On the biggest day in more than a decade at Mavericks, I started my morning with a speeding ticket. I was doing 85 mph in a 65 mph zone in a rush to make it to our boat, which was set to leave the Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay at dawn. When I gave the officer my license and registration, I was surprised to notice that my hand was trembling slightly.
Earlier in the week, Mavericks had been 25 feet on the face, ‘fun-size’ by big wave standards, but on this day, the waves had the potential to be double that. With strong south winds forecasted, though, the swell was projected to be a write-off. South wind is storm wind. It cuts sideways across the face of most waves in California creating chops equivalent to moguls on a ski slope. At Mavericks, hitting a mogul full speed is like hitting a pot-hole on an autobahn. Two days before the swell hit, however, the wind models changed and it looked like there would be a window of clean conditions between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.
As our small boat motored out of the harbor, I could feel that the south wind was already beginning to flutter. The other surfers on our boat were committed to paddling out no matter the conditions. One had traveled from Morocco, another from Portugal. Being the only local on the boat, I could feel myself want to get a good wave in front of them. We made it to the channel and the ocean was calm for a moment. Most of the surfers jumped off the boat and paddled to the peak immediately.
One reason I enjoy surfing waves that scare me is that it allows me to learn about myself in a way that mild situations don’t. There is no faking it when I’m pulled deep underwater. Either I keep myself composed, or I don’t. Pushing myself, however, is different than disregarding warning signs and when most accidents occur, officials usually point to a series of small mistakes that lead to the incident.
On certain days at Mavericks, the waves hit the reef with such power the Richter scale at Berkeley registers the collision.
As we passed over a swell I heard a low growl in the distance. A wave broke 300 yards outside of the main bowl, further than I have ever seen. The 60-foot liquid avalanche seemed to move in slow motion and spanned across much of the channel. “Holy shit,” our captain said as he punched the throttle to get out of the way. Another boat 10 yards inside of us waited a moment too long. Once they realized that they were in danger it was too late, the corner of the whitewater caught the side of their boat and flipped it like a toy. Thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment sank to the bottom of the ocean, but the cameraman and captain are unharmed and treaded water until they were picked up by safety teams on wave runners.
The capsized boat was pushed in by another wave and smashed into the rocks on the harbor, splitting it into two. Amidst the chaos, I noticed that the safety teams were preoccupied with the boat and no one was watching the surfers in the lineup who were hit by the wave. Luckily they all seem to be O.K.
As the situation settled down I sat on the boat and noticed my leg shaking. In that moment the corny bumper sticker, ‘your ego is not your amigo,’ popped into my mind and I chuckled to myself. “Don’t do it,” I thought. I decided not to surf. It was too dangerous for me. Only three surfers caught waves before the wind completely ruined the conditions. I drove back to Santa Cruz, slowly.