competition might shape up. Still panting from sprinting between breakers, Clark said that he had a good feeling. Forecasters were predicting a light El NiƱo year, which often means big waves. And that very morning, GoPro, a San Mateo camera company, had announced that it would be the presenting sponsor. Solidifying a big sponsor for an event that has cost about $500,000 to run, has no set date, and sometimes doesn’t even happen is extremely difficult, which may be why Clark was grinning like his wily 17-year-old self.

Mavericks fans are ecstatic about the return of their hero, but it’s not clear that all the maneuvering is over. Beadling still hasn’t paid Clark a dime from the 2011 court order, claiming that Clark hasn’t upheld his end of the deal (the terms of which, Beadling says, are confidential). Beadling also contends that nobody can hold a Mavericks contest without running afoul of his company’s legal rights. “I wouldn’t count Keir out,” says Mark Kreidler, an columnist who spent more than a year investigating the Clark-versus-Beadling imbroglio for his 2011 book, The Voodoo Wave. “It’s a misreading of who he is.”

So while surfers flock to San Francisco this winter, preparing to risk their necks for our entertainment (and relatively paltry prizes of up to around $30,000), some key questions remain. How, exactly, did the king of big-wave surfing and pioneer of the world’s most exciting surfing contest get fired from his own event? What will it mean now that he’s back, and will he be able to retain control? And, after two seasons of subpar surf conditions that didn’t allow a contest at all, will Mother Nature cooperate this year?

CLARK TALKS ABOUT HIS SEVEN-YEAR STINT as Beadling’s business partner as if it were a POW camp from which he has recently escaped. Several times during our September interview at Clark’s Half Moon Bay surf shop, he asked to change the subject. When he did talk about Beadling, he fidgeted uncomfortably and shifted in his chair. Beadling, on the other hand, didn’t respond at first to multiple interview requests. Eventually—after hearing that accusations were being made against him—he did agree to communicate via email and over the phone. But even then, he offered only limited details, citing the confidentiality terms of the settlement.

Still, after interviews with Beadling, Clark, a dozen-odd Mavericks insiders, and other journalists who cover the event, the story began to emerge. When Clark first met Beadling in 2003, the lawyer had just quit his private legal practice to pursue his true passion—outdoor adventure—and start an extreme sports agency called Evolve Sports. A hard worker with a sharp mind for sales, Beadling soon landed Dean Karnazes, the famous San Francisco ultrarunner, as a client, putting Evolve on the map. Clark, who was at least as famous as Karnazes, was another logical candidate—and the deal would be good for him, too. A renowned surfboard shaper, he still makes boards by hand, an incredibly time-consuming task. Add to that the facts that he runs a surf shop, loves to golf, and surfs or performs rescues at Mavericks up to 50 times a year, and you can imagine how little time he had to run the business side of the contest.

It wasn’t long before Beadling decided that the real money would come not from promoting Clark the athlete, but from building a Mavericks brand with Clark at the center. He convinced the surfer to start MSV with him as a partnership that they would own 50–50. Beadling would solidify sponsors for the contest, handle the business details, start a Mavericks apparel line, and manage Mavericks-related events and films, maybe even a concert tour. In short, Beadling would make Mavericks the contest a mere sideshow to Mavericks the lifestyle. For directing the contest, occasionally speaking to the media, and just being himself—shaper, charger, hyped-up rad dude—Clark would be paid an unspecified amount.

Beadling was open about the fact that he hoped to eventually sell MSV to a bigger investor or company and make some real money (though he insists that it wasn’t his main goal). Clark says that he cared most about maintaining the contest and honoring the waves he’d discovered, but getting rich in the process didn’t sound like a bad idea. Hell, everyone else was cashing in on his find. “It all looked good on paper,” Clark tells me. “But as soon as I signed on the dotted line, they just ran with it. It turned into the worst thing I’ve ever been part of.”

The first few years at MSV were lean and scrappy, and by 2006, the company still hadn’t raised any serious cash. That year, without warning or explanation, Beadling didn’t pay the Mavericks surfers the $500 they were accustomed to getting for their participation in the contest. You have to remember that while a handful of the competitors (like Kelly Slater) have lucrative sponsorship deals, the majority make very little, or nothing, from their surfing careers. They compete in Mavericks simply because they love the sport. So the lost participation fee was very dismaying.

