Rolling Thunder When 20 top surfers met in Northern California last week to take on the world's most harrowing waves, they looked death in the face--in the water and out

March 01, 1999

On Feb. 17, in the spooky predawn darkness, Darryl (Flea)
Virostko, a professional surfer, rose from his bed to begin a
day he had been anticipating for months. Virostko lives, amid
beer bottles and surf paraphernalia and scattered clothing, in a
little apartment behind his parents' house on a middle-class
street in Santa Cruz, Calif. In the bathroom mirror he saw his
elfin self. He has wide, strong, tanned feet; a 5'9" body
seemingly without mass; curling lips parched by the sun; and
bleached hair, to which he recently added dozens of black dots.
The dots were an offbeat tribute to a friend and fellow surfer,
Skye Ksander, who is in the throes of cancer and chemo. Virostko
dressed, loaded two "guns"--10-foot boards designed for
monstrous surf--in the back of his truck and headed north on
Highway 1. He was driving to a spot called Maverick's, 40 miles
up the road, which has the coldest, heaviest and scariest
paddle-in surfing waves in the world.

The 27-year-old Virostko was up early on this day to compete in
the first surfing contest ever held at Maverick's. The sponsor
was Quiksilver, a surf clothing company that put up the $50,000
purse, $10,000 of which would go to the winner. Twenty big-wave
surfers were invited to compete. Eight of them were from Santa
Cruz, a city where children go from diapers to pull-ups to wet
suits. Virostko would be surfing with his crew and in front of
his friends. Ksander was planning to go. A mutual friend, Pat
Groen--another local surfer--was going to drive him. Virostko
was psyched.

Maverick's is 22 miles south of San Francisco and a half mile
offshore from a hamlet called Princeton by the Sea, where the
streets are named after elite universities, and the waterfront
is dotted with sagging marinas. (One recent day on Harvard
Avenue, a kid on a skateboard was being towed by a kid on a
bike, each cradling a surfboard under an arm.) You can't see
Maverick's from Highway 1--you have to hike to a cliff called
Pillar Point--nor can you see much of it from the beach, because
of the heaving surf. No one breaks into a cold sweat looking at
Maverick's from terra firma. Only the men and women who surf it
understand its terror.

First, there is the appalling coldness of the water, which
hovers in the vicinity of 50[degrees] all year. Then there's the
roar of the crashing surf. There's the current, which sucks
surfers down and wears them out. There are the immense, jagged
rocks, some sticking out of the surf, others lurking below it, a
cruel wipeout welcoming committee. And there is the sheer
magnitude of the swell. Forty-foot waves, measured from trough
to crest, are common in the winter months. (There are bigger
waves. Jaws, on Maui, has 70-footers, but they have been ridden
only by surfers towed in by Jet Ski.) When a big wave swallows a
surfer at Maverick's, he is tossed about like a sock in a dryer.
He doesn't know if he'll ever breathe air again. Maverick's is a
freak of nature, created by an extreme and sudden change in the
depth of the ocean that causes the water to jack up violently.
Surfing there can be fatal. On Dec. 23, 1994, Mark Foo, a famous
big-wave surfer from Hawaii, attempted Maverick's for the first
time. He wiped out on a 30-foot wave that held him underwater
until he drowned.

Maverick's breaks big only sporadically, maybe 30 times in a
good winter, and on short notice. The Quiksilver people
announced in October their intention to hold the Men Who Ride
Mountains Big Wave Event, but they had no idea when it would be.
The waiting period for the competition began on Nov. 1, with
surfers standing by for a call from contest director Jeff Clark.
November wore into December. Some good days were passed up.
"They're not in any rush to have it," said one invitee, a San
Francisco doctor named Mark Renneker. "They're enjoying the
foreplay too much." By early February there were people
predicting the event would never happen. Then, on Feb. 16, Clark
called the 20 invitees. "I see an opening [in the weather],"
Clark said. "Tomorrow should be good."

By the next day at 8 a.m., all 20 invitees were on hand. Clark
and most of the contestants boarded a boat and headed, through
fog, a half mile out to sea. Clark was anxious. He has been a
constant presence at Maverick's for nearly 25 years, the first
person to have surfed it. He is Maverick's sheriff and spokesman
and meteorologist. But a winter fog this heavy and sluggish was
something even he never expected. Many of the contestants,
Virostko among them, were jumping out of their skins. They were
like racehorses trapped in the starting gate. They were ready to
surf.

By 11:30 a.m. the fog had lifted, and the event began. The 20
surfers had been divided, randomly, into four groups of five.
Members of each group would have an hour to catch three waves
apiece. The five scoring judges, who were watching from the
contestants' boat, would consider the difficulty of the wave and
the position and control of the surfer on his ride, then rank the
ride on a scale of zero to 100. A perfect score for the three
waves would be 300. The surfer with the most points would win.

Virostko was in the third group, along with two other Santa Cruz
surfers, Jay Moriarty and Jake Wormhoudt. Renneker, 46, the
oldest contestant in the field, was also in the group. So was
Ross Clarke-Jones, an Australian and an eminent figure in
big-wave surfing. From the contestants' boat, Virostko saw what
the surfers in the first two groups did. The wind was dying, the
tide was going out, the surf was getting big and glassy.
Virostko was ready to charge.

