THE FIRST time I saw a truly big wave was on Dec. 4, 1991. I was in Hawaii, and my trip coincided with the Triple Crown of Surfing, a series of three competitions held on Oahu's North Shore. On the day of the big-wave contest at Sunset Beach, the sky was cloudless, but a veil of mist hung in the air from the force of the waves slamming down. That was startling, because the Sunset wave itself—the face the surfers would be riding—broke more than a half-mile offshore. But then a set rolled in, a pulse of energy that caused several waves to jump up in size. The water rose and rose until a tiny figure appeared at the top and dropped onto the face of a 30-foot moving cliff. Whenever a wave broke, the beach shook with a little hum of violence.
This is an article from the Sept. 13, 2010 issue
I've witnessed avalanches, explosions, wildfires and monsoons, but I'd never seen anything as intimidating as those waves. One surf expert described this break as "the entire Pacific Ocean rearing up to unload on your head." On big days at Sunset, people were often swept away by ferocious currents and surges. What kind of person would insert himself into these elements? I wondered. This version of surfing seemed more gladiatorial than athletic, like grappling with bull elephants.
Which is why, a few years later, I was stunned to see a photograph of a man riding a wave more than twice the size of Sunset, somewhere in the 60-foot range. The surfer was Laird Hamilton, a 28-year-old from Hawaii who looked completely at ease inside a barrel as tall as an office building. Since surfing became popular in the mid--20th century, faces in the 40-foot range had represented the outer limits of human paddling abilities. Anything bigger was simply moving too fast; trying to catch a 60-foot wave by windmilling on your stomach was like trying to catch the subway by crawling. Never mind, though, because even if you could catch the wave, there was no way to ride it. Too much water rushes back up the face of a giant wave as it crests, sucking you and your board over the falls. To Hamilton and his friends, this had been unacceptable. A new system had to be invented. So they created tow surfing.
Borrowing ideas from windsurfing and snowboarding, they made shorter, heavier surfboards with foot straps and thinner, stronger fins that sliced through the water like knives. Then they added Jet Skis and water-ski ropes to tow one another into perfect position at 30 mph. Just as a wave began to peak, the rider would let go of the tow rope and rocket onto the face. The driver, meanwhile, would exit off the back. Using this method, a surfer could catch the biggest waves out there.
Hamilton was the test pilot, followed immediately by other surfers and windsurfers in his circle: Darrick Doerner, Brett Lickle, Dave Kalama, Buzzy Kerbox, Rush Randle, Mark Angulo and Mike Waltze. Nicknamed the Strapped Crew, they experimented on the outer reefs of Oahu and Maui, far beyond the crowds. "No one was there," Hamilton said. "No one had ridden waves this size. It was like outer space or the deep sea. We didn't know if we were going to come back."
Anything involving giant waves is a risky pursuit, but tow surfing seemed to court disaster. The sport's learning curve was a series of hard lessons, and the price of falling was high: dislocated shoulders, shattered elbows and burst eardrums; broken femurs, snapped ankles and cracked necks; lacerated scalps, punctured lungs and fractured arches; hold-downs that Lickle described as "sprinting 400 yards holding your breath while being beaten on by five Mike Tysons." As for stitches, Hamilton said he "stopped counting at 1,000."
Despite its dangers (or maybe because of them), tow surfing grew in popularity and visibility through the 1990s. The riders ventured onto ever more treacherous waves. They tinkered with equipment. They refined their techniques. Working in teams of two—a driver and a rider—they figured out how to rescue one another in behemoth surf. A kind of natural selection occurred: Riders who'd glimpsed their own mortality a little too closely drifted to the sidelines. At the opposite end of that spectrum was Hamilton. The more intimidating the conditions, the more he seemed to thrive.
Then, in July 2001, an impresario named Bill Sharp issued a challenge. He had created a competition in which the surf wear company Billabong would offer a $500,000 prize to anyone who rode a 100-foot wave. Almost overnight the idea of the 100-foot wave became the media grail, tow surfing's equivalent of a moon landing.
There were a couple of snags. First: Was it physically possible? No one knew how riding a 100-foot wave might differ from, say, riding a 75-foot wave. As they grow in size, waves increase dramatically in speed and energy. At what point would the forces overwhelm the equipment, or the surfers? "It's a deadly scenario for everyone involved," said Capt. Edmund Pestana, then Honolulu's ocean safety chief. Second: Even if a surfer wanted to take his chances, there was the problem of finding the wave. One-hundred-foot waves were not exactly kicking around within Jet Ski range. And the huge freaks that pop up out of violent storms to batter oil rigs and sink tankers—these are unsuitable for surfing. Waves in the center of a storm are avalanches of water, waves mashed on top of other waves, all of them rushing forward in a chaotic jumble. Surfers need giant waves of a rarer pedigree. Ideally, a rideable 100-foot wave would be born in a blast of storm energy, travel across the ocean for a long distance while being strengthened by winds, then peel off from the storm and settle into a swell, a steamrolling lump of power. That swell would eventually collide with a reef or some other underwater obstacle, forcing its energy upward and sideways until it exploded into breaking waves. And that's where the ride would begin—far enough from the storm's center to be less roiled and choppy, but not so far that its power was too diminished.
