Posted: Thursday September 9, 2010 2:21PM ; Updated: Thursday September 9, 2010 3:48PM
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The Wave (cont.)

By Susan Casey

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"Oh, God is merciful," Hornbaker said.

Now Hamilton drove up on a red Jet Ski. From every boat, photographers trained their lenses on him. "Tickets on the 50-yard line," he said, smiling. For Hamilton, things really couldn't be better. His family and friends knew it well: The more waves he rode, and the greater the degree of difficulty they presented, the happier and easier to be with he became. "If I scare myself once every day, I'm a better person," he had said. "It helps to have that little jolt of perspective that life's fragile."

Weaving among the vessels, a dozen tow teams motored from the channel back to the takeoff zone, which was known as the lineup even though there was nothing out there as ­orderly as a line. The area was so called because it afforded visual alignment with a landmark onshore (in this case a notch between steep volcanic peaks), which helped the surfers position themselves correctly.

"This is a hell-raising group," Miller said, surveying the teams. "There's Garrett McNamara. I saw him get his leg sashimied here. Whole thigh ripped open, right to the knee. They called that day Bloody Sunday." McNamara, 42, was a highly skilled surfer whose wild streak drove him to do things that few others would attempt. Shortly before coming to Tahiti he had surfed the wave kicked up by a 300-foot-high calving glacier in Alaska, dodging falling hunks of ice the size of city blocks. Now he drove by on a camouflage-painted Jet Ski, wearing a camouflage-patterned rash guard and a black baseball cap. Though he was almost always smiling, there was a dark intensity to McNamara. Like many of the best riders, he had grown up on Oahu's North Shore and had to fight his way into its brutal surf fraternity. But his tough neighborhood of Waialua looked like a penthouse at the Four Seasons compared to the hometown of his tow partner, Koby Abberton.

Abberton, 28, came from Maroubra Beach, a suburb of Sydney, Australia. Maroubra was a feisty slice of coastline known for its challenging surf, vast sewage-treatment plant, maximum-security jail and dense population of heroin dealers and addicts, which included Abberton's mother and her boyfriend, a bank robber. Abberton's life story, filled with violence and, ultimately, surf salvation, was being made into a documentary narrated by Russell Crowe. When Koby was 14, he and his older brothers Sunny, 21, and Jai, 19, had started a surf gang known as the Bra Boys (a double entendre: Bra is both short for Maroubra and surfspeak for brother). The gang, now 400 strong, gained notoriety in 2003 when Jai was charged with fatally shooting a Sydney man (he was later acquitted on grounds of self-defense) and Koby was accused of helping him dispose of the body (a charge for which he received a nine-month suspended sentence). Sitting behind McNamara on the Jet Ski, however, Abberton -- who bears a striking resemblance to the actor Mark ­Wahlberg -- looked pretty mellow, though the impression was undercut by his heavily tattooed neck.

As the morning progressed, Teahupoo pumped out one snarling wave after another, but the swell had a distinct rhythm. It pulsed lightly and then heavily and sometimes convulsively. "Every wave's different on the same day," Hamilton had said, noting how minute changes in swell direction, wind and interval (the number of seconds between two waves) produce endless variation. "It's never the same mountain."

There had already been one wave, ridden by a 24-year-old surfer from Maui named Ian Walsh, that was freakishly bigger than the rest. There was just more of everything in this wave: more height, more girth, more foam and chop, more lunacy. It was as though Teahupoo had hated the taste of this one and spat it out in disgust. People gasped. Walsh threw his head back in joy as he made a clean exit from the wave and then bowed it in relief.

The wind came up, whipping spray and adding a toothiness to the water as Hamilton began his first ride. The distinction between him and the other surfers was immediately evident. Many times this morning riders had strained to hold their own in the barrel; the wave sucked so much water up its face that they were quickly outmuscled. Hamilton didn't fly across the wave so much as he carved a trench through it. But his most startling move was to remain in the barrel for several beats longer than anyone else. Instead of racing ahead of the falling lip, he toyed with it, exiting at the last possible second, as though stepping over a building's threshold the instant it began to collapse. When he kicked out of the wave in his signature aerial flip, the channel erupted in cheers.

