When surfer Jeff Clark was a teenager in the mid-1970s, he was told there were no really big waves on the North American coast.

Clark knew otherwise. As a high school student, he had begun to surf a Pacific Ocean break dubbed “Mavericks” just south of San Francisco. His friends were intimidated, but not Clark. For 15 years, he surfed alone at Mavericks, so named for another surfer’s pet German Shepherd. By 1990, he had made his mark as a big-wave surfer, just as longtime Bend resident Gerry Lopez became identified with Hawaii’s Banzai Pipeline in the early ’70s.

Today, Mavericks is known to surfers around the world. It’s quiet in summer, but in winter, the surf routinely breaks at 20 to 25 feet, a half-mile offshore from Pillar Point. After a North Pacific storm, it has been known to crest at more than 50 feet.

Photos in surfing magazines and video footage in surfing documentaries began to draw attention to Mavericks in the early 1990s. Big-wave Hawaiian surfers finally visited in 1994. One of them, Mark Foo, died in the waves, adding to the Mavericks legend. When actor Gerard Butler nearly lost his life during the filming of the 2012 movie “Chasing Mavericks,” the break earned additional fame.

But still the big-wave surfers come. Since 1999, an invitation-only big-wave competition has been held here. It was started by Clark, who at 57 still regularly surfs Mavericks.

His eponymously named surf shop, Jeff Clark Mavericks, is an institution in the adjacent harbor hamlet of Princeton-by-the-Sea. Here, he sells the surfboards that he has for decades been shaping specifically for the Mavericks break. On his website, www.jeffclarkmavericks.com, he relates the story of the early years of the surfing spot.

What makes Mavericks special? In late summer, from the top of Pillar Point Bluff, a section of the James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve a few miles north of the town of Half Moon Bay, there wasn’t much in my view to distinguish the waves.

Winter, however, is different. An unusual underwater rock formation, as depicted in sea-floor maps published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, directs a U-shaped wave over a ramp that rises from deep to shallow water.

In a story published in New Scientist magazine in 2007, Rikk Kvitek, director of the Seafloor Mapping Lab at California State University, Monterey Bay, described the phenomenon as “a combination of a gradual and steady decrease in depth combined with a wave convergence due to the deep troughs on either side of the ramp.”

Rum runners

You don’t have to be a surfer to enjoy Half Moon Bay, so named for the crescent-shaped harbor framed by Pillar Point, a few miles north of downtown. Located less than 20 miles south of the San Francisco city limits on the San Mateo County coast, the town of 12,500 dates its modern history to 1769, when Spanish explorers and missionaries first traveled through the region then inhabited by Coastanoan Natives.

Subsequent Hispanic settlement was built around five Mexican land grants, so that when the first visitors and settlers of northern European ancestry arrived at Half Moon Bay, they called it Spanishtown. Ships from San Francisco served the area, traveling around the rugged headlands that initially stymied land travel; by the late 1800s, stagecoaches ran across the Santa Cruz Mountains, which separate San Mateo and Redwood City from this coastal community.

During the Prohibition era, San Mateo Coastside, as this region calls itself, became infamous. Rum runners from Canada found clandestine harbors in its secluded coves, especially under the cover of thick fog, while local moonshiners worked undisturbed in isolated mountain canyons. Speakeasies thrived.

A classic, surviving example is the Moss Beach Distillery, seven miles up the coast from Half Moon Bay. Established atop a seaside bluff in 1927, it used its location to buy copious spirits from bootleggers, dragging spirits uphill in the dark to be sold in San Francisco. The speakeasy kept a certain amount for itself, as it was a discreet and popular hideaway for movie stars, politicians and writers such as novelist Dashiell Hammett, who set one of his mysteries here.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, “Frank’s Place” continued as a restaurant, later adding the distillery and changing its name.

Downtown Half Moon Bay features more of the charm of that era. Several blocks of Main Street are lined with late-19th and early-20th-century buildings, including the Estanislao Zaballa House, built in 1855 and now a bed-and-breakfast inn at 324 Main St.; Giuseppi Boitano’s General Merchandise Store and Saloon at 527 Main St., which has been doing business since 1873; and the 1911 Half Moon Bay Jail at 505 Johnston St., now housing the Spanishtown Historical Society Museum.

Our most interesting stop in the downtown area was at a shop called Oddyssea. Outside of their retail store, which focuses on science and art, owners Mike and Ellen Harding have reclaimed an abandoned lot as a garden, planted it with native (and often edible) flora, furnished it with salvaged and repurposed materials and turned it into a place with interactive activities for the whole family.

At the heart of the garden are the remains of an 1853 shipwreck, the Oceane; its 36-foot mast supports a camera through which visitors can view the horizon by turning the ship’s wheel. The wreck’s lumber and cannonballs went into construction of a 20-foot tall “marble” run, with 14 ramps and two lift towers requiring competitors to pedal bicycles to raise their bowling ball-sized “marbles.” There’s also a mining flume, a vertical garden with a solar-powered pump and a schedule of ongoing “maker” activities that range from making a kite to building a terrarium.

