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On Board

The Mavericks Surf Contest isn’t on any calendar. That’s because the contest occurs only when the somewhat-unpredictable waves at Half Moon Bay rise above 20 feet.

As a result, SnL Communications Inc., a Los Angeles-based public relations agency, faces some monster challenges. It only has about 24 hours to organize media coverage for the monster-wave event. Of course, that’s quite different from other sporting competitions, which occur at a defined time that usually are known months or even years in advance.

“In my mind, the best analogy is going into labor,” said Staci Levine, a partner at SnL. “You pack your bag and you know it’s going to happen you just don’t know exactly when.”

The giant waves of Mavericks, a wave break located in the bay, were known only to a small group of big-wave surfers for years. The secret got out when one of them, Mark Foo, was killed by a wave there in 1994. The competitions began five years later.

Levine, who launched her now-13-person company 20 years ago with Karen Schneider, starts planning months ahead of time. Jeff Clark, the event’s director, gives the team a window this year it was Dec. 7 to March 31. As the 2007-2008 season approached, SnL wrote templates for press releases and compiled lists of media contacts throughout the surf industry and for journalists in the local area, which is south of San Francisco. The announcements also get sent to the home-town papers of the 24 elite surfers in the invitational competition.

Handling the event can be especially frantic, because, as Levine put it: “Mavericks is the Mount Everest of surf.”

This year, it was Friday, Jan. 11, when Clark gave the go-ahead for the event. Surfers were notified. Levine and her team immediately caught a flight to San Francisco and booked hotel rooms near Half Moon Bay. At the same time, they contacted media, starting with broadcasters who could get news out more quickly than print media.

The next morning, 10,000 spectators gathered on the cliffs of Half Moon Bay. An additional 30,000 watched Webcam coverage on the Internet.

Levine found herself awash in urgent requests from media outlets for video clips, still images, interviews with surfers and updates on the scoring.

“We were servicing the media minute-by-minute during the event,” she recalled.

By sunset, the winners were announced and the SnL team sent out its final press release. The five finalists decided to split the prize money evenly, as other participants have done in other competitions, as a gesture of camaraderie.

During the previous winter, the event wasn’t produced at all due to poor waves. The agency still received payment. It balances out because of the resources SnL puts into the project on busy years.

“It’s not our most lucrative project by any means,” Levine conceded. “Some years you don’t earn as much as the hours would indicate, but we work for the same reason the athletes surf we love it.”

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