Bad Vibrations

Surfers battle enviro-surfers over a proposed jet-ski ban that would protect wildlife -- but threaten big-wave surfing at the legendary break known as Maverick's

Then there is the safety issue. Maverick's worldwide reputation as a big-wave mecca draws surfers who aren't qualified to test it. There may well be significant public support for a ban on personal watercraft in the marine sanctuary, but a ban is highly unlikely to deter the hard-core adrenaline freaks who surf there, and it's downright foolish to imagine all of them surviving the next winter's storm at Maverick's, which breaks a half-mile out to sea, without volunteer rescue craft nearby.

"The funny thing is, we've drug Mike Kimsey in on two occasions," Quirarte says. "He didn't argue with us then."

To his credit, Kimsey acknowledges the story. "I'm one of these brutally honest types of people," he says. "One time at Maverick's, when I had to dive under a big wave, the wave broke my board, and they came over and said, 'Well, would you like a ride in?' 'Sure, I'd like a ride in.'"

Tow-in surfers usually operate when 
conditions are too choppy or unpredictable 
for conventional paddlers.
Frank Quirarte
Tow-in surfers usually operate when conditions are too choppy or unpredictable for conventional paddlers.
During the two dozen or so winter days 
when Maverick's gets huge, it produces 
waves that retain the hollow, surfable shape 
of smaller swells.
Frank Quirarte
During the two dozen or so winter days when Maverick's gets huge, it produces waves that retain the hollow, surfable shape of smaller swells.

He sighs.

"So I guess I'm a hypocrite. I'm not out there anymore, so it's easy for me to take this approach."


"He's not in a good spot." A photographer wearing an orange beanie, bobbing like a cork as the shoulder of a wave passes beneath his tiny boat, trains his telephoto lens on a nearby surfer paddling out through the gigantic waves that have descended on Maverick's. It's the afternoon of Nov. 21, 2001. The water looks like steel, and the waves arrive quickly and snap like jagged teeth. "Uh oh -- look at this, look at this," says the photographer, watching as the thick lip of a wave slams with brutal force on the helpless surfer, who couldn't paddle quickly enough past the break point. "He's caught," the cameraman says, before snapping off a few frames of a surfer who has been able to drop in on the wave. The downed surfer has disappeared beneath the churning foam.

"It caught me and I was just down – way, way down," a pale young surfer says into the camera during a cutaway from the most harrowing moment in 100 Foot Wednesday, one of the recent, and best, surf documentaries to capture the savage beauty of Maverick's. "I felt like I was in the womb. I opened my eyes, and it was nothing but darkness and noise.

"I was trying to shimmy up my leash," he continues, referring to the lifelinelike strap that connects a surfer's ankle to his board. "And the more I shimmied, the thinner the leash got, so the deeper I knew I was going."

The wipeout had so disoriented the surfer that he tried to surface in the wrong direction -- down, toward the ocean floor. Finally fighting to the surface, sans surfboard, he could only make it to some nearby rocks, where waves threatened to sweep him away again.

Two-way radios crackle:

"Where's he at, Don? Where's he at?"

"He's outside of you, way outside of you. He's in the rocks!"

But soon, he's washed off the rocks, back in the water, waving his arms for help. And from the left side of the frame, a single rider on a jet ski zooms into the hissing cauldron, hefts the surfer out, and roars away before the next wave crashes.

Surfing as a ritual and a sport can be traced to the 15th-century Hawaiian Islands, and was popularized in California at the turn of the last century by Olympic swimming champion Duke Kahanamoku. One of Hawaii's favorite sons and the first "beach boy" in recorded history, Kahanamoku grew up riding 10-foot planks over the lapping waves of Waikiki Beach, and his exhibitions of surfing prowess up and down the coast of California planted the seeds of a love affair between state and sport that would explode in the 1950s and '60s. By that time, innovations in surfboard design and wave-riding techniques in Hawaii had enabled daring surfers to trade the reliable calm of Waikiki for the unpredictable monsters that pound Waimea Bay. Big-wave surfing was born, and by the late 1950s surfers were taming some of California's larger breaks, using the same no-frills technique -- ride fast and straight down the "face" of the wave, hugging tight to the walls to avoid the crashing lip -- that enabled the Hawaiians to emerge from Waimea's barrels unscathed.

According to generally accepted legend, Alex Matienzo, a surfer who explored coastal breaks from Pacifica to Santa Cruz in the 1950s and '60s, was on the Pacific Coast Highway when he spotted waves off Half Moon Bay and rode out to test them with a few of his buddies. During the session, his friend's German shepherd, who had been left behind on the beach, popped out of the water next to him, and Matienzo had to paddle the pooch back to shore. When the surfer and his friends departed, awe-struck by a long day of riding the enormous wedgelike break, they christened the place in honor of Maverick, the precocious dog with an affinity for joining humans on surfboards.

Big-wave surfing is the province of a few surfers powerful enough to steer the requisite longboard -- usually measuring 10 to 12 feet -- as it threatens with every heartbeat to dig into the wave or flutter out of control; the break off Pillar Point Harbor did not draw many of these daring visitors for more than a decade. While surfing the nearby and tamer Ross' Cove, though, Jeff Clark of Half Moon Bay spotted the bigger waves closer to the harbor. In February 1975, at the age of 17, Clark caught the ride that would change his life. But he kept it to himself for the next 15 years, finally deciding in January 1990 to invite a couple of surfers from San Francisco to join him down south. They were amazed by what they found at Maverick's, and word gradually filtered north to S.F. and south to Santa Cruz.

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