Beadling did reinstate the $500 stipend after 2006, saying that he’d made a mistake. And you have to feel for the guy. Trying to fit in with one of the most testosterone-infused crowds in professional sports can’t be easy. Nevertheless, if Beadling hoped to use the surfers’ cool to sell his clothes and fatten his wallet, cutting the little money they did get was not the way to get love in return. “The surfers were already suspicious of Beadling’s corporate-speak,” says Grant Washburn, a San Francisco–based Mavericks competitor and filmmaker. “But to top it off, he just didn’t get what we’re about. He’d say things like ‘Hey, the TV cameras will be coming today, so don’t forget to smile and get your face on TV.’ People were just like, ‘What? Who is this guy?’”

But starting around 2007, it seemed like things were turning around. Each event drew millions of viewers online and on networks like NBC Sports, with big-name sponsors like Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Hard Rock, and Jim Beam. And Beadling was making headway with his business plan. “We raised $2 million selling into the teeth of the recession,” he says. “Beadling’s a very smart guy,” says Bruce Jenkins, a San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist (and avid surfer) who has written numerous stories on Mavericks. “It always seemed to me like he was doing a great job.”

Indeed, in October 2007, Beadling and Clark entered into a new contract that, for the first time, guaranteed Clark a regular payment: close to $10,000 a month. Still, to the surfers, it often seemed like Beadling was getting rich while they risked their lives for pennies. Washburn claims that even during this time, the invoices for his editing and filming were going unpaid. A 6-foot, 5-inch beast of a man, he decided that he had to show up at the MSV office and demand his money in person. “So I always got paid,” he says. “But not everyone else did.”

Although it didn’t become public until Clark sued MSV for fraud in 2010, Clark was among those who were shorted. By May 2009, Clark says, his monthly payments weren’t showing up. He stayed quiet about it at first, not wanting to mess with the chances of Mavericks taking place. But soon, he wasn’t the only one complaining.

FOR MORE THAN A DECADE, CHRIS BERTISH, a South African from Cape Town, longed to get the coveted invitation to compete at Mavericks. “It was really my only dream,” he told me recently over the phone from his home. Finally, after seven or eight winters of staying on friends’ couches in San Francisco and Half Moon Bay and nearly bankrupting himself while risking life and limb to impress Clark, he got the call in the fall of 2008.

As bad luck would have it, there was no contest that year. Beadling had raised enough money, but Clark wasn’t going to give it the green light until he thought that the waves were big enough. According to Kreidler, this had become a constant issue between Clark and Beadling. Clark always wanted to spring for the absolute best weather day. Beadling contends that he did, too, but that he didn’t have the luxury of moving forward before business conditions were right: sponsors solidified, apparel line ready to sell.

Long story short, Beadling and Clark started driving each other batty—Beadling constantly calling to check on wave forecasts, Clark repeatedly saying “not good enough.” In the end, Mavericks didn’t happen that year, and Beadling, apparently at the end of his rope, suddenly fired Clark. He announced Clark’s departure publicly as a resignation because, he says, he wanted to give Clark the opportunity of a graceful exit. He also claims that what triggered his decision was more than just a clash of personalities, but he offers no details other than to say that “with the information we’d gotten, we had no choice.”

According to Clark, that “information” was false. Beadling and the MSV board had accused him, he says, of trying to solidify a contract with mega–surf company Billabong behind MSV’s back. Clark would later produce a letter from the president of Billabong and the company’s attorney testifying that they had never even talked about such a deal, but by then the damage was done. Although this part of the story may never be fully understood as long as the legal settlement remains sealed, Clark did go on record, in a press release published a week after his termination, to deny that he had left voluntarily. Beadling had little choice but to grin and bear the rumblings that surfers would boycott the next contest if Clark truly had been ousted. But Clark told them not to.

Bertish had every intention of competing in the 2009–2010 contest, for which he was eligible because the previous one had been canceled. He flew to the States to wait, but had to return to Capetown when his girlfriend was diagnosed with cancer and needed surgery. Several months later, though, he got an urgent call: A northwestern tempest was forming that looked like it might create some of the biggest waves ever ridden in competition. Within 24 hours, Bertish rallied enough money from his brother and friends for a one-way red-eye from Cape Town, landing in San Francisco on the morning of the contest with just $40 dollars in his pocket. His board had been lost by the airline, and he had no idea how he would get back home. But hell, maybe he’d win. He sort of had to.

Never mind that the waves were bigger and deadlier than any that had ever been surfed in an international contest. Never mind that Bertish had barely slept. And never mind that he was riding a loaner board. Like a man surfing for his life, his dream, and his financial solvency, Bertish soared over the edge of 50-foot walls of saltwater like a South African Aquaman. At the end of the day, so beaten by the crushing surf that he could barely paddle, Bertish was declared the winner of the biggest big-wave event in history and awarded the largest prize ever: $50,000.

