Big waves, big risk
and big business

K2 Inc. enters the surfing market
with a splash, offering $50,000 for the
biggest wave ridden, and sparking concern

By Greg Ambrose

K2 Inc., which makes skis, snowboards, in-line skates and mountain bikes, is entering the lucrative surfing market.

But K2 isn't easing into the surf scene -- it's jumping off a six-story building without a bungee cord or parachute. Or at least its equivalent.

K2 has issued the Big Wave Challenge, which will hand $50,000 to the surfer who rides the biggest wave this winter and $5,000 to the photographer who immortalizes the conquest.

The objective is to honor the big-wave warriors who thrive in surf conditions that leave most mortals weak with fear, said Bill Sharp, contest director.

But while surfers may already be looking for that big wave, others fear that the contest may tempt unqualified surfers to take the plunge, and Hawaii's lifeguards are bracing for a busy winter.

Surfers have until March 15 to search the North Pacific Ocean, catch a wave with no motorized assistance and ride what a panel of surf magazine editors, photographers and big-wave riders will determine is the largest wave of the winter.

North Shore surfer Brock Little roams the planet to ride big waves.

"I'm not going to go out of my way to win it," Little said of the K2 Challenge. "I'm just going to live my life the way I live it, and if I win, I win. I wish they had it for the last decade, I might have won it a couple of times."

"I think that it's not going to change anything that I already do," said Jeff Clark, who for long, lonely years has surfed Mavericks, Northern California's big-wave spot that exploded into international prominence when Hawaii big-wave seeker Mark Foo died while surfing there on Dec. 23, 1994.

"I ride big waves, and if I happen to catch the biggest one and get paid 50 grand, cool," Clark said.

Meanwhile, Hawaii's lifeguards will be on alert.

Makaha's Brian Keaulana has a unique perspective as a water safety officer and a charter member of the elite big-wave group called Makaha Point Screamers.

"It's a water safety person's worst nightmare," he said. "It puts the guys with the big ego who are not really prepared out there.

"As a surfer, I think it's great for guys like me and Darrick Doerner and Brock Little who have the experience and equipment to pull it off."

Keaulana's biggest quarrel is with the random nature of the event, which has no set arena or participant list. "If they had sent out invitations to certain qualified individuals, that would have been better," he said.

"What are the safety features in place?

"If they get in trouble, who is going to rescue them? Where is the nearest hospital where they can be treated for near-drowning? The only people you are going to be dealing with are the super smart guys or the super stupid guys."

Jim Howe, chief of lifeguard operations for the city Ocean Safety Division, sighs at the thought of the K2 Challenge.

"We have just crossed a major threshold in the world of surfing, and there is nothing we can do about it. The scary part is I could lose one of my guys," he said.

"My lifeguards are tremendously skilled and committed, but in that big-wave arena, anything could go wrong at any time. Mother nature can reach out and grab you any time she wants."

Sharp, the contest director, is convinced that Washington-based K2 is putting no one at risk with the challenge.

"Nobody who is unprepared for the task at hand is going to ride the biggest wave of winter."

"People have been riding the biggest wave of the year for decades because they love it," Sharp said. "All we're doing is giving them a pat on the back for achieving that."

The K2 Challenge package of rules has four pages of fine print, including liability waivers in case of injury or death, an entry profile that establishes the surfer's qualifications to ride big waves, and suggestions to help ensure safe attempts, such as the use of rescue vehicles.

North Shore big-wave hunter Ken Bradshaw is outraged by the challenge. "They are setting themselves up for a nightmare," he said.

Bradshaw was so upset that he called K2 spokeswoman Bonnie Crail and told her, "You don't know what $50,000 is to surfers. You don't know what kinds of people you're going to lure out there.

"In her defense, she appreciated my input and asked me for suggestions," he said. So Bradshaw told Crail that K2 should make it like a contest and select the top 50 surfers who are qualified.

Further, they should spread out the prize money to 10 different categories, such as biggest tube, biggest off-the-lip, biggest wave ridden by a woman, so that everybody who rides big waves can be appreciated.

Maui surfer Buzzy Kerbox has been paid to wipe out in big waves for the movies, and he doesn't recommend it.

"I hope this challenge doesn't cause somebody to try to make some money and make a name for themselves, and lose their life in the attempt," he said.

"Fifty grand is a huge chunk of cash, and it could make people do some crazy stuff."

Keaulana has some hard-earned advice for anyone thinking of answering K2's challenge: "You better have the right technology. You better be in great shape. And you have to have a lot of luck."

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