Yesterday I surfed Mavericks.
This has been a goal of mine for about two years and I’ve been actively preparing for the past year. I am so stoked to have completed this challenge and very grateful to have done so without harm. Here is the story along with some of my thoughts and observations.
The last month or so has been amazing for surfing in central California. We’ve had a run of swell where it seems every other day is 10ft+. I’ve been getting out to Ocean Beach before work and spending plenty of time in the water.
There is a saying (or at least there should be) that it is better to succeed late than to fail on time. I originally challenged myself to surf Mavericks in 2013 but extended my deadline because Mavericks is a winter wave and only broke twice in the 2013 half of this winter.
I’ve had a surf alert set up so that I get an email any time Mavericks is going to be bigger than 10ft. My target conditions are very specific, because Mavericks is a very fickle wave. It doesn’t break much below 13ft and anything above 20ft can result in 40ft+ faces – too big and dangerous for my liking. My window is 15-18ft with little or no wind and a mid-low tide. Those conditions might happen a half-dozen times per year and I’ve got to find one when I’m not working or busy and where it isn’t ridiculously crowded.
I’ve been out before work a number of times where it wasn’t quite right. One morning around 7am it looked ok, but there was no one else out and I decided it would be better to have someone else out there to watch and learn the ropes from. I only know of one person brave enough to surf Mavericks for their first time, alone and unaided.
The Swell Rolls In
The past week I have been distracted. An amazing swell was predicted on the forecast. Rumor was spreading that the Mavericks invitational would run. Shoot, for a second we even thought the Eddie was a go. My mind was occupied and it would be fair to say that I neglected some of my other duties a bit.
I read a blog post about how most of the surfers at Mavericks on the last swell were wearing emergency flotation devices. I spent a few hours researching emergency flotation devices trying to decide if I needed one.
I heard guys at Power Bars between sets. I tried to figure out where I could put some Power Bars in my wetsuit.
I kept a window open on my computer to the Mavericks surf cam and refreshed it every 15 minutes. I was preoccupied. I was not able to engage 100% with anything.
On Friday, the swell peaked. The Mavericks contest was running so I didn’t bother driving down. The waves would have been too big for me and the whole place would have been a zoo. I instead went to Ocean Beach where there was no one out. I watch one guy try to get out and eventually give up. Another guy snapped his board on a set wave. A few more body surfers got caught on the inside and turned around. I decided to try anyways.
Friday was a confidence check for me. After an hour of paddling, I gave up without reaching the outside. It was the only day this winter where I wasn’t able to make it out. I was on my big wave gun, Hail Mary, who I can’t duck dive, and don’t often surf, which played a huge part of the failure.
I sat on the beach afterwards feeling a bit smaller than my ambitions. I was reconsidering if trying for Mavericks was even a good idea. It was a turning point and I sort of made up my mind that if I didn’t surf this swell, I wouldn’t keep chasing that goal into February. I would call it quits and focus on my 2014 challenge.
The Morning Of
Saturday morning, just 12 hours after the professionals finished surfing in the Mavericks invitational, my wife and I drove down to see the waves. I packed my gear, just in case, but figured I would end up surfing at Ocean Beach like every other morning up to that point.
The cam showed a few surfers were out when we arrived at 8:30am. We checked from the north side and saw things looked good. I ate a slice of cold pizza as we walked the trail to the south to view from the cliff. My stomach was turning knots. It might be the day.
The height and tide were about perfect but there was a lot of wind. There were white caps on the water and chop on the face of the wave. That was a deal breaker for me – but wind can change.
I had still not made up my mind as we walked back to the car. It was now around 9:30.
I’m still not sure why I decided to suit up. All I can recall is that I convinced myself, as I often do, not to finish, but to start.
I realized that the paddle out was pretty easy and the channel was safe. Even the day before, when the waves were twice the size, the boats in the channel were fine.
I redefined success. I decided that a victory for that day was to paddle out and see what Mavericks was like from up close. I thought that if I watched a few surfers catch waves, I could then decide if I wanted to come back the next day and try. That seemed smart. I had tricked myself into taking one more step.