That was a pretty tall order. If the ocean was a slot machine, ideal waves of even 60 or 70 feet came along about as often as a solid row of cherries. So a surfer who intended to ride the perfect 100-foot wave would be signing up for a global scavenger hunt. He'd have to scour the oceans, monitoring the weather's every nuance like a meteorologist, and then show up at precisely the right moment toting Jet Skis, safety equipment and surf gear—not to mention photographers to record the moment and a highly skilled partner who didn't mind risking his life. This was a surfing competition in the same way the space shuttle was a plane.
I. BROKEN SKULLS
AT 1 A.M. on Oct. 31, 2007, the Faa'a airport in Papeete, Tahiti, was packed. Musicians in Polynesian shirts serenaded the newly arrived visitors, while smiling women in long red dresses handed out white tiare flowers. At the baggage claim, padded surfboard bags and hard-sided camera cases and oversize duffel bags were brought out until the area couldn't hold any more. Trucks pulled up outside the little open-air terminal to load the cargo, jamming the road. Horns honked, people yelled. A frazzled energy ran through the place like a current.
The crowd was composed almost entirely of men, most of whom knew one another. Though they had flown to Tahiti from all corners of the earth, they were members of a single tribe. They had a uniform: long, low-slung shorts, flip-flops, hoodies, and T-shirts emblazoned with the logos of Quiksilver or Billabong or Hurley or Pipeline Posse. In this brotherhood there were no potbellies, no pasty complexions cultivated under fluorescent lights. It was a sea of tans, tattoos and testosterone, of nerves stretched as tight as wire.
The men had all come for the same reason: There was a sleeping giant on this island, and in about 28 hours it was due to awaken. The giant was a wave called Teahupoo (tay-ah-HOO-po), Tahitian for Broken Skulls. No one was more identified with Broken Skulls than Hamilton, whose presence rattled every other surfer in the airport.
Like Jaws on Maui and other spots where the right storm brought big waves, Teahupoo was known for its special brand of jeopardy. It was a mean vortex with a deep belly and a thick slab of a lip that all but promised to pile-drive the surfer into the reef, which lay only a few feet below the surface. So much water and energy exploded in such a compressed area that oceanographers called Teahupoo's hydraulics freakish. The wave terrified even the most seasoned riders—and that was on a small day.
Then there were the not-so-small days. In particular there was Aug. 17, 2000. The caption on the Surfer magazine cover that featured a photo of Hamilton riding Teahupoo that day was "Oh My God. ..." Three months before that, a surfer had died in far smaller conditions, his face torn off by the jagged coral, and that must have been on everyone's mind when Hamilton, towed by Doerner, took off on a wave so massive and so vicious that spectators watching from boats feared they were witnessing a man's last ride. As the wave rose around him, Hamilton couldn't see it; his body was turned away from the barrel. But he could feel it, and his mind, he said later, screamed at him to abort. At the same time, hesitation would have been fatal. As the lip slammed down on the reef, the tube convulsed, and Hamilton disappeared from sight. For a heartbeat or three no one knew if the wave had killed him. Then he emerged, gliding along with his arms in the air. If he had fallen, the wave cognoscenti agreed, the only thing left of him would have been a red stain on the reef.
Teahupoo that day had been written into history as the heaviest wave ever ridden. This storm, seven years later—an out-of-season Southern Hemisphere low that had brewed in Antarctica before winding toward the South Pacific, fueling itself with tropical moisture along the way—was shaping up to be the hardest hit in years. It was fierce enough, slow-moving enough and visible enough on the weather maps to give surfers two days' notice to get to Tahiti. Hamilton had been eating a breakfast of ahi and eggs in Maui when he'd gotten the call from his friend Raimana Van Bastolaer, a Tahitian surfer. Thirty-four hours later he landed in Papeete.
Hamilton was accompanied by two photographers from California, Sonny Miller and Jeff Hornbaker. Also in the crowd was Sean Collins, the founder of Surfline.com, which provided surfers with weather maps, wave models, news, stories, photo galleries, videos, webcams, travel information and glossaries, all but waxing the riders' boards for them. "Everybody's here," said Collins, a 54-year-old Californian, before quickly revising that. "Well, some guys didn't want to come. One said, 'I've got a kid on the way. I don't need to split my head on the reef right now.'"
