Most days, the surf at Half Moon Bay, Calif., is just a low lump—a slowly rolling lump—in the water. But maybe a dozen days each winter, when the swells reach 10 feet and it seems that the entire mass of the Pacific is being forced over a reef there, the waves rise 10, 20, even 40 feet and break from the center out, a foamy V that peels north and south until it shatters on a pile of black rocks at Pillar Point. Surfers call the area Maverick's, and the breakers there are a magnificent sight, mesmerizing from the shore. People come from San Francisco, 22 miles to the north, and from beyond, climbing the palisades beneath the Air Force tracking station just to watch the curl and spray.
Maverick's waves, for all their obvious glory, were not even surfed until 1975. The water was too huge—four stories high at times—the rocks too near. Finally a local surfer named Jeff Clark paddled out. Clark, who still surfs Maverick's, thought he might have miscalculated the danger the first time he rode the waves there. "An ominous displacement of water," he recalls thinking. For 14 years after that, Clark had Maverick's waves virtually to himself. In 1989, though, others followed, and soon the elite big-wave surfers had made Maverick's an important stop on their small tour, along with Waimea Bay in Hawaii and Todos Santos off Ensenada, Mexico. The surf at Maverick's, which had carried nobody since the beginning of time, was obliged to shoulder tremendous lineups of surfers. And now the place is newly anointed by tragedy.
In mid-December a cold front out of Alaska began producing 30-foot waves there. How this local information gets disseminated is anybody's guess, but suddenly Pillar Point was densely populated with surfers and spectators.
On Dec. 23 it was a circus. There were three photo boats in the water. Surfer magazine hired a helicopter for a picture shoot featuring big-wave rider Brock Little. But, independent of that, all the big-wave guys had shown up. Mike Parsons was there; so was Ken Bradshaw. And, conferring Super Bowl status on Maverick's run, here came Mark Foo, gentleman surfer, who had kept a board at Half Moon Bay for years, just for the day he could surf there. He caught a red-eye from his home in Hawaii when he heard the conditions were right.
Foo, 36, who co-produced the surf show H0 for cable TV's Prime Network, was a legend. He was one of a half dozen guys you spoke of when it came to big-wave riding. They say he rode the biggest ever at Waimea.
At Maverick's, Foo took off on a number of good waves without incident. But he went down on a flawless 20-foot face and fell flat into the water. It was an unremarkable wipeout on a medium-sized wave. Foo's fall was all the more unnoticed because, on the next wave, Little and Parsons both wiped out and were swept toward the rocky outcropping. That recalled Clark's famous wipeout at Maverick's two winters ago, when he was forced to cling to a rock in the pounding surf for 45 minutes until the tide went out.
Little and Parsons survived. Mysteriously, Foo did not. About 45 minutes after he disappeared, part of his board drifted out to the lineup of waiting surfers. An hour after that, a boatload of surfers and photographers discovered another piece of board washed up near the entrance of the harbor, about three quarters of a mile away. Someone on the boat tried to pull the piece aboard. It was the tail of Foo's board. Foo, the best surfer ever to die in a wave, was still attached by his ankle strap.
He had been hit on the head, no question. But the coroner's report suggested he might have drowned first. How can you reconstruct a sequence of events in the sudden violence of Maverick's? Pointless to try. "I knew somebody would die there the first time I surfed it," says Clark.
Almost immediately after Foo's body was discovered, the waves—and the crowds—disappeared. But last Friday, Maverick's waves were breaking again, and you could hear their disturbing sound from the dirt parking lot beyond the point: the thrum of locomotives, empty train cars colliding in a frantic switching yard. People began to line the palisades. Photographers manned tripods.
By midday, at low tide, three surfers had paddled out to Maverick's, but as one glorious set after another passed beneath them, they sat resolutely on their boards. They sat there for an hour and a half, peering over the lip, gliding down each wave's backside. Finally three other surfers paddled out, and they began dropping, one at a time, down the waves' faces. Off they would go, driving straight down, 20 to 30 feet, turning and turning to get beyond the crushing weight of what must have seemed like the entire ocean.
Foo's death still hung in the air. A tribute was planned for that afternoon. So what could you think, standing on the palisade, watching these boys escape that black menace, a killer wave, tracing white lines of self-preservation with their little yellow boards? Ride of their lives, you guessed.