Words by Bruce Jenkins

Shoreline visitors shared their usual Maverick's lament on Saturday, unable to see much of the big-wave contest taking place so far out to sea. If they lingered awhile, though, they witnessed what separates surfing from so many other sports.

I can relate from experience that post-event interviews in professional baseball, football and basketball are intensely boring, too often characterized by wealthy, self-obsessed athletes who would rather avoid the media altogether.

But the Maverick's contest ceremony, honoring 24-year-old champion Greg Long, was a testament to the brotherhood and camaraderie so prevalent among big-wave riders. After a while, as a few hundred spectators gathered for the awards ceremony, it was difficult to tell who had actually won.

It had been a day of glorious, relentless sunshine, placing everyone in a forgiving mood. That was fortunate, because this wasn't Maverick's at its best. The weather was sublime, but the waves were inconsistent, somewhat medium-size for Maverick's (generally around 20 to 25 feet on the face) and disturbingly absent during the pair of semifinals.

About 10 minutes into the one-hour final, Long and his fellow competitors felt as if they were sitting on a lake. They started up a conversation. Before long, they were gathered in a circle, Long joining hands with Grant Washburn, Evan Slater, Tyler Smith, Grant "Twiggy" Baker and Jamie Sterling. Remarkably, they had agreed that no matter who came out on top, they would equally split the $57,000 prize money at their disposal. The gesture seemed to work, for a massive, seven-wave set arrived soon afterward, turning a relatively ordinary contest into something memorable.

Three waves in particular stood out. They came in rapid succession, each pushing 40 feet, heaving and detonating as only Maverick's can. First there was Long, scoring a perfect 10 on a dazzling ride. The next wave found Slater, with perhaps the deepest and most challenging takeoff of the day, somehow making it through. And then Baker, the South African who won the 2006 Maverick's event, took the titanic drop in triumph.

"Those three waves made the contest," said one of the judges, Steve Dwyer, for years one of the Bay Area's top big-wave riders. "It had been fairly pedestrian to that point. That set just lit up the day, totally legitimized the event. I'll remember that as the most fun heat I've ever judged."

Because spectator viewing is so limited, nobody on the beach had a clue about the surfers' financial arrangement. It only came to light during the ceremony, and Long found himself in exceptional company.

Baker, who finished second, is one of Long's best friends. Just last week, they embarked on a harrowing mission to Cortes Bank, an underwater shoal some 100 miles off the coast of San Diego. In that stark and remote setting, with no landmarks to guide them, Baker and Long (along with Mike Parsons and Brad Gerlach) rode waves surpassing 80 feet, a session believed to have produced the largest waves ever ridden. As they returned to civilization, all of them felt lucky to be alive.

Slater, while a fearless charger in the water, is also the mild-mannered editor of Surfing Magazine and a keen observer of the scene.

"I was just grateful to be out there with those guys," said Slater, who had been shelved for a month with back problems. "I think it was Twiggy who brought it up, to split the money. We were all for it."

So there was Long, holding up an oversize check signifying the winner, but feeling it belonged to everyone.

"That's one of the greatest things I've ever seen in surfing," said 45-year-old Dave Alexander, a longtime Half Moon Bay standout who teaches kids how to surf in summertime camps. "It's amazing to me that a 24-year-old guy would think that way - and when you look at him, he could pass for 18. He's so far from that 'me all the way' attitude you see in so many young surfers."

Long, who grew up surfing the Southern California breaks near his home in San Clemente (Orange County), said he'd been studying and reading about Maverick's - the wave, the geography, the personalities in the water - since he was 14. More than a few surfers have compared him to Jay Moriarity, the Santa Cruz surfer who died during a free-diving expedition off the coast of India in June 2001. Moriarity's kindness and generosity were so evident, to everyone he ever met, that contest director Jeff Clark established the Jay Moriarity Award for the Maverick's contest surfer who best exemplifies that spirit.

As he handed the 2008 Moriarity award to Sterling on the podium Saturday, Clark began speaking of Moriarity, his cherished friend and tow-in partner on countless days at maximum-size Maverick's. He managed a few words, but he felt a lump in his throat. With tears welling up, Clark merely stepped aside. It was that kind of day at Maverick's. In this little corner of the sporting world, ego is no match for humility.

More articles by Bruce Jenkins can be found on the San Francisco Chronicle website.