Even though I was just planning to sit in the channel, any time you paddle out into waves that size in an unpredictable place like Mavericks, you put your life on the line. I suited up and as we walked the trail back to the beach I reminded my wife what to do if something were to happen to me. Where our savings were and how to collect from my life insurance policy. I didn’t want to be morbid, but I wanted to be assured that she would know what to do and how to provide for our child.
You might be asking yourself, why then, knowing that, would I attempt to surf this wave. The answer is that you’re probably right in thinking that I shouldn’t, but unfortunately that doesn’t mesh with how I’m wired. If I don’t have limits to push that take me to the extreme of my mental and physical focus, I won’t be able to sit still during the week. If I don’t have a little crazy, I won’t be able to do much normal. And I can barely do normal as it is.
The Paddle Out & Line Up
Ocean Beach, where I usually surf, has a great way of regulating itself – the paddle out. Most people could not paddle out through the breaking waves at Ocean Beach on a 10ft+ day, they would get pushed back to shore by the waves. That is why there aren’t many people out there and those that make it out are usually pretty advanced.
Mavericks has to regulate itself in other ways because the paddle out is pretty uneventful. Besides being about a mile out to sea around some jagged exposed rocks there isn’t anything too phenomenal about the paddle out on a day like Saturday.
I kissed my wife and the belly that holds our yet-to-be-born-child goodbye, tossed my board in the water and paddled out to sea. This wasn’t a war mission, this was reconnaissance.
The paddle was calm, but I was nervous as I’ve ever been. I just didn’t know what to expect, where to go or what was about to happen to me.
It was 10am as I approached the line up, a bit cautious. It is no secret that surfing is an activity plagued with localized tension that often results in conflict at surf spots. It is often simple supply & demand – there are more people than waves and thus conflict. There are some safety implications as well though. An inexperienced surfer can put themselves and others in harms way.
Typically beginner surf spots are pretty mellow because it is expected that most people there don’t know what they are doing and that it is going to be crowded. People easily bothered by either of those things don’t go to those spots – which I why I don’t surf at Pacifica.
At more advanced spots, you’ll sometimes feel more of the vibe. Especially around Santa Cruz.
I’ve just always assumed that more difficult wave equals rougher crowd. Mavericks being one of the most difficult waves in the world, I assumed it would be the roughest crowd I’d ever encountered.
Surprisingly it was pretty mellow. There were seven other surfers out there when I arrived. One person asked if anyone was behind me, clearly worried that it was going to get crowded, but didn’t in any way insinuate that I should beat it.
Sitting around in the lull between waves was a bit like being around a campfire. One guy was from Hawaii and was telling stories of some of the waves out there. People exchanged travel plans. Everyone listed off their wave to wipe out count for the day. Someone was 5-2 while another was 3-0. One guy was 7-6. I’m not sure how he was still out there after all of those wipe outs.
I had just gotten out and was comfortably at 0-0.
Clearly most of the people knew each other, I assume they’re regulars, but those that didn’t introduced themselves by name. I haven’t seen that too often. It was pretty cool.
Not only was everyone friendly, but most people were genuinely concerned for the safety of others. One guy made a comment to another not to paddle in without letting someone know. If the surfer took a wave and didn’t come back the others wouldn’t know if he went in safely or was in a bad situation. One guy went down on a wave and everyone stopped to watch that he made it up. He eventually did after the second wave rolled over him.
Most of the guys, 5 of the 8, had emergency flotation devices. The popular kind is an inflatable bladder with a rip cord & C02 canister. While I was out there a few of them even deployed their device to avoid the aforementioned two wave hold downs.
Like I mentioned, my goal for the day was to paddle out then sit and watch for a bit. I figured I would be out there an hour or so and then paddle back. That seemed like a respectable amount of time.
A few sets rolled through and it was obvious that everyone was stoked. The tide was dropping, meaning the wave was breaking with a little more power and the wind had completely stopped. Despite being a Saturday morning, there were only eight surfers out instead of the 30 some expected. One guy made a comment that it was one of the best days he’d ever seen and was the perfect day to surf Mavericks for the first time, or to push the limits a bit. It was as forgiving as a giant can be I guess.