That afternoon conditions got rougher. Clouds snaked around the base of the steep peaks behind us, and the continued pounding of the waves roiled the water so much that the ocean changed color from a clear azure to a muddy, foamy green. A log the size of a small telephone pole floated into the channel. The great Tahitian surfer Poto zoomed in on a Jet Ski and removed it. Although he wasn't riding on this day, Poto, whose given name is Vetea David, was treated like royalty. He was Tahiti's first pro on the World Cup circuit. His classically handsome Polynesian features had a boxer's toughness; think Ken doll crossed with mobster. The image was completed by the stunning woman in a snip of a bikini who sat behind him on his Jet Ski, long black hair cascading down her back.

More rides, more triumphs, more wipeouts. One surfer's legs buckled, and he bounced down the face of the wave. On the boat beside us sat a rider whose upper body and hips were raked with deep, bloody gouges. His board, broken into pieces, lay on the stern.

Hamilton rode more waves, and so did Van Bastolaer, including one that he ended up sharing with McNamara. McNamara, however, had gone kamikaze, dropping in so deep that he was doomed from the start. He bit the dust spectacularly. "I went toward the reef at like, 100 mph," he told Surfing Magazine later. "I'm talking to God, going, Please, please don't make this one too bad." McNamara escaped in one piece, but not before taking "about 10" waves on the head, as he recalled.

By sunset just about everyone had headed back to shore. Mommy and Poppy's yard had a celebratory air, the riders still high on adrenaline. They asked the photographers to show them digital images of their rides. When you're on a giant wave, they said, you don't get the full measure of the beast; the experience is more like a collage of sensory impressions. There may be a flash of white spray, a sudden jolt, a feeling of energy surging beneath your feet, the suspension of time so that 10 seconds stretch like taffy across a violent blue universe. Inside the barrel, a place that surfers regard with reverence, light and water and ­motion add up to something transcendent. It's an exquisite suspension of all things mundane, in which nothing matters but living in that particular instant.

­"Everyone's going to have Post Big Wave Syndrome," Hamilton said. This was his name for the inevitable low that followed an endorphin high. The body had squandered all its good drugs in a single binge. Now, a resupply was required -- and that could take weeks of dragging around, feeling excited by nothing. "Sometimes it doesn't hit [until] three or four days afterward," he said. "Before I knew what it was, it used to hammer me."

"Ah, brah," Van Bastolaer said, "we're gonna have another big swell here before New Year's. I have a feeling. I'll be calling you." He mimed a dialing motion and laughed. "You'll be back."

II. THE FATAL SWELL

As December began, the weather radar screens pulsated as the mightiest magenta blob anyone had seen in years began to snake its way across the North Pacific. A cold low pressure system had joined forces with a warm low pressure system, the extra heat and moisture whipping the two storms into one howling monster. "The Northern Hemisphere is going absolutely ballistic right now," Surfline.com reported. This was a full-on cyclone, and it was traveling from an unusual direction, west-southwest. Typically the North Pacific storms rumbled down from the Bering Sea at a northwesterly angle. This one had dipped farther south and looked like it would largely sidestep Hawaii, barreling directly west toward Northern California.

Collins, monitoring satellite and buoy readings, wind speeds and wave spectra, and consulting LOLA -- Surfline.com's custom computer model, which filtered sea state data through a surfing prism -- arrived­ at his verdict late on Dec. 2: The swell's most desirable waves would be found at a break called Ghost Tree, about 125 miles south of San Francisco, on the morning of Dec. 4. E-mails went out, and from Hawaii to Brazil to South Africa riders snapped into action.

Ghost Tree, improbably located about a three-iron shot off the 18th hole at Pebble Beach, was named after a blasted-out cypress husk on nearby Pescadero Point. Among big-wave connoisseurs, Ghost Tree was not beloved. A minefield of rocks fringe its base, leaving surfers no margin of error. Boils, seething disturbances in the water that indicate a shallow obstacle beneath, burble up all over the place. Ghost Tree is a monster truck of a wave, huge and showy and growly but not especially comfortable to ride. It had one ­advantage for this storm, however; the deepwater canyon that created the wave was ideally angled to capture a west swell.

After I landed in San Francisco, I called Collins. He was already in Carmel. "Ghost Tree should be huge," he said. "It's a really, really big swell. I think Mavericks is going to be big too."

