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 a sticky September night South of Market, the Twenty Tank brewpub is packed to capacity. Ruddy-faced people in white, logo-emblazoned T-shirts sip beers, waiting for the second public screening of Maverick's, a documentary produced by filmmaker Lili Schad and surfer Grant Washburn. The room buzzes with curiosity. This is what the audience already knows:

1) Maverick's is the name of the big wave 20 minutes south of San Francisco.
2) It was discovered by a local named Jeff Clark, who surfed it solo for 15 years.

3) A pro surfer named Mark Foo drowned there.
But other than seeing magazine photos, or a video snippet of Foo's death on the news, very few of the people in this bar have witnessed The Wave in action.

As the lights dim, the pub becomes deathly still. People set down their pints of beer to stare as a churning, roiling, 60-foot-tall tube of water collects ant-sized surfers and flings them over its top, or shoots them down toward the jagged rocks under its surface.

From the rear of the balcony a single, Jeff Spicoli surfer voice groans across the silence: "Ohhhhhh, duuuuuude!"

In the last eight years, Maverick's has grown so popular as a big-wave surf spot that Universal Studios and Tom Hanks are considering a feature film about Mark Foo's much-publicized death there in a freak 1994 surfing accident. And the Maverick's mystique is ever increasing, fueled, in part, by corporate interest.

Nov. 1 marks the start of the Northern California surfing season, and two separate surf contests are planned for Maverick's. If the weather generates big waves, those contests are expected to draw overflow crowds and the biggest media hype the small town of Half Moon Bay, located 22 miles south of downtown San Francisco, has ever seen.

The Maverick's Men Who Ride Mountains surf contest, sponsored by the Quiksilver Inc. clothing company, begins next month. Entry is limited to 12 competitors -- eight from the area, and four from elsewhere -- all handpicked by the contest director, Half Moon Bay surfer Jeff Clark, who has been instrumental in Maverick's rise to fame, and who has become the focus of controversy over the popularization of this once-obscure spot.

Between Nov. 1 and Jan. 27, whenever The Wave starts breaking, Clark will send out the alert: Contestants from all over the world will have 48 hours to get to Half Moon Bay and paddle out, or they will lose their chance to compete. A press release doesn't list criteria for judging the winners, but the prize purse totals $40,000.

Immediately following the Quiksilver contest, from Feb. 3 to 28, another surf clothing company, Reef Brazil, will hold its own contest at Maverick's. This competition is open to two-man teams representing countries around the world, surfing for a chunk of an undisclosed amount of prize money.

There is a third contest involving the once-little-known Maverick's. Last year the K2 Corp., a ski and snowboard maker, entered the lucrative surf market by absorbing the Katin surf shorts company. As a promotional idea, K2 stunned the industry by sponsoring a big-wave competition, offering $50,000 to the surfer who could ride the biggest wall of water. Surfers attacked the largest waves they could find in the Pacific Ocean, accompanied by photographers from all over the world. Tow-in assists by boat or Jet Ski -- a new offshoot originating in Hawaii, which places surfers into waves not possible to reach by paddling -- were not allowed. Maverick's was deluged with new surfers.

"We had people coming out of the woodwork," recalls Jeff Clark. "We're really lucky nobody was killed."

In a highly controversial contest -- which many feel urged surfers to push beyond their limits -- the finalists were Santa Cruz star Peter Mel, photographed at Maverick's, and Taylor Knox, who caught his wave at Todos Santos, an island off the coast of Baja California. Although both waves measured just under 50 feet tall, the judges favored Knox based largely on the angle of his photograph; he collected $50,000. The judges awarded $5,000 to Mel as a second prize.

Maverick's essentially lost a beauty contest.
But this year The Wave gets another shot, with K2 again sponsoring its $50,000, big-wave photo competition, open to anyone surfing the Pacific Ocean.

Last year El Nino produced record-breaking swells in both California and Hawaii. This winter La Nina, a weather pattern that often follows the Nino phenomenon, is expected to do the same, and surf magazines are hyping the dry, cold, clean, big-wave conditions expected for Northern California. Photographers are planning their winter schedules. Maverick's regulars are surfing the small breaks to stay sharp, practicing a familiar hurry-up-and-wait routine. Half Moon Bay surf shops are ordering extra sunglasses and videos.

But Half Moon Bay can expect more than increased media coverage and financial opportunities from the surf contests on The Wave at Maverick's. Sooner or later, if the contests continue, someone else is going to die.

Spanish explorer Capt. Gaspar de Portola and a party of 60 arrived in the area of what is now Half Moon Bay in 1769, and discovered 150 Indians there, fishing and raising crops. A diary kept by Father Juan Crespi provides a visitor's first impression by a non-Indian human being:

"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."

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.

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.)

The media churned out often contradictory versions of Foo's death. Jon Krakauer wrote a lyrical tale for Outside magazine. The obituary ran in the New York Times and on CNN and network news. Photos and video clips were sold and resold. Pillar Point also showed signs of overexposure: The cliff was tromped bare of vegetation, and trash littered the parking lot. If Maverick's had once been a local secret, it was now world-famous as The Wave That Killed Mark Foo.

