Life and death surfing
The air smells faintly of salt water, and strongly of bonfires, diesel fuel, and weed. Seagulls squawk, the sky on the horizon is just turning green, and the air is cold in that prankish West Coast way that’s impossible to take seriously and pointless to dress for. Once the sun comes up and the fog burns off, it’s going to be a perfect day.
It’s 6 AM, high tide, and I’m a thirty-minute, eucalyptus-dense drive south of San Francisco in Princeton-by-the-Sea, a tiny village with some of the biggest waves in the world and not much else. Shadowy figures are perched in the beds of pickup trucks; they speak in low voices and occasionally take sips of coffee. I’m sitting on the ground in the near dark, waiting for a surf contest to begin.
An unusually steep, unusually deep Pliocene-epoch sedimentary reef rises half a mile offshore. This is where Mavericks breaks, where from November to March waves can top out at 100 feet, making them roughly ten times the height of what most surfers would consider “big.” Sharks are common, as are riptides and exposed rocks. Accomplished big-wave surfers — famous ones — have died here.
Some years — when tides and swells and winds and storms combine infelicitously — the waves here fail to break at anything above twenty feet, which means for Mavericks that they are hardly waves at all. If the conditions aren’t right, the contest doesn’t happen. When it does happen, the Mavericks Invitational is announced a few days ahead of time, and even in this case the plan is provisional at best. The inconvenience is unavoidable; one elemental change can ruin the wave.
It’s Sunday, and the Mavericks Invitational was announced on Thursday, which means that twelve of the twenty-four competitors had to buy plane tickets — from Los Angeles, Hawaii, Brazil, and South Africa — fast. The other twelve live less than an hour’s drive away, and would probably be surfing here today, contest or no contest. They all know each other, and most surf together regularly. On this winter morning, it’s been three years since the last invitational.
Compared with most professional athletes, these guys are ancient. Matt Ambrose of Pacifica is 40. Shane Desmond and Ken “Skindog” Collins, both from Santa Cruz, are 42 and 43, respectively. At 31, Shawn Dollar, also from Santa Cruz, is one of the youngest competitors. He also holds the world record for the biggest wave ever paddled into (sixty-one feet, a scale at which almost every other surfer would opt for tow-in). I ask Dollar why the surfers at Mavericks are so old. “It’s scary as shit,” he says, raising his eyebrows. “It takes you years and years and years to break down fear. Put a 16-year-old kid out there? He’s probably going to drown.”
Surfers have the odd habit of saying “I drowned” when they mean “I almost drowned.” Drowning, after all, feels like almost drowning until it feels like nothing. When I ask Dollar to explain the sensation of almost drowning, his answer, and the way he holds his face as he says it, makes me feel that the question is an intrusive one. “It’s just depressing and lonely,” he says, not making eye contact. “The lights start turning off, literally. It blinks in your mind and goes black. Pretty soon, it’s just lights out and you’re done.” He pauses awkwardly. “It’s really fucking weird.”
Just before Christmas in 1994, Hawaiian pro surfer Mark Foo took a red-eye flight from Honolulu to California. A swell was hitting Mavericks, and he wanted to arrive in time to catch it. Stoked but sleep-deprived, Foo paddled out and took off on a relatively innocent-looking twenty-foot wave. The ride was photographed from multiple angles, and pictures captured Foo wiping out near the base. He never came up. Most think his leash got tangled in the rocks, fettering him to the ocean floor as wave after wave crashed above him. Two hours later, his body was discovered in a nearby lagoon, still tied to the shattered tail section of his board. Foo’s death brought nationwide attention to Mavericks, a break whose size, until then, most surfers considered a myth.
In the following years there were rough storms, triple-wave hold-downs, too many close calls to count. But true tragedy didn’t strike again at Mavericks until 2011. It was late on an early spring day when Sion Milosky, also Hawaiian, charged what many have since estimated was a sixty-foot wave. Milosky — fearless, ranked, and respected — never emerged. He wiped out, was held down by two waves, and probably lost consciousness. Twenty minutes later, he was found floating in the waters of a nearby jetty. There was no contest that year; this was just a regular day — what many surfers refer to as “getting wet.”
The first heat won’t begin for another hour, and not all the competitors are here yet. So far, the parking lot’s mostly filled with spectators, likely all surfers themselves: kindergartners sitting on skateboards, gray-haired men with ragged backpacks and promotional sweatshirts. As they arrive, the competitors are easy to spot. They’re the color of terra-cotta and look as though they’ve never been indoors. Surfers have a kind of compromised grace. They maintain dignity in spite of ridiculous clothing and a constant low level of physical discomfort (chafing neoprene, freezing water, piss-soaked wetsuits). Their shoes are cloven-toed, they wear skintight unitards, and most of the time they are responsible for a delicate, awkwardly shaped object that can serve as entertainment, transportation, and weapon. These are the kind of men who can be sincerely described as “beautiful.” To watch them as a woman isn’t to desire them so much as to wish you were a man.