Hamilton, Miller, Hornbaker and I would be staying at Van Bastolaer's house, about 40 miles from Teahupoo. For a little island, Tahiti had more than its share of renowned big-wave riders, and Van Bastolaer was one of the best. Small and agile, he began his career at Teahupoo as a bodyboarder, braving the waves with only a pair of fins. This activity is confined to smaller days, of course, but it allowed Van Bastolaer to learn the nuances of the wave's motion; by the time he was tow-surfing Teahupoo on the biggest days, he knew its every last trick. On this swell, he and Hamilton would be tow partners.
By 5:30 that morning Van Bastolaer and Hamilton had already left the house, even though this was only a prep day; the swell was still miles offshore. Teahupoo is on the southern end of Tahiti, literally at the end of the road. At 8 a.m. Miller, Hornbaker and I turned into the last house at Mile 0, a white, two-story place known as Mommy and Poppy's. It was a private home that morphed into a big-wave staging ground when conditions warranted. Hard at the water's edge, it was ideally situated to get out to Teahupoo's break, about a mile offshore.
The yard already buzzed with action. There were men and Jet Skis and surfboards everywhere, with roosters scuttling among them. Mommy, a pocket-sized Asian woman in her 60s, emerged from the kitchen in a red apron and baseball cap and placed a skillet of eggs and sausage on a long outdoor table. Several guys in their early 20s, gathered around a laptop that was playing a surf movie, reached for the food without breaking their gaze. Across the yard Hamilton was puttying a fin onto a surfboard. It was an improbable display of vigor from someone running on two hours of sleep. Big-wave riders stress the impossibility of getting a good night's rest before a large swell. Hamilton referred to this tossing and turning as "doing the mahi-mahi flop. Full pan-fried mahi. Up every hour, looking at the alarm clock."
Behind Hamilton, four Jet Skis sat on trailers at the top of a launch ramp. Van Bastolaer leaned over one of them, suctioning fuel with a length of rubber hose. At first glance you wouldn't think Van Bastolaer was an elite athlete. While the 6' 3", 215-pound Hamilton and many other big-wave riders had hard lines and sharply defined edges, Van Bastolaer had rounded corners. In the big-wave pantheon there were plenty of poker faces and end zone stares, but Raimana's brown eyes radiated a deep joy.
As Hamilton fine-tuned his board, a younger surfer announced that he planned to wear a thin wet suit under his flotation vest, to add another layer between his skin and the reef. Hearing this, Hamilton looked up from his work. The force that this wave unloaded made the idea of adding an extra millimeter of neoprene for safety seem absurd, like hoping an umbrella might cushion the impact of a falling anvil. The flotation vests were another story; all the riders wore them now, and some men wore two. Undoubtedly they had saved many lives. But this practice had begun at Jaws, the giant wave off Maui, in 60-foot depths where a fallen surfer might never make it back to daylight. The reef at Teahupoo, on the other hand, lay only three feet below the surface. "I'm not as worried about flotation here," Hamilton said. "Jaws is all about the hold-down. Teahupoo is all about the bounce."
SOMETIME THAT night, the waves arrived. By the time Hamilton and Van Bastolaer left the house at 4 a.m., surf boomed against the breakwalls, and when they drove up to Mommy and Poppy's they saw water washing through the yard. In the marina where Miller, Hornbaker and I arrived at dawn to meet our boat, heavy surges made it hard to load the camera gear. The morning was clear and sunny, with a riffling breeze and a restless batch of clouds, but today the ocean was completely different. Where the swell hit the barrier reef, a few miles out on the horizon, a thick band of white spray pulsed and flared like a ghostly runaway fire.
We were sharing our boat with three French photographers. Shooters were key to any big swell; as with the proverbial tree falling in the forest, if you ripped down the face of a 100-foot wave and there was nobody there to take a picture, did you really do it?
Pushing off from the concrete pier, our boat captain took a last sip of his coffee and steered us toward Teahupoo. I heard it before I saw it, the curtain of liquid glass that shattered on the reef, the lip of its 40-foot barrel hitting the earth like a small apocalypse. Its violence aside, Teahupoo was a looker: waters the color of jewels—rich lapis, deep emerald, pale aquamarine—and a heavy white crest that glittered in the sun. But the wave had the personality of a buzz saw. As it reared up, it drained the water from the reef, turning the impact zone—a lagoon that was mercilessly shallow to begin with—into a barely covered expanse of sharp coral, spiky sea urchins and volcanic rock. This happened in seconds, in an area maybe 300 feet long. "Yeah, it's different," Miller said, noticing my stunned look. "Kind of like a shotgun unloading."