Another call beeped on my phone. The message was from Mike Prickett, a filmmaker who was flying in from Oahu with a contingent of tow surfers and photographers. They were passing on Ghost Tree and going to Mavericks, another big wave break about 100 miles to the north. I drove to Half Moon Bay, the quiet fishing town that is the launching point for Mavericks, with McNamara and his tow partner, Kealii Mamala. McNamara twisted around in the passenger seat, yelled, "Thirty-two feet at 20 seconds!" and thrust his iPhone at Mamala, sitting in the backseat. Mamala, a striking Hawaiian with a nimbus of curly brown hair, looked at the buoy reading on the screen and smiled. "Oh, yeah," he said. A 32-foot swell with a period that long meant 60- and 70-foot waves and beyond.

The skies enclosed us in a shroud of gray drizzle, turning everything dark despite the fact that it was 7:30 a.m. If, as surfers claim, every big wave has a personality, then Mavericks is an assassin. Perched just north of Monterey Bay's abyssal canyons, it seethes above a black chasm, its surface as impenetrable as one-way glass. The Aleutian swells thunder 3,000 miles across the North Pacific, barging past the continental shelf until their progress is rudely halted by a thick rock ledge that juts offshore about a mile from Pillar Point, near Half Moon Bay's harbor. There the ocean rears up, screaming, and forms the clawed hand that is Mavericks. The water temperatures hover in the low 50s, making everything harder -- literally. Cold water has a higher viscosity. It is like liquid pavement, compounding the brutality of a fall. Frigid temperatures also make it tougher for surfers to relax, to paddle, to hold their breath underwater, to keep their extremities from numbing. The year-round uniform at Mavericks is head-to-toe neoprene, including hoods, boots and gloves, which restricts the riders' movement and makes it harder for them to feel the wave.

If all this wasn't daunting enough, Mavericks is at the southern end of a region known as the Red Triangle because more attacks by great whites have occurred there than anywhere else on earth. Surfers have been bumped, bitten and even killed by sharks; sitting or paddling on their boards in black wet suits, they resemble nothing so much as seals, the great white's main prey. Down by Ghost Tree a rider had simply disappeared. Later his board washed up onshore; it had bite marks that matched the jaws of a 20-foot shark. But while great whites hadn't taken the life of any surfer at Mavericks, the wave itself had.

On Dec. 23, 1994, one of Hawaii's best-known big-wave riders, Mark Foo, had made what ­appeared to be a fairly standard fall on a 30-foot face and failed to surface -- for an hour. Other riders saw the tumble, during which Foo's board snapped into three pieces, but when he didn't reappear in the lineup, everyone presumed he had gone back to shore to get another board; it was only when his body was found floating near the harbor that the truth became clear. Afterward people speculated that Foo had hit his head on the bottom and blacked out, or his leash had gotten snagged in the rocks, trapping him underwater. But it was also possible that he had drowned in a merciless set-long hold-down, the wave simply refusing to release him.

Even Mavericks' surrounding waters were tricky and shifty and given to evil behavior. ­McNamara and Mamala recounted the story of their friend Shawn Alladio, a water-safety expert who had encountered a series of surreal waves outside Mavericks on Nov. 21, 2001, a day that ­became known as 100-Foot Wednesday. Patrolling on Jet Skis, Alladio and her colleague Jonathan Cahill had spent that morning gathering lost boards, helping stranded surfers and performing rescues as a series of storms moved in. By early afternoon the conditions had become too nuts for anyone to be out, and even the tow surfers went back to shore. About 400 yards ­beyond where Mavericks usually broke, Alladio and ­Cahill noticed an odd gray bank on the horizon, like a wall of low-lying clouds. It was only when the horizon started feathering at the top that they realized: This was a wave. And whatever size it was, it dwarfed the 60- and 70-footers they'd been dodging all day.

After a split second of terror and confusion, Alladio motioned desperately to Cahill: They couldn't outrun the wave, so their only hope was to race straight at it and make it over the top before it broke. They managed that, barely, and were rewarded with a 50-foot free fall on the backside, dropping into the steep trough. Plunging that far on a half-ton machine was as bone-jarring as jumping out a third-story window. But worse, in front of them, bearing down like hell's freight train, was another colossal wave. This one was even bigger.