With the death of Foo, Half Moon Bay changed. Surfers made the pilgrimage to Maverick's not so much to surf as to prove their manhood. To Jeff Clark, these guys were simply "bounty hunters." Other local surfers were upset, not only with the newcomers, but also with Clark; their little secret was ruined forever, and Clark had become the media's favorite commentator on Maverick's.

In the wake of Foo's death, some residents of Half Moon Bay headed for the hills to avoid the spotlight. Jeff Clark was different. He made himself available to meet the media head-on and give the soundbites they begged for, his Paul Newman-blue eyes dripping with courage. And Clark had a story to tell. He'd surfed Maverick's by himself for 15 years. As far as some were concerned -- including many in the national press corps and Clark himself -- The Wave was his.

Clark always seemed to deliver the perfect line at the right time:
"I had this desire to surf big, powerful waves."
"It's the meanest wave on the planet."
"Maverick's takes care of itself."

In most small towns, there is an unspoken code of egalitarianism. Half Moon Bay, population 9,000, is no different. Anybody can be mayor, but nobody better get too big for his britches.

Surfing has a more complex code -- a laid-back, Zen relationship with nature, combined with the incredible ego essential to paddling out and tackling The Wave and a strong sense of propriety. And usually it is not cool for outsiders to clutter the local surf break.

For Half Moon Bay, where (except for Maverick's, far offshore) the breaks are not that great, surfer attitude and ego had always been minimal. But Maverick's and Jeff Clark have now stretched the boundaries of economic and personal ambition in and around Half Moon Bay, and not everyone is happy about it.

The Wave became an official financial entity in 1995, when Clark and his girlfriend opened the Maverick's Surf Shop in downtown Half Moon Bay. The Wave now had an address the curious could track down in the phone book. The store's walls filled up with autographed posters and photos of big-wave surfers, and videos shot at Maverick's. In front of the surfboard display, Jeff Clark gave interviews about the most hyped big wave in the world.

Depending on who you talk to, the local competition -- Cowboy Surf Shop and Half Moon Bay Board Shop -- was either happy for the increased attention, or incredibly angry, believing the town wasn't big enough to support three full-time surf shops. Maverick's had the best location by far, right on Main Street.

But if resentment toward Clark began to simmer, surfers soon had more to resent.

Jeff Clark and the Maverick's legacy took on a soap opera tone earlier this year, when Half Moon Bay's native-son surf celebrity and his girlfriend split up, leaving the future of the Maverick's shop up in the air. A mutual friend was called to mediate the dispute. Clark was allowed to keep the use of the name Maverick's, but his girlfriend kept the store, since she had put up the money to open it. (The store now operates under the name Coastside Surf & Skate. Dated Maverick's memorabilia remains on the walls.)

Clark has since married another woman, who owns a cafe in Princeton, a few miles up Highway 1, and within walking distance of Pillar Point and The Wave. They have renamed the cafe Maverick's Roadhouse Cafe, and do a sideline business selling Maverick's T-shirts and stickers.

Up the street from the cafe is Maverick's Surf Shop, essentially a room in a warehouse where Clark shapes and sells his custom Maverick's surfboards. Also this year, he launched the Maverick's Water Patrol, a volunteer surf rescue team, and he consults for the www.mavsurfer.com Web site, which features a list of all 52 alumni who have ever ridden Maverick's.

Although Clark is the legal owner of all the Maverick's businesses -- the cafe, surfboard shop, surfboard company, and water patrol team -- he recently told a film crew: "Big-wave surfing is about that -- big-wave surfing. It's not about how much money I'm gonna make."

After an initial phone conversation for this article, Clark missed an appointment to be interviewed, and did not return messages left at his shop.

The Wave is approaching maximum surfing usage. Some say it's already ruined, and all signs point to Jeff Clark as the person most responsible for popularizing and marketing the name of Maverick's.

The Jeff Clark Bad-Mouth Club has many members.
"He did all he could to drag this into the spotlight," says one Half Moon Bay surfer who asked not to be identified. "It kind of backfired on him. If you take away the media, what is he? He's a surfboard shaper in a small town. The media's essentially created that guy."

"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.

That same day, Flea Virostko took a nasty wipeout, and surfaced to discover his leash stuck on a submerged rock. He struggled in the whitewater for two minutes, as wave after wave pounded his head, and repeatedly drove him under. This wipeout, captured in the Schad-Washburn film, is chilling. Virostko's bobbing head is barely visible in the wash, gulping for breath as each wave roars to a finish and slaps his face with white foam. At last, he is able to free himself.

"You just gotta stay really mellow and say, 'I can do this,' " explains Virostko. "I should have took my leash off and met my board on the other side of the rocks. I was like, 'Fuck, this is definitely how Mark Foo died.' "

In 30 years, Northern California surfing has evolved from a purist, almost religious meditation into a horrifying, heart-pounding experience that should make surfers seriously re-evaluate what they're doing. But instead, this winter dozens of them will show up on short notice in Half Moon Bay and challenge The Wave for fame and fortune. With any luck, none of them will be seriously hurt.

Editor's note: Maverick's, a film by Grant Washburn and Lili Schad, screens Nov. 8 at 6 p.m. as part of the Film Arts Festival at the Roxie Cinema. For information call 552-8760.

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