Walls of water overwhelm US surfing contest

Despite big wave warnings, two walls of water caught dozens of spectators off-guard and knocked them to a rocky beach as they watched a Northern California surfing contest Saturday, leaving some with broken bones but sparing them from being pulled into the ocean.

Thirteen people swept from a seawall had significant injuries, including broken legs and hands, said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Battalion Chief Scott Jalbert.

He reduced the official count from the 15 reported earlier in the day but said others treated at the beach for injuries such as scrapes and bruises were not included in the total. At least three of the injured were taken to hospitals.

Jalbert estimated "a couple hundred" people were on the seawall at the southern tip of Mavericks Beach when the waves struck, upstaging the surfing competition that draws some of the world's top surfers.

The waves were 5 feet (1.5 meters) to 6 feet (1.8 meters) high by the time they hit - "small but strong," he said. But no one was actually swept away into the ocean, he said.

"It's hard to explain how much water was moving around out there," said the champion Chris Bertish, who spent 36 hours traveling from South Africa to Half Moon Bay for the contest. "I took the worse beating of my life out there."

The Mavericks Surf Contest offers a $150,000 purse, making it the most lucrative big-wave contest in the world, even though it is held only when conditions are prime.

Bertish bested 23 other elite surfers and said he'll spend part of his $50,000 in prize money paying back his brother and two friends who loaned him money to buy his airplane ticket.

Competitors voted to schedule the contest because forecasts called for record-breaking tall waves off the beach about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of San Francisco, despite warnings that strong winds could make those breakers dangerously unpredictable.

Additional firefighters ha been on the way Saturday to clear the beach because of dangerous conditions but arrived too late, Jalbert said.

But only after the unexpected large waves hit during high tide did the National Weather Service post a high surf warning until Saturday night. The agency previously posted a less severe high sur advisory.

"It's a force of nature that can't be predicted," Jalbert said. "We were very lucky that nobody was swept out to sea."

Second place in the contest went to Shane Desmond of Santa Cruz. The other winners were: Anthony Tashnick, Santa Cruz, third place; Dave Wessel, Kailua, Hawaii, fourth;Carlos Burke, Burle, Brazil, fifth; and Kenny Collins, Santa Cruz, sixth.

The two surprise waves knocked out barricades, a spectator platform and a large scaffold holding speakers broadcasting the contest, held in this tiny harbor town along Highway 1.

Marsha Poulin, of nearby El Granada, was at the waer's edge minutes before the first rogue wave struck. She said she was concerned that organizers were letting spectators get so close to the ocean, given the conditions.

"Just because they were letting us be here doesn't mean it was safe," said Poulin, who left for higher ground just in time.

Brando Snider, who got his injured knee taped up by a contest volunteer, said everyone was concentrating on the contest.

"It just came out of nowhere and wiped us all out," said Pamela Massette of Corte Madera. Her left hand and left knee were scraped and bleeding and she was wet from head to toe.

At least two more rogue waves came through the same area during the high tide, reaching the seawall, knocking down more spectators and sending others fleeing in panic. The subsequent waves were not as large or strong as the first two and did not cause any apparent additional injuries.

Spectators lost cameras, cell phones and backpacks as the waves swept the seawall.

Authorities yelled for people to get back from the shore after the waves struck but could not use the public address system because it had been swept away.

Officials were not allowing any new spectators to reach the beach, though they were allowing those already there to stay.

Bystanders from the seawall were moved about 100 yards (meters) back from the water after the chaos.

Two volunteers posted a makeshift leader board.