The Selling of a Wave

Three sports clothing companies are sponsoring contests that encourage surfers to ride the 60-foot waves at Maverick's Point. Someone may be encouraged to death.

"On going about a league we came to the point [Pillar Point] ... which makes a good [bay] here. It would be a fine place for a town; but there is not a stick of wood anywhere about."

A group of Franciscan fathers followed, and began grazing cattle on the land around Pillar Point, the first name on record for the knob of cliff that juts into the Pacific just a few miles north of the current town of Half Moon Bay. After the Mexican Revolution against Spain in 1821, the area was divided into Mexican land grants. Pillar Point was part of the parcel called Corral de Tierra Palomares, and the acreage was eventually converted into the Denniston ranch, at that time the most productive agricultural spot in California. The fishing village at the wharf, then named Denniston, was later purchased by land developer Frank B. Brophy in 1908, who renamed the community Princeton-by-the-Sea, supposedly for Prince, his dog.

Whaling ships worked the area, harpooning their migrating prey, and chunks of blubber were boiled over open flames right on the beach. Ships constantly rammed the deadly outer reefs, and either sank or washed up ashore, where the cargoes were stolen by thieves and children played in the broken hulls.

After the turn of the century, the Ocean Shore Railroad started developing the small towns of the area as resort getaways from San Francisco, but the project failed to take off. Many lots remained vacant. Fortunately, though, such a quiet, unassuming, and isolated coast was ideal for another purpose.

Soon after Prohibition went into effect in 1920, bootleggers began to bring booze down from Canada by ships, which were met by small boats, the crates of bottles being offloaded at any unobtrusive cove or harbor. Bootleggers used shallow-keel crafts so they could scoot over the rocks at high tide, and thereby outrun the Coast Guard. Souped-up cars, hollowed out to accommodate their precious payload, roared up Highway 1 for delivery to San Francisco. Tiny Princeton featured three piers to offload the incoming booze.

And whenever The Wave appeared, the smart boat skipper would hold off his delivery until the swells retreated.

Booze was big business. Coastal restaurants in the Half Moon Bay area constructed secret closets to hide illicit hooch, and offered prostitutes to amuse the thirsty visiting hoi polloi. (Some of these establishments, such as the Moss Beach Distillery and the Miramar Beach Inn, continue today as restaurants.)

After the 1933 repeal of Prohibition, the economy shifted back to agriculture and fishing. For the next few decades, boats sat off Pillar Point, their crews hauling in nets full of salmon and rock cod. Nobody considered The Wave anything other than an extreme marine hazard.

Apparently, California first heard of surfing from accounts by seagoing writers such as Capt. Cook, Mark Twain, and Jack London, who visited the islands of the South Pacific and marveled at the natives merrily riding the waves. Then, during the 1920s, a Hawaiian Olympic swimming champion, Duke Kahanamoku, began hanging around California beaches, entertaining locals by riding a 10-foot plank made from redwood. A few brave, thick-skinned souls traveled up and down the West Coast, introducing others to the sport.

By the 1950s, handfuls of guys could be found surfing Bay Area beaches, descending cliffs by ropes and handing down surfboards. These pioneers braved the freezing water -- temperatures range from 55 degrees in summer to 47 degrees in winter, when The Wave breaks -- wearing nothing but gym trunks, wool sweaters, and women's shower caps to warm their heads. The less adventurous went out with air mattresses and diving fins.

Only the truly masochistic could stay in the water longer than a couple of hours. Guys came staggering out of the surf, unable to feel their legs or feet. But that was no reason to stop. You had a great view, paddling was excellent exercise, and your mind was free to wander. Nobody was worrying about getting his photo published in a magazine. And there were more than enough waves for everyone.

Around midcentury, crude surf suits called beavertail vests appeared. This suit featured a strap that buckled under the crotch. Another suit reputed to ward off the freezing North Pacific was something called a Farmer Brown, or sleeveless long john, that old-timers recall was guaranteed to fill up with water. One surfer, who worked for United Airlines at the San Francisco airport, told his friends about the quarter-inch layer of neoprene foam rubber padding he discovered under the planes' carpets. Surfers eagerly stockpiled the rubber and started fashioning their own makeshift wet suits.

As Northern California surfers were discovering how to avoid hypothermia, large-wave surfing was growing popular in Hawaii. No other ridable wave in the world was as big and dramatic as the one at Waimea, on the north shore of Oahu. A few locals began trying to surf those 30- to 60-foot walls of beautiful blue 80-degree Pacific Ocean -- and got hooked on the rush.

This exhilarating type of surfing was something else altogether. There was no time for fancy maneuvering. Big-wave surfing was pure survival, just hanging on until either you or the wave petered out. The Hawaiians developed their own ultramacho system for measuring big waves. Whatever the height of the face measured, from trough to crest, they halved it. What would be a 40-foot wave in another part of the world was, therefore, only "20 feet Hawaiian."

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