Again they gunned for the peak, squeaking over the top before the crest started its avalanche, and once again they air-dropped into the trough. But they had to keep going; Alladio could see at least three more waves in the set. By the time they had faced down the last one they were miles offshore.

"Each time we went up [the faces of the waves] I could see all these fissures or ravines in the surface, and there was some kind of crazy light energy vibrating inside the wave," Alladio told the San Francisco Chronicle afterward. Veteran Mavericks surfer and documentarian Grant Washburn was filming from a nearby cliff when the set broke. Washburn knew these waters inside and out, and he had never seen anything like those waves. He believed they had easily topped 100 feet.

As we approached Half Moon Bay, things looked nasty. The fog was impenetrable. Charging down a 70-foot face was dangerous enough when you could see it; when you couldn't, well, it would be safer to drive blindfolded down Highway 1. And Mavericks, they all knew, was at its craftiest on a west swell. Its currents could change direction, running north rather than south, working against the surfer as he tried to outrun the lip and, if he fell, dragging him deeper into the impact zone. West swells also made the waves thicker, so when they hit the reef they tripled and quadrupled in size.

As the men would soon discover, this was exactly what was happening offshore: The waves were huge, steep and tricky. It was a dangerous day, and destined to become more so. "I've never been run over by waves this big," Jeff Clark said, tying his Jet Ski to the launch ramp. "It's the swell direction. As fast as you can go, it's gonna go faster." Clark had just returned to shore for a breather. He was Mavericks' resident legend: Growing up within sight of the wave, he had begun to surf it in the early '70s despite its heavy roster of dangers; when he couldn't convince anyone else to join him, he paddled out alone. In the early '90s people finally started paying attention to his entreaties to check out his wave, and by 1994, when Foo jetted over for that fateful swell, Mavericks was no longer a local secret. The more people learned about the wave's treacheries, the more astonishing Clark's years of solo excursions seemed in retrospect. In a sport where respect is the currency, Clark was a zillionaire.

He leaned against a concrete piling, describing his morning to a local TV news crew. At 51, Clark's black hair was tinged with silver, but he had the powerful physique of a younger man. His eyes were the same ice blue as a Siberian husky's. The waves, he said, were closing out in a strange way, hooking around at the end of the reef and snapping shut. "It pinches you, like being cut off at the pass. Almost everybody has been caught today." Clark had been squeezed and forced to straighten out on a solid 50-footer, but when his partner, Rodrigo Resende of Brazil, swooped in to get him Clark's glove slipped on the rescue sled, and the next wave was upon them. It not only spun Clark down into the depths but also took out Resende and the Jet Ski.

"It's like a train hitting you," Clark said, smiling grimly. "And I'm down. It's so black and violent. It is so dark. And then, it's not letting me up. And I'm thinking, Well, hold out, hold out, but my limbs are [being] torn off. I finally got flushed to the surface -- whoosh! got a breath, and all I could see was another 25 feet of whitewater coming. Drilled again." He shook his head. Then Clark turned and began to pull on his gloves. "Well, I'm gonna jam," he said, flashing a smile. "I'm going back out to get another one."

Right before Clark came ashore I had scouted the cliff at Pillar Point. For a moment the fog had dropped its guard. I saw enormous washes of whitewater that were hard to put into scale until a dark speck appeared: a Jet Ski. Mavericks looked towering and brawny, utterly forbidding. And though I didn't know it yet, the price of admission today was too high. By midafternoon three people who had ventured into these waves were dead.

*****

At 4:30 p.m., what little light there was in the sky was draining rapidly. Trailers backed up to the waterline, ready to scoop up the Jet Skis and secure them for the long drive ahead: Many of the men planned to travel through the night, chasing the swell as it moved south to Todos Santos, an island 12 miles off the coast of Ensenada, Mexico, to meet the waves at daybreak.

A small crowd had gathered around the ramp, anxious to hear the surfers' stories firsthand. McNamara seemed lit from within. "Gnarliest ever!" he shouted. "I rode one from about a mile out, I don't know how, and I couldn't see anybody for like, at least 500 yards. And finally, whoomp!" He laughed maniacally. "I love to get pounded!"

