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.

"What's happened here has just been a real nightmare," says another local. "It wasn't really his to trade. It was all of ours. Excuse me, does he own Maverick's?"

One person not afraid to go on record is 26-year-old Darryl "Flea" Virostko, a Maverick's regular from Santa Cruz. As a professional surfer and magazine cover boy, financed by five different sponsors, Virostko readily volunteers the words that many surfers seem to feel:

"Everybody in the [Washburn-Schad] movie is brown-nosing Jeff Clark! I'm not gonna fucking stick my nose up his ass!"

Actually, though, it's too late to complain about Clark or the popularizing of Maverick's. What started as the name of someone's surf dog has become a cottage industry. And in the next few months, Pillar Point will be deluged with more attention than ever.

With a few exceptions, Maverick's regular surfers break into three groups, along rough geographical lines. Doc Renneker, Grant Washburn, and the rest of the San Francisco crowd are philosophical and a bit older. The Pacifica guys are fearless, aggressive, and always seem to be pulling into the parking lot in a different car. And the Santa Cruz guys are in their own league altogether -- kids in their 20s, who drive up to Maverick's on two hours' sleep, smoking cigarettes, frequently still drunk from the previous night's party.

Common sense would suggest that surfers be more cautious after Mark Foo's death, but the tragedy seems to have produced exactly the opposite effect. As more people surf Maverick's more often, their ability improves, and so they push themselves further.

A routine wipeout at Maverick's is infinitely more dangerous than losing one's balance on almost any other wave in the world. Surfers call the Maverick's wipeout experience "tombstoning." The Wave blows a guy off his board and drives him so deep underwater that the 16-foot leash attaching his ankle to the board stretches tight, and then stretches another 6 feet, pulling one end of the board down so that only the top portion sticks up out of the water, looking like a tombstone. This leaves the surfer jostling around in the turbulence 20 feet below the surface. Regulars talk of the "Two-Wave Hold-Down Club." A member is added when he wipes out and then is held underwater for the 20 to 30 seconds it takes for a second wave to pass overhead.

The Wave produced perhaps the most documented wipeout in surfing history in late 1994, when a 16-year-old pizza delivery boy from Santa Cruz, Jay Moriarty, took off on a wave too early and lost his balance at the very crest of what looked to be a 40-foot peak. After he fell, The Wave drilled him down to the floor of the reef and pinned him on his back for more than 20 seconds. Moriarty is apparently the first surfer to have touched bottom at Maverick's. Magazine photo spreads and a poster of Moriarty's wipeout made him instantly famous. Miraculously, he surfaced uninjured, a 2-foot chunk of his surfboard still strapped to his leg leash.

Other wipeouts have led to harsher consequences. Some surfers have been dragged along and plunged into underwater canyons, where they must think calm thoughts and save their air until they can climb their leash to the surface. Others have been hurled into rocks, or left stranded on reefs, clinging to the top like crabs until a break in the waves leaves room to finally swim away. A few surfers have had their wet suits torn off down to the waist. One came up with a bloody nose that lasted for three days. Many surface to find themselves 100 yards from where they thought they were, and vomiting into the whitewater.

One bad Maverick's wipeout can end a surfer's big-wave career. Regulars speak of people who "see God" and never return to Pillar Point. Every year, a handful of surfers paddle out to the lineup at Maverick's and are so intimidated that they not only re-fuse to attempt The Wave, they never ride it all season.

On Jan. 30, The Wave presented a crowd of spectators with three dramatic near-deaths.

A Santa Cruz lifeguard and surfer named Neil Matthies dropped into an enormous wave, but it abruptly changed on him. The face grew steeper and steeper, and then The Wave essentially stopped moving. He fell onto his back, The Wave roaring on top of him, and was shoved to the ocean floor, where he rolled along the rocks for a two-wave hold-down. People were screaming from the cliff, "Oh my God, he's dead!" Just before a third wave clobbered him, Matthies finally clawed to the surface for a breath and made it back to shore, thinking he must have broken his back and was never going to walk again.

Later that day, a surfer from Brazil wiped out, then tried to swim back up the face of the next wave and went right over backward. Surfers heard him moaning, "Help, help," as he disappeared into the impact zone. A boat threw him a life preserver and fished him out. He had broken his board, blown out an eardrum, and injured his knee. He was numb, temporarily, from the waist down.

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