Great pumpkins

Autumn visitors may know Half Moon Bay best for its annual pumpkin festival, held last week (Oct. 10-12). The highlight came when a colossal white pumpkin tipped the scales (and some scales they must be!) with a North American weight record: 2,058 pounds — more than a ton. That’s a lot of pumpkin pie.

From summer into fall, the fields surrounding Half Moon Bay — which got its start as an agricultural enclave, and which continues to support a prolific number of farms — are filled with rapidly growing pumpkins and other squash. (Artichokes, Brussels sprouts and commercial flowers are other leading crops.)

At Farmer John’s Pumpkin Farm, owners John and Eda Muller nurture about 20 varieties of pumpkins of many sizes, colors and shapes, from miniature gourds to 500-pound Atlantic giants. The Arata Pumpkin Farm offers additional attractions, including a labyrinthine, 2-acre hay maze; a petting zoo and children’s train ride; a “haunted” barn; and a 6-acre corn field.

Farther into the hills east of Half Moon Bay, old Spanish Town has been reborn as an art community, where an eclectic variety of artists, photographers, designers and importers have studios and retail shops. Its curious landmarks — hard to miss for travelers on state Highway 92 — are the giant, rusted, sheet-metal dinosaurs displayed by a home-and-garden store and marketed as lawn ornaments.

On the south side of Half Moon Bay, the James Johnston House is a hillside landmark near the Purisima Creek redwood grove. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the “White House,” as locals know it, was constructed in 1855 in the saltbox style, a popular Colonial design with a long pitched roof on one side. It’s open for tours on the third Saturday of each month, January through September.

Several tiny farming villages, including San Gregorio and La Honda, are scattered through the hill country south of Half Moon Bay. Most intriguing is Pescadero, whose steeple churches and frame houses are little changed from the mid-19th-century days when the settlement grew from an adobe rancho on a Mexican land grant. Later a country getaway for San Franciscans, who patronized two resort hotels here in the 1920s, Pescadero has become a popular home for craftspeople, antique dealers and an award-winning goat-cheese dairy. It has several small restaurants and bed-and-breakfast inns.

But “Coastside” is best known not for its towns and buildings, but for its seaside. Between Año Nuevo State Reserve, 27 miles south of Half Moon Bay, and Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, a half-dozen miles north, the state beaches at Bean Hollow, Pescadero, San Gregorio and Cowell all embrace pockets of sand amid headlands and bird-friendly marshes.

Año Nuevo is of special note for its breeding colonies of elephant seals and Steller (northern) sea lions. Weighing up to 5,000 pounds, the elephant seals breed and raise their young here between December and March, when guided tours are offered only by reservation. Tours are self-guided the rest of the year, but in late spring and early summer visitors are advised to give plenty of room to Stellers: This is the southernmost colony of the 2,500-pound marine mammals.

The Fitzgerald Reserve, a parcel of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, is an outstanding area for tidepooling near Moss Beach. Park rangers are normally present to describe the invertebrate life in the reef areas and to assure that no illegal collecting takes place. Sea stars, anemones, urchins, nudibranchs and other intertidal denizens are highly sensitive to hands-on intrusions by overly curious nature lovers.

Stay and dine

Lodging is plentiful in the Half Moon Bay area and ranges from youth hostels in lighthouses (at Montara and Pigeon Point) to luxury resorts with international cachet.

In the latter category is The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, which lays claim to being the only oceanfront resort in the San Francisco Bay Area. Perched on a bluff surrounded by 36 holes of golf, this elite property has 261 guest rooms, whose occupants may enjoy an extravagant spa, two upscale restaurants, a wine bar and terrace dining area, swimming and tennis.

At half the cost, we were suitably impressed by the neat, clean Beach House Hotel, on state Highway 1 north of town.

And in the heart of downtown, we found the Half Moon Bay Inn, with 15 very moderately priced rooms in a restored historic property that carried the mood of Spanish California into the frescoes on its interior walls.

At mealtimes, we were naturally drawn to the bounty of the sea. At Sam’s Chowder House, a longtime local institution, we had local petrale sole and grilled swordfish, preceded, of course, by cups of clam chowder. We stuck with seafood at the excellent new Via Uno Cucina Italiana, opting for marinated octopus and house-made spaghetti with local artichokes and rock shrimp.

At the Half Moon Bay Brewing Co., we were delighted with beer-steamed prawns and Baja fish tacos, washed down with schooners of the brewpub’s Mavericks Big Break Ale.

Indeed, the brewers’ logo features the giant curl at nearby Mavericks, visible across Pillar Point Harbor from its outdoor patio with a good pair of binoculars. On the interior walls are photographs and artists’ depictions of local surfing pioneers.

And yes, they are really big waves.

— Reporter: janderson@bendbulletin.com