It was bizarre, really, how close you could get to the wave. Because Teahupoo is created by a swell hitting a protruding knuckle on the barrier reef, there is—theoretically—a safe channel right next to it where the water is deeper. Our boat and a handful of others sat right on the shoulder, so near to the edge that when a surfer kicked out of a ride, he had to watch where he landed. Hamilton had once torn his knee apart there trying to avoid ramming into someone's outboard motor when he exited a wave. Even in this so-called safe zone, however, the most experienced boat captains stayed on their toes. They knew the channel wasn't a permanent fixture. It could suddenly vanish if the swell shifted slightly in direction or an especially huge set came shrieking in. Over the years several boats had been hit by the wave, flipped and destroyed. And once, Van Bastolaer had been deep in Teahupoo's barrel and seen a large black object whiz by only inches above his head; it was a Jet Ski that had been sucked over the falls when its driver ventured too close to the edge.
Right in front of us a Brazilian surfer dropped onto a wave. He wobbled in the barrel for a few seconds before being pitched into the air backward; the effect was of a bowling pin blown off a balance beam by a firehose. We saw his board catapult into the sky, and a flash of leg that looked like it was bent in the wrong direction. As the wave hit with grenade percussion, the surfer disappeared into the maw. His partner darted by for the rescue. Steering into the whitewater, he looked frantically for the surfer's head to pop up, but there was no sign. The driver circled, still searching, but the next wave was already bearing down. He was out of time. He was also out of luck: When he hit the throttle to rocket away, his engine quit. "He's cavitating!" someone yelled from a boat. Jet Skis were notorious for stalling in the roiling foam, their motors grasping for traction only to end up sputtering on air. And now, instead of a rescue vehicle, the driver was out there with a 1,000-pound problem. Lacking other options, he dived into the whitewater.
Several fresh rescue teams rushed to the edge of the impact zone. One of them corralled the abandoned Jet Ski, while another managed to get the driver onto its rescue sled. As a third wave reared up, the surfer's head was spotted at the far side of the lagoon. He'd traveled more than 500 yards underwater, shot like a cannonball across the reef. Someone plucked him from the water, sparing him further beating. Ten minutes later we saw him sprawled on the rescue sled, grinning and waving as if he were in a ticker-tape parade. Blood dripped from his elbows. He flashed us a shaka, the Hawaiian hand sign for "things couldn't be better."
"Oh, God is merciful," Hornbaker said.
Now Hamilton drove up on a red Jet Ski. From every boat, photographers trained their lenses on him. "Tickets on the 50-yard line," he said, smiling. For Hamilton, things really couldn't be better. His family and friends knew it well: The more waves he rode, and the greater the degree of difficulty they presented, the happier and easier to be with he became. "If I scare myself once every day, I'm a better person," he had said. "It helps to have that little jolt of perspective that life's fragile."
Weaving among the vessels, a dozen tow teams motored from the channel back to the takeoff zone, which was known as the lineup even though there was nothing out there as orderly as a line. The area was so called because it afforded visual alignment with a landmark onshore (in this case a notch between steep volcanic peaks), which helped the surfers position themselves correctly.
"This is a hell-raising group," Miller said, surveying the teams. "There's Garrett McNamara. I saw him get his leg sashimied here. Whole thigh ripped open, right to the knee. They called that day Bloody Sunday." McNamara, 42, was a highly skilled surfer whose wild streak drove him to do things that few others would attempt. Shortly before coming to Tahiti he had surfed the wave kicked up by a 300-foot-high calving glacier in Alaska, dodging falling hunks of ice the size of city blocks. Now he drove by on a camouflage-painted Jet Ski, wearing a camouflage-patterned rash guard and a black baseball cap. Though he was almost always smiling, there was a dark intensity to McNamara. Like many of the best riders, he had grown up on Oahu's North Shore and had to fight his way into its brutal surf fraternity. But his tough neighborhood of Waialua looked like a penthouse at the Four Seasons compared to the hometown of his tow partner, Koby Abberton.
Abberton, 28, came from Maroubra Beach, a suburb of Sydney, Australia. Maroubra was a feisty slice of coastline known for its challenging surf, vast sewage-treatment plant, maximum-security jail and dense population of heroin dealers and addicts, which included Abberton's mother and her boyfriend, a bank robber. Abberton's life story, filled with violence and, ultimately, surf salvation, was being made into a documentary narrated by Russell Crowe. When Koby was 14, he and his older brothers Sunny, 21, and Jai, 19, had started a surf gang known as the Bra Boys (a double entendre: Bra is both short for Maroubra and surfspeak for brother). The gang, now 400 strong, gained notoriety in 2003 when Jai was charged with fatally shooting a Sydney man (he was later acquitted on grounds of self-defense) and Koby was accused of helping him dispose of the body (a charge for which he received a nine-month suspended sentence). Sitting behind McNamara on the Jet Ski, however, Abberton—who bears a striking resemblance to the actor Mark Wahlberg—looked pretty mellow, though the impression was undercut by his heavily tattooed neck.
