In all my surfing life, I have been treated to many experiences that have collectively created a sense of enlightenment and insight. Travelling the world to surf in exotic locations and experience diverse cultures has given me a great deal of respect for nature and its humble beauty. My respect for mother ocean was elevated exponentially last Wednesday when I had a rare opportunity to join a group of my close friends from Half Moon Bay on a boat trip out to view the infamous Mavericks lineup on an even Bigger Wednesday (Nov. 21). I grew up on the beach and have surfed for all of my life and still it is difficult for me to recount events from a surfer's perspective. Such was the intensity of the whole experience that I was left feeling like I had witnessed a truly rare phenomenon by the time we made it home.....Maybe I did.
We left the dock at around 7 a.m. with a blanket of fog still enveloping the coastline. It was a slow, cautious approach to the reef as the persistent fog hindered our ability to navigate through the channel. We eventually noted the rising peaks through the now diminishing haze. At first sight it was, to some extent, an anticlimax as the waves were nowhere close to the size we all expected from reports of the previous day. This initial feeling of disappointment, though, didn't last much longer.
With a combination of a changing tide and steadily rising swell, I watched in sometimes silent, and other times more vocal appreciation of the show being put on by mother nature. I witnessed hair-raising airdrops, not all of them successful, and several ballsy fades into one heaving barrel after another. At times I sat back with the contemplation of how my abilities would fare against this behemoth wave. Watching seasoned veterans like Flea Virostko, Matt Ambrose, Ken Collins and Shawn "Barney" Barron (to name but a few) paddle downhill into each peak to turn and stand, nonchalantly, in the jaws of the beast made it all seem achievable to me, albeit with the need for a little extra motivation. And I stayed with that thought for some time, silently content with my new found enigmatic confidence.
Suddenly I found my daydream shattered and replaced by the reality of where I was. It was the sight of an anonymous surfer struggling to make his way back to the lineup, faced with a monstrous set impatiently marching in from the horizon. He seemed to have gotten way out of position and closer to the north side of the peak. His frantic paddling was not enough and he was dragged over with the immense lip and thrust into the boiling cauldron of foam below. Needless to say, there were no envious faces in the crowd, but plenty of concern as the next bigger set doubled up and dumped a hefty load of the Pacific Ocean onto the poor soul's head. Two more waves crashed through the impact zone before anyone sighted him on the surface, all the while the tombstoning board suggesting a likely metaphor for his fate. The sets were consistent and making it difficult for the rescue skis to find an opportunity to power into the pit to drag him out. Eventually he was swept into and onto the rocks inside, boardless and no doubt with a newfound lust for life. I was forced to reassess my earlier ideas about my abilities. Sure, there are plenty of surfers out there who could easily make the drop with one fin and half a rail guiding them down a near vertical face to the bottom of the wave and to the safety of the shoulder, but could they survive the alternative to not making that drop? Not me.
With my ego now firmly under control and forming an ever-present lump in my throat, I continued to be awe-inspired by the waves now too big to paddle into. As the swell peaked with buoy reports of 30 feet at 20 seconds, it was becoming quite evident that it was not going to be just another day at Mavericks. There was a common feeling in the air that suggested that we were all in for a show today, and nobody was disappointed. Claims were ranging from 60 to 80 foot faces, and I don't think those claims were too far from the truth at all. Mavericks, it seems, was waking up a little angry this morning, and it seemed out to prove a point.
It was a while before anyone made the decision to change tactics and start the real show of the day. Flea and Barney were the first to don the footstraps and tow out to the outside peak to wait for the next set. They did not wait long. As the next mountain of water reared up on the horizon and feathered against the strengthening southerly wind, Barney let go of the rope and made his way down a conservative 60 foot face which gradually became vertical and beyond as it ledged on the shelf where, not long ago, the wave was just starting to peak. A casual fade back into the bowl put him into a cavern as big as a house; it drew hoots and screams from the gallery of onlookers on boards, skis and boats located on the shoulder. This was followed by a succession of tow-ins onto more unbelievably huge waves, and the show went on and on.
Many times the waves did not peak, but stayed full until they hit the inside ledge where it would double up unridden and unload with a deafening roar. As the barreling lip engulfed the foam ball, an explosion of spray exited the hole like a cannon shot, often with enough momentum to send a shower of water vapor over the boat. I think I can confidently say that it is the only way I would be getting wet at Mavericks.
Even after six hours of bobbing around dodging the wide sets on the edge of the channel, never did I feel like I took the view for granted. Each wave held its own attraction, displayed its own fury, and made its own rules. Every wave, without exception, demanded an equal quantity of respect. The minute you become complacent in nature's playground, the moment mother nature will slap you down. Mavericks, it seems, is no place for complacency. It is a rare and humbling sight to see a display of nature's powerful beauty and unbridled fury in the same frame. I sat exhausted in the boat as we motored away from the break on our return. The adrenaline from just witnessing the power from a safe distance was enough to drain me, and I cannot even begin to contemplate the euphoria of participating first-hand and looking the beast in the eyes. It was an experience beyond my imagination, and yet another insight into the untethered forces of our planet, which we insist on claiming to control. How wrong we are.
As I sat on the boat motoring away watching the barrels get smaller in the distance, we were confronted with a sight none of us were quite prepared for. Our stoke turned into anxiety as we searched for the green buoy marking the entrance to the channel. As we scanned toward the shore all that we could see was whitewater. Suddenly, the buoy appeared from under the water amid a washing machine of froth as a wave passed over it. The entrance channel to the harbor was consistently being shut down by 30-foot closeouts and we were on the wrong side. I was reminded of a story I read in a past issue of Surfers' Journal about a fleet of fishing boats that were once stranded outside the harbor by this exact scenario. I always wondered how they must have felt, and now I know. We edged our way closer to the buoy, eyes on the horizon behind us in search of approaching sets. Several times we started our run for the safety of the inside channel only to be turned around by the approach of yet another massive set. The lulls were so short it was ridiculous, and our confidence was teetering as we considered the equation. We had about half a mile of distance to cover in a boat carrying six passengers with a 40 horsepower engine. There was no chance in hell we would outrun a wave if we miss-timed our dash. So we waited for what seemed like an eternity for a clean shot. When we saw a clear horizon, we made a run for the shore. The nose of the boat grabbed and rebounded off every bit of chop, threatening to pearl and pitch us all into the soup. As we neared our goal, I turned to the north to see Blackhand Reef on the inside section of Mavericks throwing out like Kirra on steroids. It was a solid 20-foot barrel as round as you could ever wish for, churning along the reef like a freight train. For a second I forgot about our predicament until the engine started to labor under the weight of a bed of kelp freshly dislodged from the reef by the swell. It must have been only seconds, but the weed came free from the prop in enough time for us to power away from the wave that was approaching behind us, which, only moments earlier, we had seen funneling along Blackhand. We arrived back at the harbor to safety soon after, all feeling a little humble, although stoked on the day. We saw arguably one of the biggest Mavericks days of all time and almost paid the ultimate price. Many rated the day as the biggest to date and I could not argue by any means. I saw bigger and deeper barrels that day than I think I ever will in my existence, but to imagine how it looks from the inside...