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.

And still, few people knew about Maverick's until an article appeared in Surfer magazine's June 1992 issue. The cover shot was of Half Moon Bay surfer Darin Bingham, clinging to a sheet of water, accompanied by the headline "Maverick's Exposed: Nasty Photos of the West Coast's Heaviest Wave." The article inside incorrectly identified Maverick as Matienzo's dog, but the photos were unbelievable. Hawaii no longer could claim the only big wave in the world. Surfing was shocked.

"It was like finding a lost species of animal in downtown San Francisco," says Matt Warshaw, surf historian and former editor of Surfer magazine.

Big-wave surfers in Hawaii -- famous faces like Ken Bradshaw, Brock Little, and Mark Foo -- heard the reports, but didn't believe Maverick's was possible. Bradshaw finally visited Pillar Point a few times, surfed it, and returned to Hawaii with the message: Yep, it's just as big as Waimea. And yep, it's really cold.

The deep ocean swells that wind up breaking as giant waves off Pillar Point originate with storms near Alaska or Australia and generate incredible energy in their journey across the Pacific. According to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration map, the ocean floor of Pillar Point rises relatively quickly from a depth of 120 feet to a 60-foot shelf. The dense, cold-water swells accelerate up this grade and gather more power, then suddenly hit a 20-feet-deep ledge and take an even bigger bounce. At that point, as horizontal energy converts into vertical bulk, huge, thick waves curl up to reach 50 or 60 feet from trough to crest -- roughly the height of a six-story building -- before exploding into plumes of white mist on the outcroppings of Sail Rock. Below the breaking waves is the ocean bottom of jagged rocks and stone arches. It's both breathtaking and brutal.

The world's weather systems completely control the lives of surfers, who constantly check buoy readings, Web sites, and surf hot lines for signs of upcoming swells. Maverick's surfers are even more dependent than most upon nature, because The Wave breaks only for about 20 days in the wintertime. When the buoys at sea are predicting big swells by morning, the surfers lie in their beds at night fully awake, staring at the ceiling in anticipation.

Also beholden to the vagaries of Maverick's weather are the photographers and videographers of The Wave. Whenever it goes off, people drop what they are doing and immediately grab their equipment. Some set up their tripods and telephoto lenses along the cliff at Pillar Point, others strap themselves into rented charter boats. A few put on fins, swim out with a waterproof camera, and actually tread water right in the middle of the action. Veterans have learned the lighting is best in the morning, when the sun is aimed at the wave's face.

Surf history isn't measured in years; it's remembered for the swells. In the winter of 1994, a fierce storm kicked up massive swells in the ocean off Alaska, creating what the surfers call "Aleutian juice." The waves rolled hundreds of miles across open sea, smacked the underground reef in front of Maverick's, and sent up faces that measured 50 feet -- the biggest anyone had seen in a decade. The Wave was outdoing itself.

In Hawaii, Bradshaw, Foo, and Little heard the news, and booked a red-eye flight for California. They arrived two days before Christmas, put on wet suits, and paddled out from Pillar Point. Of all the surfers in the world, only 50 or so can handle genuinely big waves. Suddenly, Half Moon Bay was graced with a visit from three of the world's best, and word raced through the Northern California surfing community. Photographers lined the Pillar Point cliff, packed into boats, and even dangled from a helicopter.

For a while, the Hawaiians caught waves and enjoyed themselves. Waiting in the lineup for another wave, Foo turned to his friend, Matt Warshaw, and asked if he could crash at his house in San Francisco that night. Warshaw said sure.

Foo took off on the next wave, fell off his board, and belly-flopped into the face of a 20-foot wave, medium-sized by Maverick's standards. His board broke into three pieces, and the wave sent the middle chunk flying right at the head of surfer John Raymond, who ducked just in time. Foo's wipeout was nothing spectacular, people thought. He'll just swim back to shore to get another board.

Brock Little and Mike Parsons caught the next wave; Maverick's dealt both a vicious wipeout. People on the cliff gasped. It looked very bad. Parsons got slammed down into a bunch of turbulence. He felt someone underneath him in the dark, and assumed it was Brock Little. Later, he realized it was probably the body of Mark Foo.

An hour -- some accounts say two hours -- later, a fishing boat loaded with photographers saw a piece of surfboard floating near the shore, a mile from Maverick's. It was Foo's board, and next to it was his body. The coroner ruled the death a drowning.

The next afternoon more than a mile of the road to Pillar Point was lined with cars. Surfers held a traditional Hawaiian surfer memorial, paddling into the water, forming a circle, tossing leis in the middle, and listening as each member of the circle said a few words about Mark Foo. (Ironically, almost a year later to the hour after Foo's death, a California surfer named Donnie Solomon was killed at Waimea.)

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