As the morning progressed, Teahupoo pumped out one snarling wave after another, but the swell had a distinct rhythm. It pulsed lightly and then heavily and sometimes convulsively. "Every wave's different on the same day," Hamilton had said, noting how minute changes in swell direction, wind and interval (the number of seconds between two waves) produce endless variation. "It's never the same mountain."
There had already been one wave, ridden by a 24-year-old surfer from Maui named Ian Walsh, that was freakishly bigger than the rest. There was just more of everything in this wave: more height, more girth, more foam and chop, more lunacy. It was as though Teahupoo had hated the taste of this one and spat it out in disgust. People gasped. Walsh threw his head back in joy as he made a clean exit from the wave and then bowed it in relief.
The wind came up, whipping spray and adding a toothiness to the water as Hamilton began his first ride. The distinction between him and the other surfers was immediately evident. Many times this morning riders had strained to hold their own in the barrel; the wave sucked so much water up its face that they were quickly outmuscled. Hamilton didn't fly across the wave so much as he carved a trench through it. But his most startling move was to remain in the barrel for several beats longer than anyone else. Instead of racing ahead of the falling lip, he toyed with it, exiting at the last possible second, as though stepping over a building's threshold the instant it began to collapse. When he kicked out of the wave in his signature aerial flip, the channel erupted in cheers.
That afternoon conditions got rougher. Clouds snaked around the base of the steep peaks behind us, and the continued pounding of the waves roiled the water so much that the ocean changed color from a clear azure to a muddy, foamy green. A log the size of a small telephone pole floated into the channel. The great Tahitian surfer Poto zoomed in on a Jet Ski and removed it. Although he wasn't riding on this day, Poto, whose given name is Vetea David, was treated like royalty. He was Tahiti's first pro on the World Cup circuit. His classically handsome Polynesian features had a boxer's toughness; think Ken doll crossed with mobster. The image was completed by the stunning woman in a snip of a bikini who sat behind him on his Jet Ski, long black hair cascading down her back.
More rides, more triumphs, more wipeouts. One surfer's legs buckled, and he bounced down the face of the wave. On the boat beside us sat a rider whose upper body and hips were raked with deep, bloody gouges. His board, broken into pieces, lay on the stern.
Hamilton rode more waves, and so did Van Bastolaer, including one that he ended up sharing with McNamara. McNamara, however, had gone kamikaze, dropping in so deep that he was doomed from the start. He bit the dust spectacularly. "I went toward the reef at like, 100 mph," he told Surfing Magazine later. "I'm talking to God, going, Please, please don't make this one too bad." McNamara escaped in one piece, but not before taking "about 10" waves on the head, as he recalled.
By sunset just about everyone had headed back to shore. Mommy and Poppy's yard had a celebratory air, the riders still high on adrenaline. They asked the photographers to show them digital images of their rides. When you're on a giant wave, they said, you don't get the full measure of the beast; the experience is more like a collage of sensory impressions. There may be a flash of white spray, a sudden jolt, a feeling of energy surging beneath your feet, the suspension of time so that 10 seconds stretch like taffy across a violent blue universe. Inside the barrel, a place that surfers regard with reverence, light and water and motion add up to something transcendent. It's an exquisite suspension of all things mundane, in which nothing matters but living in that particular instant.
"Everyone's going to have Post Big Wave Syndrome," Hamilton said. This was his name for the inevitable low that followed an endorphin high. The body had squandered all its good drugs in a single binge. Now, a resupply was required—and that could take weeks of dragging around, feeling excited by nothing. "Sometimes it doesn't hit [until] three or four days afterward," he said. "Before I knew what it was, it used to hammer me."
"Ah, brah," Van Bastolaer said, "we're gonna have another big swell here before New Year's. I have a feeling. I'll be calling you." He mimed a dialing motion and laughed. "You'll be back."
II. THE FATAL SWELL
AS DECEMBER BEGAN, the weather radar screens pulsated as the mightiest magenta blob anyone had seen in years began to snake its way across the North Pacific. A cold low pressure system had joined forces with a warm low pressure system, the extra heat and moisture whipping the two storms into one howling monster. "The Northern Hemisphere is going absolutely ballistic right now," Surfline.com reported. This was a full-on cyclone, and it was traveling from an unusual direction, west-southwest. Typically the North Pacific storms rumbled down from the Bering Sea at a northwesterly angle. This one had dipped farther south and looked like it would largely sidestep Hawaii, barreling directly west toward Northern California.