A smallish guy next to me stood silently amid the hollering and the high fives. Suddenly he turned and said, "I almost died out there today." He looked haunted. "I lost a Jet Ski and I got caught in a weird place and I took about 10 waves in a row on the head. I was stuck over there where they found Mark Foo, getting pounded, one wave after another after another." He delivered his story with a shrill note of panic. "And the fog was in, so I couldn't see. I thought I was going out to sea! And seals were popping up next to me! Yeah, I came really, really close."

A stout man standing on my other side leaned in and said, "Someone did die, at Ghost Tree. A surfer. I'm not sure who he is. He drowned."

"What?" I said, turning to him in shock. "Who? When? Where?"

Just then my phone vibrated. Collins had left me a voice mail from Ghost Tree. "Yeah, we had a pretty good day," he said in his quiet way. "Not fog but mist. And it got big. Fifty-five feet, probably. The only bummer is a guy died here today. His name is Peter Davi."

Davi was an accomplished big-wave surfer from Monterey, well known and much liked on the Northern California coast. A ­third-generation fisherman, he was also a regular on Oahu's North Shore, making for Pipeline when the herring weren't running. In that hard-core arena he earned the respect of the locals, a group not known for easy inclusivity. Like the Hawaiians, Davi appreciated elemental things -- the beauty of rocks, for instance, or the way the morning light glinted on the ocean.

Despite this sensitivity, Davi was tough: He was 6'3" and weighed 265 pounds. Yet no one was strong enough to accomplish the task he had set for himself when he showed up at Ghost Tree that morning: Rather than be towed, he intended to paddle into and out of the waves. On such a powerful swell, that decision would prove fatal.

Pieced together from the accounts of riders who encountered Davi on the water, a blurry picture of his last moments eventually emerged. After ­unsuccessfully trying to paddle into waves on his board, an eight-foot gun, Davi had sat on the back of his friend Anthony Ruffo's Jet Ski and watched the five-story office buildings roll in. Some of the last words anyone heard him say were, "I'm 45 years old, and I want one of those f------ waves." Realizing the only way he was going to get one was by towing in, Davi accepted a ride and surfed what was his final big wave, exiting with a full-face smile. Then he headed in, declining the offer of a lift back to shore.

He never made it. Somewhere along the way he lost his board, knocked off by the heaving seas, a sneaker wave or a spasm of whitewater. A spectator glimpsed him swimming near the rocks, but then Davi was swept from sight. Ruffo and his partner, Randy Reyes, discovered Davi's body floating near the wharf, facedown in a patch of kelp. Paramedics arrived quickly and tried to revive him, but they estimated Davi had been dead for 20 minutes.

Peter Davi wasn't the day's only casualty. Just outside the harbor mouth at Half Moon Bay, a crab-fishing boat called the Good Guys had capsized. The two fishermen on it, Benjamin Hannaberg and James Davis, had radioed their intention to come into the harbor, but they never arrived; instead they set off their emergency beacon. The Coast Guard searched extensively for the men, both in their late 50s, but at the site of the Good Guys' distress call they found only two shards from the hull. "A 25-foot fiberglass boat -- that's like an eggshell in those conditions," the harbormaster said. (A week later Hannaberg's body would wash up on shore; Davis's was never found.)

Peter Mel, a celebrated big-wave rider, said the surfers would always remember Dec. 4, "but not for the epic rides -- more for the carnage. It was about riding to survive. It wasn't about riding to enjoy it. You could see it on everybody's faces. It was all about, 'I need to get off this wave as soon as possible.'" Mel lived nearby and had seen deep into Mavericks' bag of tricks. Many times the wave had punished him in the fearsome rock-strewn areas known as the Cauldron, the Pit and the Boneyard. But on this day even Mel was floored by the wicked vibe in the water. "It looked like the ocean was folding over itself," he said, describing how the waves rose so steeply that they basically had no backs, and their faces were "like Niagara Falls." His voice was somber. "It was one of those swells that didn't seem like it was meant to be ridden."

As I left the launch I could hear seagulls still screaming in the dark, and the insistent wind and the whine of winches lifting Jet Skis onto land. There were no stars, only the oily glare of the dock lights. It was hard to imagine that an all-night journey into Mexico lay ahead. "This storm will still be packing a punch," Collins had said in his voice mail. "Todos is gonna be absolutely humongously huge tomorrow morning."

I felt my phone vibrate and looked down to see a text message from Prickett: United 787 to San Diego. 10:15. See you there.

To purchase a copy of The Wave, go here.

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