A 24-year-old California surfer was awarded first place in the world's most perilous big wave riding contest Saturday that had competitors dropping into waves more than four stories tall.

Greg Long of San Clemente was among two dozen elite surfers who took part in this year's Mavericks Surf Contest — considered the Super Bowl of big-wave competitions — in Half Moon Bay, about 20 miles south of San Francisco.

After the contest was whittled down to six finalists, Long was crowned the winner, with Grant "Twiggy" Baker of South Africa coming in second and Jamie Sterling of Hawaii landing third. Baker won the event in 2006, the last time it was held.

Long and other surfers said wave faces on some of the bigger sets Saturday reached 40 to 50 feet.

On his first wave in the final heat of the competition, Long barely held his balance as he freefell down a towering wave. Long maintained his balance by using his "tippy toes" to keep contact with his 9-foot, 6-inch big wave "gun" surfboard and was able to land on the wave's bottom, carve a fast turn and dodge the massive wall of whitewater crashing behind him.

He said he felt nearly weightless as he fell down the face of the wave and thought, "I'm either going down hard or going to get a good one. Luckily it was the latter of the two."

Before the last wave, Long and his five fellow finalists agreed to split the $75,000 purse, which would've been divvied up with the winner taking home $30,000 and the other finalists sharing the rest.

The original 24 entrants were broken into four groups of six surfers who competed in 45-minute heats during which each rider caught up to 10 waves. The surfers were whisked out on jet skis to conquer the giant swells about a half-mile offshore.

Surfers were judged on their best two waves, and the top three scorers in each heat advanced to the semifinals.

Contest organizer Jeff Clark, who is credited with "discovering" Mavericks in 1975 and being the only person to surf there for the next 15 years, buzzed around near the competitors on a jet ski.

"The waves are good. The surfers are happy," Clark said from his jet ski. "That's the best part, the surfers are happy,"

Half Moon Bay surfer Ion Banner, 38, walked in from the first heat with a big smile across his face. He had air-dropped down a couple of waves during his heat — meaning the wave was so steep he and his board lost contact with the water.

"I somersaulted down a couple of them," Banner said before learning he just missed the cut for the semifinals.

Worried about traffic in the small coastal town, organizers and local officials asked fans to watch the contest on the Web or a live broadcast at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

About 800 people were at the ballpark watching the big wave surfers, oohing and awing as they flew down the waves.

Jacob Towery, 28, of Palo Alto, started surfing a couple of years ago and figured he could learn something from the big-wave riders, while avoiding large crowds at the beach.

"I think it's awesome," he said. "It's amazing. Huge waves, their cool moves and how they charge the waves."

Closer to the action in Half Moon Bay, thousands of spectators came out to bask in the sun and catch a glimpse of the waves. Some perched on cliffs to watch the surfers through binoculars, while others gathered in front of a big screen on the beach.

The crowd groaned when Southern California surfer Evan Slater, known for his spectacular wipeouts at Mavericks, took off late on a massive swell and fell through the air to the bottom of the wave. He was sucked back up into the churning mass of whitewater and tossed around. He surfaced quickly and was back in the lineup in seconds.

At least 30,000 people had logged onto the event's webcast, and during the second heat 1,000 new users per minute were logging on, contest organizers said.

Each winter, when huge, storm-generated swells batter the Northern California coast, the world's top big-wave riders are put on notice for Mavericks, which was first held in 1999. Organizers wait for ideal conditions before giving invitees little more than 24 hours to travel from wherever they are in the world to Half Moon Bay.