Collins, monitoring satellite and buoy readings, wind speeds and wave spectra, and consulting LOLA—Surfline.com's custom computer model, which filtered sea state data through a surfing prism—arrived at his verdict late on Dec. 2: The swell's most desirable waves would be found at a break called Ghost Tree, about 125 miles south of San Francisco, on the morning of Dec. 4. E-mails went out, and from Hawaii to Brazil to South Africa riders snapped into action.
Ghost Tree, improbably located about a three-iron shot off the 18th hole at Pebble Beach, was named after a blasted-out cypress husk on nearby Pescadero Point. Among big-wave connoisseurs, Ghost Tree was not beloved. A minefield of rocks fringe its base, leaving surfers no margin of error. Boils, seething disturbances in the water that indicate a shallow obstacle beneath, burble up all over the place. Ghost Tree is a monster truck of a wave, huge and showy and growly but not especially comfortable to ride. It had one advantage for this storm, however; the deepwater canyon that created the wave was ideally angled to capture a west swell.
After I landed in San Francisco, I called Collins. He was already in Carmel. "Ghost Tree should be huge," he said. "It's a really, really big swell. I think Mavericks is going to be big too."
Another call beeped on my phone. The message was from Mike Prickett, a filmmaker who was flying in from Oahu with a contingent of tow surfers and photographers. They were passing on Ghost Tree and going to Mavericks, another big wave break about 100 miles to the north. I drove to Half Moon Bay, the quiet fishing town that is the launching point for Mavericks, with McNamara and his tow partner, Kealii Mamala. McNamara twisted around in the passenger seat, yelled, "Thirty-two feet at 20 seconds!" and thrust his iPhone at Mamala, sitting in the backseat. Mamala, a striking Hawaiian with a nimbus of curly brown hair, looked at the buoy reading on the screen and smiled. "Oh, yeah," he said. A 32-foot swell with a period that long meant 60- and 70-foot waves and beyond.
The skies enclosed us in a shroud of gray drizzle, turning everything dark despite the fact that it was 7:30 a.m. If, as surfers claim, every big wave has a personality, then Mavericks is an assassin. Perched just north of Monterey Bay's abyssal canyons, it seethes above a black chasm, its surface as impenetrable as one-way glass. The Aleutian swells thunder 3,000 miles across the North Pacific, barging past the continental shelf until their progress is rudely halted by a thick rock ledge that juts offshore about a mile from Pillar Point, near Half Moon Bay's harbor. There the ocean rears up, screaming, and forms the clawed hand that is Mavericks. The water temperatures hover in the low 50s, making everything harder—literally. Cold water has a higher viscosity. It is like liquid pavement, compounding the brutality of a fall. Frigid temperatures also make it tougher for surfers to relax, to paddle, to hold their breath underwater, to keep their extremities from numbing. The year-round uniform at Mavericks is head-to-toe neoprene, including hoods, boots and gloves, which restricts the riders' movement and makes it harder for them to feel the wave.
If all this wasn't daunting enough, Mavericks is at the southern end of a region known as the Red Triangle because more attacks by great whites have occurred there than anywhere else on earth. Surfers have been bumped, bitten and even killed by sharks; sitting or paddling on their boards in black wet suits, they resemble nothing so much as seals, the great white's main prey. Down by Ghost Tree a rider had simply disappeared. Later his board washed up onshore; it had bite marks that matched the jaws of a 20-foot shark. But while great whites hadn't taken the life of any surfer at Mavericks, the wave itself had.
On Dec. 23, 1994, one of Hawaii's best-known big-wave riders, Mark Foo, had made what appeared to be a fairly standard fall on a 30-foot face and failed to surface—for an hour. Other riders saw the tumble, during which Foo's board snapped into three pieces, but when he didn't reappear in the lineup, everyone presumed he had gone back to shore to get another board; it was only when his body was found floating near the harbor that the truth became clear. Afterward people speculated that Foo had hit his head on the bottom and blacked out, or his leash had gotten snagged in the rocks, trapping him underwater. But it was also possible that he had drowned in a merciless set-long hold-down, the wave simply refusing to release him.
Even Mavericks' surrounding waters were tricky and shifty and given to evil behavior. McNamara and Mamala recounted the story of their friend Shawn Alladio, a water-safety expert who had encountered a series of surreal waves outside Mavericks on Nov. 21, 2001, a day that became known as 100-Foot Wednesday. Patrolling on Jet Skis, Alladio and her colleague Jonathan Cahill had spent that morning gathering lost boards, helping stranded surfers and performing rescues as a series of storms moved in. By early afternoon the conditions had become too nuts for anyone to be out, and even the tow surfers went back to shore. About 400 yards beyond where Mavericks usually broke, Alladio and Cahill noticed an odd gray bank on the horizon, like a wall of low-lying clouds. It was only when the horizon started feathering at the top that they realized: This was a wave. And whatever size it was, it dwarfed the 60- and 70-footers they'd been dodging all day.