For his first wave, a 40-footer, he made a beautiful drop,
essentially skiing down the face of the wave. The breaking wave
exploded in a huge whitewash, and Virostko raced ahead of it to
safety. The judges were impressed: 83 points.

On his second ride Virostko did something few surfers in the
world can do. Rather than ski down the face of the 35-foot wave,
he used his feet to point the nose of the board straight up and
went free-falling. Two helicopters were rumbling above his head,
the contestants on the boat were hooting and the surf was
roaring, but Virostko never lost focus. He positioned himself to
catch the oncoming barrel and rode inside it. When he emerged
from the tube, he surfed the wave to its terminus in the
inelegant thrashing style that today is a mark of expertise. The
judges were awed: 98 points.

On his third wave Virostko showed he can be a classicist too. He
took off right at the peak of a 35-footer, made a graceful drop
and rode it serenely. His arms and his legs, even his
polka-dotted head, looked utterly relaxed, though he was being
chased by a wave plenty big enough to kill him. The judges were
moved: 86 points. Virostko's three-wave total was 267. He was
the leader on the boat. One more group remained.

One of Virostko's mentors, Richard Schmidt of Santa Cruz, was in
the final group. Virostko was not rooting for the 38-year-old
Schmidt to beat him, but he would have been content if Schmidt
had. Schmidt surfed well and consistently, but he did not have a
score in the 90s. Still, his point total, 248, was good enough
for second. For the Santa Cruz crowd the day was a major
success. Clarke-Jones, the Australian, took third. Santa Cruz
surfers finished fourth (Peter Mel), fifth (Moriarty) and sixth
(Josh Loya).

That evening before the awards dinner, Danny Kwock, the
copresident of Quiksilver, found Virostko, congratulated him and
said, "When I saw that air drop, I decided to give you an extra
$5,000." A sliver of moon was rising in the blue-black sky. They
stepped into Mezza Luna, the restaurant in Princeton where the
first annual Men Who Ride Mountains Big Wave Event was being
celebrated. Virostko drank champagne while wearing leather
gloves, his fingers still cold from the icy water. The trophies
were on a table. It was shaping up as a beautiful evening, about
the best of Virostko's life. He looked around and noticed his
friends whispering among themselves. He wondered, What's going
on? Why do all the Santa Cruz guys look so pale?

That's when he got the news. Groen had died that day. He was 22.
His wife of six months, Jessica, returned home from her college
classes for lunch at about 1 p.m. and found him, dead from an
apparent heart attack. Suddenly, Virostko's victory seemed
empty. The Santa Cruz crowd sat at a table, speechless now,
waiting for Virostko to accept his winner's trophy. When he did,
he dedicated it to Groen. Then he got in his truck and made the
drive down Highway 1 to Santa Cruz. Along the way he called
Jessica's brother, Russell Smith, and left this message on the
answering machine: "F---. Sorry this happened. This is bad.
Can't believe it. Give me a call. Flea."

Virostko went home that night to the little apartment behind his
parents' house, but he didn't feel like staying there. His
emotions were a jumbled mess. The next morning he took a suite
at an oceanfront hotel, packed a bunch of his friends in it and
started drinking. He was still there late that afternoon, the
shades drawn, the message light blinking, a DO NOT DISTURB sign
on the door handle. There were empty beer and wine bottles
throughout the suite. A half-dozen men and two women lounged
around in various states of undress. Virostko was sprawled on a
king-sized bed, wearing white socks and jeans and speaking in
stream of consciousness.

"You know, he died during my heat," Virostko said, staring off
into nothing. "Pat was a great guy. Good surfer. Mellow, but he
could hold his own. I'm worried about Skye now. Skye needed Pat.
I don't know if he's gonna make it without him. Everybody's
saying to me, 'You're the man now. The torch has been passed to
you.' Richie, Richard Schmidt, he said it to me. I'm like,
'Don't even say that, man. It's too much.' Right now, I don't
know what to think. My friend's dead."

Somebody handed Virostko a fresh Corona. He rose from his bed,
headed to the balcony and looked at the ocean. A storm had moved
out, and the sky was clearing fast.

"Money's nothing," Virostko said. He heard the sounds of
laughter coming from the suite. "You gotta enjoy life. I'll
spend the whole 15 grand on my friends."

COLOR PHOTO: GERRY GROPP [T of C] FOLDOUT COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MARTHA JENKINS Wave Goodbye Evan Slater (right) and Peter Mel (next page) got a little face time in 1994 at Maverick's, an isolated beach 22 miles south of San Francisco that has some of the biggest--and deadliest--surf in the world. Last week Slater and Mel were at Maverick's again, for the first Men Who Ride Mountains Big Wave Event (page 52). [Leading Off] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BEN SIEGFRIED/ZUMA LOW RIDER Virostko raced ahead of an avalanche of water in the first of his three runs on the way to victory at Maverick's. COLOR PHOTO: GERRY GROPP The dots in Virostko's hair on race day were a tribute to his friend Ksander, who is in the throes of cancer and chemo.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)