The defending champion, a barrel-chested, 38-year-old South African named Chris Bertish, stands next to a propped-up surfboard and makes prayer hands at everyone who takes his picture. The other guys are seated in the beds of trucks, next to their guns, which is what you call the extralong boards needed to surf a wave like the ones that break at Mavericks. Some guys with camera gear are hanging around them, along with a few UC Santa Cruz students who blog for surfing websites. By this point, the sun is shining and everyone’s smiling and making small talk. The conditions, it’s agreed, are sick. Kelly Slater, the most famous surfer in the world, was supposed to compete today, but has failed to show up. “Because he’s a pussy,” someone matter-of-factly says.
I overhear someone claim that 87,000 people have bought tickets. This is a demented estimate. Over the course of the day, about 30,000 people will trickle in and out, but right now it’s more like 1,500 — max. Sierra Nevada, the unofficial beverage of Northern California, has set up a beer garden, which in this case means “fenced-off part of the parking lot with a keg in it.” There’s a clam chowder truck and a hot dog cart. For a $10 ticket, it’s about what you’d expect.
The crowd contains a lot of stupidly handsome Australians, even more obese adults in 49ers gear, and a good number of cruel-seeming young boys. Their mothers, though irresponsibly tan, appear attentive. They wear flared jeans, snug tank tops, and platform flip-flops. They have French manicures, puka-shell necklaces, and toe rings. Either their taste has not changed since spring break 1998 or they’ve just decided, dispassionately, that this is the hottest way to dress.
A lot of the people here — both men and women — possess all the features that constitute a modern, normative standard of beauty, but exaggerated to a ghoulish degree. They’re so blond and so tan and so lean that it all actually starts to look like one big mess of congenital disorders. A towheaded guy kisses his towheaded girlfriend, and it’s shocking — seconds before I had assumed they were fraternal twins.
Among the surfers, there is a lot of synthetic fiber and a lot of buckles. Most of their clothing, it seems, is designed to be either aero- or hydrodynamic. The gear is only a symptom — almost every aspect of a surfer’s life is functional. They know the tides and what they mean for your plans to walk the dog on the beach. They know why salmon is more expensive this winter and when there’s too much plankton in the water to swim without getting sick. Their friendships are often opportunistic, but in a straightforward way: with the fishermen who can tow them out to far-off breaks, the park rangers who clear the trails that lead to the most remote reefs, the contractors who employ them when the swells are bad.
Surf contests might be the strangest of all athletic competitions. They’re not fair, and they can’t be. Each wave presents a different set of challenges, and depending on how many happen to break during a heat — and on a surfer’s own tenacity — he might catch one or five or none. (Getting none is called “getting skunked.”) He can take off on as many or as few as he likes, and often there are multiple men to a wave.
In any contest and on any wave, surfers must take off from a critical spot from which they’ll travel fast and perilously. They’re graded on the size of the waves they catch and on how stylishly they ride them. Style, in the face of a rapidly moving wall of water many times your height, means a relatively still pose. At a big-wave contest like Mavericks, there’s not a lot of need for tricks.
The waves at Mavericks break so far from shore that the whole spectacle is nearly invisible from the beach. The waves are white specks and the surfers are black specks. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was a harem of seals out there. So a Jumbotron, mounted high up on a pole in the parking lot, will broadcast the contest. “Jumbotron” has been on the tip of every ambient tongue all morning, as though it were some nifty new technology or the hushed name of an undercover celebrity.
It’s not even 8 AM, but the concrete is already warm. Everyone’s leaning back or sitting cross-legged; some have kicked off their sandals. I root around in my purse for sunscreen, and when I look up the contest has already begun. The entire Jumbotron is bright with whitewater.
Skindog catches the first wave of the day, one that looks about six times his size. When a surfer chooses his wave, the first thing he does is paddle away from it. Then, when he feels the momentum of the wave beneath him — his paddling aided by the energy of the water — he determines the precise millisecond to “pop up,” which consists of grabbing the rails of his board and, in one movement, going from prostrate to a crouch. If he miscalculates that moment, he’ll wipe out. From this crouching position, the surfer stands and proceeds to travel along the wave — and down the wave, which means going sideways and forward at the same time. Meanwhile the wave will be breaking above him.