After a split second of terror and confusion, Alladio motioned desperately to Cahill: They couldn't outrun the wave, so their only hope was to race straight at it and make it over the top before it broke. They managed that, barely, and were rewarded with a 50-foot free fall on the backside, dropping into the steep trough. Plunging that far on a half-ton machine was as bone-jarring as jumping out a third-story window. But worse, in front of them, bearing down like hell's freight train, was another colossal wave. This one was even bigger.
Again they gunned for the peak, squeaking over the top before the crest started its avalanche, and once again they air-dropped into the trough. But they had to keep going; Alladio could see at least three more waves in the set. By the time they had faced down the last one they were miles offshore.
"Each time we went up [the faces of the waves] I could see all these fissures or ravines in the surface, and there was some kind of crazy light energy vibrating inside the wave," Alladio told the San Francisco Chronicle afterward. Veteran Mavericks surfer and documentarian Grant Washburn was filming from a nearby cliff when the set broke. Washburn knew these waters inside and out, and he had never seen anything like those waves. He believed they had easily topped 100 feet.
As we approached Half Moon Bay, things looked nasty. The fog was impenetrable. Charging down a 70-foot face was dangerous enough when you could see it; when you couldn't, well, it would be safer to drive blindfolded down Highway 1. And Mavericks, they all knew, was at its craftiest on a west swell. Its currents could change direction, running north rather than south, working against the surfer as he tried to outrun the lip and, if he fell, dragging him deeper into the impact zone. West swells also made the waves thicker, so when they hit the reef they tripled and quadrupled in size.
As the men would soon discover, this was exactly what was happening offshore: The waves were huge, steep and tricky. It was a dangerous day, and destined to become more so. "I've never been run over by waves this big," Jeff Clark said, tying his Jet Ski to the launch ramp. "It's the swell direction. As fast as you can go, it's gonna go faster." Clark had just returned to shore for a breather. He was Mavericks' resident legend: Growing up within sight of the wave, he had begun to surf it in the early '70s despite its heavy roster of dangers; when he couldn't convince anyone else to join him, he paddled out alone. In the early '90s people finally started paying attention to his entreaties to check out his wave, and by 1994, when Foo jetted over for that fateful swell, Mavericks was no longer a local secret. The more people learned about the wave's treacheries, the more astonishing Clark's years of solo excursions seemed in retrospect. In a sport where respect is the currency, Clark was a zillionaire.
He leaned against a concrete piling, describing his morning to a local TV news crew. At 51, Clark's black hair was tinged with silver, but he had the powerful physique of a younger man. His eyes were the same ice blue as a Siberian husky's. The waves, he said, were closing out in a strange way, hooking around at the end of the reef and snapping shut. "It pinches you, like being cut off at the pass. Almost everybody has been caught today." Clark had been squeezed and forced to straighten out on a solid 50-footer, but when his partner, Rodrigo Resende of Brazil, swooped in to get him Clark's glove slipped on the rescue sled, and the next wave was upon them. It not only spun Clark down into the depths but also took out Resende and the Jet Ski.
"It's like a train hitting you," Clark said, smiling grimly. "And I'm down. It's so black and violent. It is so dark. And then, it's not letting me up. And I'm thinking, Well, hold out, hold out, but my limbs are [being] torn off. I finally got flushed to the surface—whoosh!—got a breath, and all I could see was another 25 feet of whitewater coming. Drilled again." He shook his head. Then Clark turned and began to pull on his gloves. "Well, I'm gonna jam," he said, flashing a smile. "I'm going back out to get another one."
Right before Clark came ashore I had scouted the cliff at Pillar Point. For a moment the fog had dropped its guard. I saw enormous washes of whitewater that were hard to put into scale until a dark speck appeared: a Jet Ski. Mavericks looked towering and brawny, utterly forbidding. And though I didn't know it yet, the price of admission today was too high. By midafternoon three people who had ventured into these waves were dead.
AT 4:30 P.M., WHAT little light there was in the sky was draining rapidly. Trailers backed up to the waterline, ready to scoop up the Jet Skis and secure them for the long drive ahead: Many of the men planned to travel through the night, chasing the swell as it moved south to Todos Santos, an island 12 miles off the coast of Ensenada, Mexico, to meet the waves at daybreak.