Twenty minutes after I got to the lineup a dream set approached. It was coming from the right angle, had clean glassy faces and was standing up just right. The first wave rolled through and two guys took off. Then another two waves each took two surfers with them. A fourth and final wave of the set was approaching and there were only two of us sitting in the take off zone. The other guy wasn’t turned to paddle for it and I thought, “Shoot, this is as good of a chance as I’ll ever get.” I went off-mission. I turned and paddled for it.
It was certainly the smallest wave of the set. As it approached it didn’t seem much different that one of the waves I normally ride at Ocean Beach. The final seconds before it broke though it seemed to double in size. I felt it kick and was up on my feet. That board flies.
It was a solid drop in and a gentle shoulder. I had pictured this wave in my head hundreds of times. I had gone over exactly how I was going to ride it. Take of from the right of the peak, slight angle towards the shoulder, light bottom turn and ride it out to the channel. It was magical. About half way through the ride I realized what I was doing. “I’m surfing Mavericks!” A surreal feeling. From looking at the footage, it is DOH+ maybe TOH range. Certainly my biggest wave ever.
Here is the wave as captured by Surfline.com’s camera rewind. I had to search through a bunch of footage, but thankfully I found the moment where there were only two of us sitting in the take off zone.
I wanted to paddle in right then and go home. I got one wave and was safe. No wipe out. No hold down. No rocks.
The wave I caught was really such a perfect situation. To have the swell height, direction, wind, tide and crowd all line up like that for a perfect wave is such a rare and special gift. I am stoked out of my mind that I got to experience it.
The Rest of The Session
That wave was at 10:25am. I was in the water until about 1:00 and didn’t get another wave. After that a few more surfers paddled out and the lineup got a bit more crowded. The tide was dropping too which meant the waves were getting heavier and the bottoms were starting to drop out more. Having gotten a wave I didn’t feel any need to push it much further. I had done more than I wanted and was perfectly ok going home without another wave.
As sets rolled through I would try for one of the smaller ones or try to pick off a shoulder if no one was going for the wave. Most of the time there was someone up already and I wasn’t quite comfortable enough to share a wave, even though it doesn’t seem like the faux pas that it normally is.
I sat chatting and enjoying being out there.
At one point however, we were all enjoying chatting a bit and no one was paying attention to our line up. See, Mavericks breaks in a very specific spot but it is hard to know where that spot is during the lulls between sets. In order to keep track of where you are you have to line up objects on the shore to triangulate yourself. Well we had forgotten to do that and the currents had drifted us right into the impact zone.
We realized right as a set was heading towards us. This is the horror story you always hear about. Everyone took off paddling like we were in a race over the face of a wave right before it broke on us. Then as we got over it we saw the next one, just a little bit bigger. We all paddled with furry. I would have been laughing if I wasn’t deathly terrified of getting swept over the falls with a dozen people, a dozen surfboards and 200 ft of leashes. We made it over the second wave and there was one final wave of the set. That one someone had to dive off of their board to clear. Classic Mavericks – I’ve heard stories like this since I was a grom – now that I’m safe I’m kind of glad I got to experience it.
It is funny that after a year of preparation the day was kind of mellow. I didn’t even get my hair wet. But, nonetheless, I’m glad I was prepared for the worst.
Reflecting on my one Mavericks wave, it was awesome, but the stress to stoke ratio is tipped the wrong way for me. Mavericks is a wave with high variability and high average danger.
On Friday after striking out at Ocean Beach I sat talking with an older surfer for a few minutes. He said he had never surfed Mavericks because the year that it began getting popular was the year his first child was born. He said he’s stuck to Ocean Beach where the waves are big, but not quite as dangerous. And he reminded me that often Mavericks has one peak with 25 surfers while Ocean Beach will have 25 peaks with one surfer each.
There is some wisdom to that. I love surfing Ocean Beach in the 12ft range. I’ll actually push my surfing more, make turns on the face and get into critical sections of the wave. Sure, the wipe outs suck, but not emergency flotation device level suck.
So with that, I think this is my official retirement from big wave surfing. I am 1-0. It is hard to argue with a perfect record.
I’ll leave Mavericks, Jaws and Teahupoo to others, you can find me scoring DOH waves waves and shredding the faces off of them.
Now that my 2013 challenge has been completed… on to the next one!