Skindog is barreled for such a triumphantly long time that it seems like he must have gone under. Getting barreled (traveling as the wave curls above you, creating a tunnel) is objectively the most impressive feat in surfing, and it is always the thing that nonsurfers assume must just be an optical illusion. When Skindog finally emerges, he’s still standing. The crowd cheers.
Skindog’s wave is, for lack of a better word, awesome. Or insane. Or a slow, silent what the fuck. Such a big wave produces such a crude reaction that there’s really no need for more precise vocabulary. Maybe surfers talk the way they do because they’re used to being amazed, and that carries over into their ordinary interactions. This wave does not inspire nuanced feelings in me. Basically, I’m just like, dude.
I feel a tap on my shoulder and look up to see a figure looming above me, completely backlit, with a sort of white halo radiating out from around his head. I squint but can’t make out a single feature. “It’s John!” he says. I stand up, still confused, and realize that I’m face-to-face with my former boss, one of the co-owners of the surf shop I worked at in high school, in Bolinas, about fifty miles north. He lives in Santa Cruz now, shapes surfboards, and works for Clif Bar in some graphic design capacity. He unloads ten Clif Bars into my hands, gives me his phone number, and wanders off to liquidate the rest of his promotional stock as quickly as possible.
The job at the surf shop was one of the better ones I’ve had. Usually, it was just me there. The store-approved music collection included an unlabeled, Pixies-heavy mix, a few scratched Bob Marley CDs, and something horrible-sounding that I think was Sum 41. One of my few responsibilities was to make sure a surf video was always playing on the overhead monitor. Hypothetically, I was supposed to change it, but I just played the same one on muted repeat from open to close and nobody ever said anything. For lunch, my parents or a friend brought me a sandwich. It was a great gig.
In the wintertime it was very slow. A local might run in to replace a just-broken leash or pick up a bar of wax, but otherwise I did my homework in peace. I’d sit tucked into a ball on a stool behind the counter with a sweatshirt stretched over my knees. I crammed a miniature space heater underneath my seat and let it run until the safety feature set in and automatically turned the thing off. There was no internet and I didn’t get cell phone service. I read a lot of books and tried on a lot of flip-flops.
In the summer, things picked up. I took a plastic lawn chair out to the parking lot and moved it throughout the day so I was always in the sun. Being inside, ready to greet customers, was not a requirement. I could just chase after them at the last minute. People would drive in from San Francisco to take surf lessons — when I started, with one of the two owners, but after a few years it seemed like every boy I knew was giving lessons. Silicon Valley companies were sending their employees to us on weekends for expensed team-building exercises. These were the people who went surfing once and dropped $1,500 the following weekend on all the equipment. It was understood that we were not to make fun of them. For the renters, I took credit card deposits, selected foam boards and wetsuits, and gave directions to the beach. A few hours later, they’d return, shivering, starving, caked in sand, either humiliated or ecstatic. The chief perk of the job was the key to the shop, which meant it never mattered if I forgot my own wetsuit at home on my way to the beach. Rather than drive the five minutes back up the hill to retrieve it, I could just grab a rental suit instead.
I haven’t been on a surfboard in years, and until coming out here I had forgotten that I know something about it. I know that certain numbers — degrees of water temperature, knots of wind speed, seconds of swell interval — are, for surfers, indicators of happiness. I know what the horizon looks like when a set of waves is coming in and to expect a terrible ice cream headache after a wipeout. I know what a surfer’s truck smells like (mildewed neoprene and coconut wax), and that there is no greater feeling than being cold and then peeing in your wetsuit.
The first heat ends a little after 9:30 AM, and I only have a half hour to get down to Dock H, where I’m supposed to go out on a boat that will get as close as it can to the break. I eat two Clif Bars and half-run down the hill to where about twenty-five other passengers are boarding the El Dorado. They include one extremely intoxicated couple, multiple people in those slip-on checkered Vans bassists in ska bands wear, and two French children who become ill within minutes and retreat below deck, where they remain for the next four hours.
As we motor out of the harbor, the wake created by the boats ahead of us — Rip Tide, New Seeker, Pale Horse, Lovely Martha — is enough to pitch us substantially and often. Jellyfish float by, and some forlorn strands of kelp. When the water splashes against the bow, a feathery spray shoots up and produces a very brief rainbow. We pass some outcropping rocks: huge, dark brown, like half-submerged dinosaurs. They’re the kind of rocks that surfers always describe as “spooky.”
The white, fuzzy patch of sea that the surfers take off from is coming into focus. For now, they just sit there, saddling their boards, maybe even talking to one another. They’re eyeing the horizon, looking for the next surf-worthy waves. When a set comes, the surfers will make their way to a location that to a viewer will seem mysteriously precise but to them intuitively obvious. Then they will paddle with all their might.