A small crowd had gathered around the ramp, anxious to hear the surfers' stories firsthand. McNamara seemed lit from within. "Gnarliest ever!" he shouted. "I rode one from about a mile out, I don't know how, and I couldn't see anybody for like, at least 500 yards. And finally, whoomp!" He laughed maniacally. "I love to get pounded!"
A smallish guy next to me stood silently amid the hollering and the high fives. Suddenly he turned and said, "I almost died out there today." He looked haunted. "I lost a Jet Ski and I got caught in a weird place and I took about 10 waves in a row on the head. I was stuck over there where they found Mark Foo, getting pounded, one wave after another after another." He delivered his story with a shrill note of panic. "And the fog was in, so I couldn't see. I thought I was going out to sea! And seals were popping up next to me! Yeah, I came really, really close."
A stout man standing on my other side leaned in and said, "Someone did die, at Ghost Tree. A surfer. I'm not sure who he is. He drowned."
"What?" I said, turning to him in shock. "Who? When? Where?"
Just then my phone vibrated. Collins had left me a voice mail from Ghost Tree. "Yeah, we had a pretty good day," he said in his quiet way. "Not fog but mist. And it got big. Fifty-five feet, probably. The only bummer is a guy died here today. His name is Peter Davi."
Davi was an accomplished big-wave surfer from Monterey, well known and much liked on the Northern California coast. A third-generation fisherman, he was also a regular on Oahu's North Shore, making for Pipeline when the herring weren't running. In that hard-core arena he earned the respect of the locals, a group not known for easy inclusivity. Like the Hawaiians, Davi appreciated elemental things—the beauty of rocks, for instance, or the way the morning light glinted on the ocean.
Despite this sensitivity, Davi was tough: He was 6'3" and weighed 265 pounds. Yet no one was strong enough to accomplish the task he had set for himself when he showed up at Ghost Tree that morning: Rather than be towed, he intended to paddle into and out of the waves. On such a powerful swell, that decision would prove fatal.
Pieced together from the accounts of riders who encountered Davi on the water, a blurry picture of his last moments eventually emerged. After unsuccessfully trying to paddle into waves on his board, an eight-foot gun, Davi had sat on the back of his friend Anthony Ruffo's Jet Ski and watched the five-story office buildings roll in. Some of the last words anyone heard him say were, "I'm 45 years old, and I want one of those f------ waves." Realizing the only way he was going to get one was by towing in, Davi accepted a ride and surfed what was his final big wave, exiting with a full-face smile. Then he headed in, declining the offer of a lift back to shore.
He never made it. Somewhere along the way he lost his board, knocked off by the heaving seas, a sneaker wave or a spasm of whitewater. A spectator glimpsed him swimming near the rocks, but then Davi was swept from sight. Ruffo and his partner, Randy Reyes, discovered Davi's body floating near the wharf, facedown in a patch of kelp. Paramedics arrived quickly and tried to revive him, but they estimated Davi had been dead for 20 minutes.
Peter Davi wasn't the day's only casualty. Just outside the harbor mouth at Half Moon Bay, a crab-fishing boat called the Good Guys had capsized. The two fishermen on it, Benjamin Hannaberg and James Davis, had radioed their intention to come into the harbor, but they never arrived; instead they set off their emergency beacon. The Coast Guard searched extensively for the men, both in their late 50s, but at the site of the Good Guys' distress call they found only two shards from the hull. "A 25-foot fiberglass boat—that's like an eggshell in those conditions," the harbormaster said. (A week later Hannaberg's body would wash up on shore; Davis's was never found.)
Peter Mel, a celebrated big-wave rider, said the surfers would always remember Dec. 4, "but not for the epic rides—more for the carnage. It was about riding to survive. It wasn't about riding to enjoy it. You could see it on everybody's faces. It was all about, 'I need to get off this wave as soon as possible.'" Mel lived nearby and had seen deep into Mavericks' bag of tricks. Many times the wave had punished him in the fearsome rock-strewn areas known as the Cauldron, the Pit and the Boneyard. But on this day even Mel was floored by the wicked vibe in the water. "It looked like the ocean was folding over itself," he said, describing how the waves rose so steeply that they basically had no backs, and their faces were "like Niagara Falls." His voice was somber. "It was one of those swells that didn't seem like it was meant to be ridden."
As I left the launch I could hear seagulls still screaming in the dark, and the insistent wind and the whine of winches lifting Jet Skis onto land. There were no stars, only the oily glare of the dock lights. It was hard to imagine that an all-night journey into Mexico lay ahead. "This storm will still be packing a punch," Collins had said in his voice mail. "Todos is gonna be absolutely humongously huge tomorrow morning."
I felt my phone vibrate and looked down to see a text message from Prickett: United 787 to San Diego. 10:15. See you there.