“It was amazing,” Bertish told me, “but I was mostly excited about finally being able to pay back my friends and family who’d been supporting me for so long.” Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Surfers are usually handed a check immediately after winning a contest, but Bertish got nothing for weeks and was essentially stranded in the States because of it. He recalls Beadling saying something about the money being caught up in taxes, but the excuses rang hollow, given that Beadling had recently told Outside magazine that he’d raised $1.4 million of private equity for Mavericks. Still, Bertish didn’t want to make a stink about it—on account of Clark. The month before, Clark had finally decided to take legal action against Beadling for a host of issues. “I knew that Jeff was in the midst of a lawsuit with him,” Bertish says, “and Jeff had been so kind to me over the years that I didn’t want to mess up his chances of getting paid, which seemed far more important than my prize money.”

Washburn contends that the only reason Bertish did eventually get paid—and even then only partially, in dribs and drabs—was that Washburn talked Bertish into threatening Beadling with taking the story to the media. Beadling denies this contention, saying that revenue that was supposed to come in for the 2010 contest hadn’t materialized, making everyone at MSV go without pay. “I was on the streets trying to scrape together money to pay Chris,” Beadling says, “and every dollar that came in went to Chris first. That’s why the money came in slowly.” He also says that “to my knowledge, Chris Bertish was paid in full.”

CLARK FILED A LAWSUIT AGAINST BEADLING in January of 2010. Neither would discuss details of the proceedings, but the outcome is a matter of public record: On July 14, 2011, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Peter J. Busch determined that Clark had presented “uncontroverted evidence” that Mavericks Surf Ventures had breached its contract with him, and he ordered Beadling and MSV to pay Clark $639,000 by the end of 2017.

Washburn insists that Clark isn’t the only one owed big-time cash. “I mean, 2010 was the best contest ever,” he tells me, “and nobody has even seen any of the footage. It’s in a box in a garage in Boulder, Colorado, because the guy who shot it only got a fraction of what he was owed.”

Beadling says that he feels terrible about coming up short on various payments, but points out that he hasn’t even compensated himself since MSV lost its sponsors in 2010. The sponsor bailout was the result of a near-disaster during the contest: MSV had located a viewing section in an area that was breached by the surf, resulting in injuries to some of the onlookers. Washburn says that he had cautioned MSV about the danger, and the fact that MSV ignored his warning was the last straw for him and the other Mavericks surfers. So, in 2011, Washburn and another senior competitor, Peter Mel, put in for—and won—the coveted contest permit issued by the San Mateo County Harbor Commission once each year. The surf media celebrated, but when Washburn realized how difficult Mavericks was to execute, he decided to drop out.

This year, fresh off his lawsuit victory, Clark stepped back into the ring and won the Harbor Commission permit. He feels vindicated, but folks who know Beadling believe that the battle isn’t over by a long shot. Beadling tells me that as CEO of MSV, he has obligations to his investors to defend MSV’s intellectual property, arguing that Clark is legally bound to license the contest through him and MSV. Clark considers this assertion a joke. “The fact that this guy is out there still claiming he has something to do with Mavericks at all is sacrilegious,” he says.

Although he won’t say it outright, Beadling seems to know that he may not have the upper hand. What he does still want is for Clark to use MSV’s apparel line, a move that he thinks would legitimize MSV again and maybe even allow the company to pay off its debts. If he can’t get at least that, he says, he’ll be forced to “protect his legal rights,” which presumably would mean going back to court.

Only time will tell who will end up owning the Mavericks surf event, but for now, Clark doesn’t seem worried. “I’m very excited about where the contest is headed,” he tells me—meaning back to the good old days when Mavericks was all about finding the best waves to show the world, unsullied by commercialism. He claims, for instance, that even though it took Beadling $500,000 to put on the contest, he can do it for half that amount by cutting out a lot of the marketing bells and whistles (the film and concert tours) that mattered so much to Beadling.

It remains to be seen whether Clark can make that happen. Last year’s contest didn’t materialize because the waves weren’t good enough, Clark says, but the buzz in the surf community is that even if they had been, Clark’s group wasn’t ready to pull it off. Some people question whether a corporate type like Beadling—despite his flaws—might actually be needed, but Clark hopes to prove those suspicions wrong.

As he paddled away from me on that balmy November day, Clark looked back and asked, “Oh, did you hear about Keir?”

“No,” I responded.

“I heard he got a contract for something related to the America’s Cup,” Clark said, shaking his head and smiling with relief that he no longer had to worry about such dealings. (Beadling would neither confirm nor deny that rumor.) Then, turning away, he caught a gorgeous six-foot wave, riding it all the way to the sand.

Originally published in the January 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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