The San Mateo County Sheriff has a boat out here, and so do the Coast Guard and the local harbor patrol. There are guys on paddleboards and motorized rubber rafts and guys zooming around on jet skis, here in case probability strikes and someone goes under. They occasionally stop, idle their engines, and pound a bag of trail mix. The water we’re floating in is a sort of blue-green that’s so pigmented it’s actually tacky, like the color of a cartoon girlfriend’s eyes. But just yards away it’s frothy and white — what surfers call “soup.”
Zach Wormhoudt, in green, is confidently zooming left on a wave when a mantle of foam suddenly obscures him. The wave he’s taken off on has collapsed, going from a dark, coherent form to chaos — messier and whiter and maybe even bigger than a cloud. We all gasp. About twenty seconds later, he bobs up like a rubber ball. I can’t make out his features from here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was grinning.
Peter Mel, known as “the Condor,” takes off behind two other competitors. Within moments, it’s obvious that the wave is his. He is the one who has chosen the perfect starting spot, the place from which he’ll acquire maximum stability and speed. He drops in at what must be an eighty-seven-degree angle. A slight frizz of white appears at the top of the wave and he cuts down — plummeting tens of feet in a matter of milliseconds. By the time he’s at the midway point of the wave, the white frizz has grown to an anarchic mess of bright foam. It looks like a horizontal avalanche, and Mel, a man escaping it.
Mel remains a few feet in front of the white for an improbably long time. He traverses the wave vertically, maneuvering up the face and back down again, over and over again, crouching down, holding the rail of his board, sometimes grazing the wave lightly with his right hand — it’s affectionate, almost romantic, but also possibly a little hostile. Surfers have complicated relations with the waves they ride, somehow both adversarial and amorous.
Finally, when the force of the wave has receded, Mel shoots his board over its face and down its back. The ride is over.
Sitting here on a plastic bucket that’s probably a motion sickness receptacle, I’m struggling to remember the last time I had fun. People who do karaoke probably have fun in the way I’m imagining. As do, maybe, skeet shooters. Surfers definitely have fun in that way, the way going down a slide is fun when you’re a kid: anticipatory, goal-oriented, breath-altering. Some crude calculations reveal that I haven’t felt anything like that in at least six years, not since the last time I went surfing.
For a sporting event whose dramatic stakes easily outweigh those of any other — the Super Bowl may feel like life or death, but it’s not — Mavericks is anticlimactic. While we wait for the closing ceremony to begin, the stage is occupied by a band that mostly plays Sublime songs for close to an hour. Much of the crowd clears out before the ceremony even starts. The parking lot looks and feels like Sunday afternoon on a college campus after a Spring Fling weekend: the sun is low, boyfriends are offering up their jackets, everyone has mild heat-stroke. I smell terrible and feel like I’ve been slowly drinking vodka out of a water bottle for hours. It’s nice. The beer garden is shutting down, and the surfers are nowhere to be seen. They’re probably eating between four and five thousand calories and hopefully taking a hot shower.
Finally Jeff Clark, who runs the local surf shop and began the contest in 1999, takes the mic, smiles, and recounts some of the day’s highlights. “We saw these guys do things like pulling into the barrel, just getting blown up, milking it to the inside, trying to do floaters on fifteen-foot elevator drops,” he says. “It was fun.” Clark calls the finalists up to the stage one by one: Peter Mel, Alex Martins, Greg Long, Zach Wormhoudt, Mark Healy, Shawn Dollar. Their faces, which nobody’s seen all day, have a blue cast to them. It’s hard to imagine them truly warming up for at least another twenty-four hours.
Peter Mel is the winner. When his name is announced, the audience goes benevolently wild. Clark puts a kelp lei over Mel’s head and gestures generously to the award board. The prize is $50,000. Mel, who sports a full mustache, looks like the man on the Brawny Paper Towels logo, but swarthier and even more handsome. He takes the mic from Clark, grins, and looks at his fellow competitors. “We do the mutual thing, you know, as a brotherhood,” Mel explains. “We decided to split the cash.” At this, all six guys embrace in a rowdy group hug.
I come back the next day for another look. It’s achingly perfect out, even more so now that the Jumbotron has been dismantled and the road is clear. The surfers are already gone; most just drove home after dinner and went to bed. It might be one of the only mornings that these guys have slept in.
There is no place more beautiful than where I am right now, and nobody cooler than the people who surf here. I am made aware of these kinds of superlatives every time I come back to California, and I luxuriate for a few minutes in the experience of knowing something for sure without having to think about it at all. And then I drive away.