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.

During this part of the late-'50s, a few of the larger breaks in Southern California also were getting publicity. But Northern California surfers had seen something really extraordinary right in their own back yard -- The Wave off Pillar Point.

During a visit to Waikiki Beach in the 1950s, a young California surfer named "Mac" McCarthy bought a white German shepherd puppy. The pup was the runt of the litter; Mac named him Maverick. The dog loved water, and would insist on riding out on Mac's board.

Mac moved back to California, where he shared a house in Half Moon Bay with a happy-faced kid named Alex Matienzo and another surfer named Hal. The three would hit the beaches with Maverick, who insisted on paddling out with them. He was a good-natured dog, his coat bleached white by sun and salt water. Surfers still recall Maverick helpfully retrieving their boards, sometimes leaving teeth marks in them.

While surfing the Princeton cove, Matienzo and his friends had seen the big winter waves breaking farther out and crashing into Sail Rock, a stubble of jags sticking out of the water a half-mile offshore from Pillar Point. One day in 1961, they had to paddle out and try it. The monster waves easily bounced them off their little 7-foot boards, and since they didn't have leashes attached to their ankles, they had to swim all the way back in to retrieve their boards.

"Guys were going all over the place!" remembers Matienzo, who still surfs at age 72. "You try to turn, and you're moving quick -- the board just doesn't want to stay in the wave. I didn't like the bottom. A couple of feet down, it was just dark. You don't know what's down there."

After they finished surfing, Matienzo and his friends came back to shore and stood on the beach at Pillar Point. As a joke, they named the spot after Mac's dog. They never surfed those big waves again, but the name stuck. It was now Maverick's Point, or, more commonly, just Maverick's.

As the radio filled up with Beach Boys singles, and theaters showed films like Endless Summer, the 1960s brought surfing into the mainstream. What began as the pastime of Polynesian royalty was now directing the fashion aesthetic for junior high kids in the Midwest, who lived hundreds of miles from any beach, and had no idea what "Hang 10" meant. Surf shops opened up from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, selling shirts, shoes, and sunglasses, and occasionally, even an actual surfboard.

Surfing seemed to be everywhere on the California coast; by 1995, the state was home to 45 percent of the country's 1.6 million surfers. Santa Cruz became the most popular Northern California surfing spot -- the waves were a little better and more varied than elsewhere on the north coast, providing surfers with an education that would make many of them world-class professionals.

But if it was wildly popular, Santa Cruz never broke very big. Anybody looking for big waves would have to go elsewhere. Fortunately, elsewhere was only 60 miles north on Highway 1.

While he was in high school, Half Moon Bay's Jeff Clark saw the footage from Waimea on TV. He was the same age as the big-wave kids in Hawaii. He could do what they were doing, he thought, and he knew where. He'd been watching The Wave for years, out at the place named after the white dog -- Maverick's.

In February 1975, Clark paddled a board from Pillar Point out past Sail Rock and dropped into one of the waves. It was the biggest wave of his life, a 30-mile-per-hour joy ride that got his heart pumping faster than ever before in his 17-year life. He went out again, and caught more waves, and kept going out. For the next 15 years Clark surfed The Wave alone. A few friends paddled out with him, but when they saw the size of the waves, they thought he was nuts.

Clark was a natural athlete, but hardly the best surfer in the area -- some locals insist he wiped out so many times his nickname should be "Cartwheel" Clark. But the word spread that Jeff Clark was surfing some big-ass waves, and during the winter months, people could actually look out on the horizon and watch him do it.

In January 1990, Clark was hanging out at Ocean Beach in San Francisco with a few other surfers, watching the winter swells. Unable to keep his secret any longer, he asked them to come down to Half Moon Bay, to check out the biggest waves they'd ever seen. Dave "Big Bird" Schmidt and Tom Powers agreed to join him.

The two followed Clark in the long paddle out to Maverick's, and were stunned at the quality of the waves. You could ride them much longer and farther than in Hawaii. It was like an adrenalin roller coaster, up and down, building up more speed. And they had it all to themselves.

The news was out. A San Francisco cancer doctor named Mark "Doc" Renneker joined them. Steve Dwyer and Shawn Rhodes of Pacifica showed up. Vince Collier brought a group of surfers from Santa Cruz to check it out. The guys invested in the "big guns," 10- to 12-foot surfboards, sheared to a point at each end, that are essential to navigate big waves.

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