By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - An international big wave surf competition in northern California kicked off with 50-foot waves on Friday after concerns winds would force the cancellation of the event which draws tens of thousands of fans.
Competitors in the Mavericks International surf contest carved into waves between 40 and 50 feet tall, breaking a half-mile off Pillar Point Harbor in the sleepy coastal city of Half Moon Bay, 30 miles south of San Francisco, a contest spokesman said.
Skies were slightly overcast and winds were ideally low, despite weather predictions earlier in the week that prompted organizer Jeff Clark to consider postponing the event, said spokesman Gary Bayless.
"It's just a perfect day for these waves," Bayless said from Mavericks Surf Shop, the competition headquarters.
Stormy weather has led to monster waves in California and Hawaii and caused treacherous conditions that forced the cancellation of a surf competition in the Aloha State.
Two-dozen professional surfers hand-picked by Clark compete in the California event, which launched in 1999. Surfing started at 8 a.m. local time this year and finals were set to begin at about 1:30 p.m., according to the Mavericks website. The competition wraps up at about sunset.
Spectators of the monster swell have been barred from the beach and surrounding towering cliffs since the 2010 contest, when the roaring waves injured multiple onlookers.
"The giant waves of Maverick's generate surges that leave the small beach at Maverick's underwater, with no beach to stand on," the website says.
Event goers now gather outside on the grounds of the Oceano Hotel and Spa in nearby Princeton Harbor, where the competition is streamed live on giant screens. Last year, some 30,000 people watched from the hotel parking lot, Bayless said.
A surf event in Hawaii set for Wednesday was canceled when organizers deemed conditions too stormy to produce the quality of waves needed, despite Oahu seeing its largest surf swell in a decade.
"We got waves of 50 to 60 feet on Wednesday, but it was very stormy and adverse conditions," said Jodi Wilmott, organizer of the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau big wave invitational. "There were high wind warnings. Coming onshore (the wind) absolutely shreds and destroys the waves. It's not the clean and organized swells you can ride.
The event is on standby as organizers monitor upcoming swells to the islands through the end of February, which is the deadline for the event.
"It's been a very active winter sweep season so we are optimistic that other opportunities will arise by then," Wilmott said.
(Additional reporting by Malia Mattoch in Honolulu; editing by Dan Whitcomb and Andrew Hay)