On Feb. 17, in the spooky predawn darkness, Darryl (Flea) Virostko, a professional surfer, rose from his bed to begin a day he had been anticipating for months. Virostko lives, amid beer bottles and surf paraphernalia and scattered clothing, in a little apartment behind his parents' house on a middle-class street in Santa Cruz, Calif. In the bathroom mirror he saw his elfin self. He has wide, strong, tanned feet; a 5'9" body seemingly without mass; curling lips parched by the sun; and bleached hair, to which he recently added dozens of black dots. The dots were an offbeat tribute to a friend and fellow surfer, Skye Ksander, who is in the throes of cancer and chemo. Virostko dressed, loaded two "guns"—10-foot boards designed for monstrous surf—in the back of his truck and headed north on Highway 1. He was driving to a spot called Maverick's, 40 miles up the road, which has the coldest, heaviest and scariest paddle-in surfing waves in the world.
The 27-year-old Virostko was up early on this day to compete in the first surfing contest ever held at Maverick's. The sponsor was Quiksilver, a surf clothing company that put up the $50,000 purse, $10,000 of which would go to the winner. Twenty big-wave surfers were invited to compete. Eight of them were from Santa Cruz, a city where children go from diapers to pull-ups to wet suits. Virostko would be surfing with his crew and in front of his friends. Ksander was planning to go. A mutual friend, Pat Groen—another local surfer—was going to drive him. Virostko was psyched.
Maverick's is 22 miles south of San Francisco and a half mile offshore from a hamlet called Princeton by the Sea, where the streets are named after elite universities, and the waterfront is dotted with sagging marinas. (One recent day on Harvard Avenue, a kid on a skateboard was being towed by a kid on a bike, each cradling a surfboard under an arm.) You can't see Maverick's from Highway 1—you have to hike to a cliff called Pillar Point—nor can you see much of it from the beach, because of the heaving surf. No one breaks into a cold sweat looking at Maverick's from terra firma. Only the men and women who surf it understand its terror.
First, there is the appalling coldness of the water, which hovers in the vicinity of 50� all year. Then there's the roar of the crashing surf. There's the current, which sucks surfers down and wears them out. There are the immense, jagged rocks, some sticking out of the surf, others lurking below it, a cruel wipeout welcoming committee. And there is the sheer magnitude of the swell. Forty-foot waves, measured from trough to crest, are common in the winter months. (There are bigger waves. Jaws, on Maui, has 70-footers, but they have been ridden only by surfers towed in by Jet Ski.) When a big wave swallows a surfer at Maverick's, he is tossed about like a sock in a dryer. He doesn't know if he'll ever breathe air again. Maverick's is a freak of nature, created by an extreme and sudden change in the depth of the ocean that causes the water to jack up violently. Surfing there can be fatal. On Dec. 23, 1994, Mark Foo, a famous big-wave surfer from Hawaii, attempted Maverick's for the first time. He wiped out on a 30-foot wave that held him underwater until he drowned.
Maverick's breaks big only sporadically, maybe 30 times in a good winter, and on short notice. The Quiksilver people announced in October their intention to hold the Men Who Ride Mountains Big Wave Event, but they had no idea when it would be. The waiting period for the competition began on Nov. 1, with surfers standing by for a call from contest director Jeff Clark. November wore into December. Some good days were passed up. "They're not in any rush to have it," said one invitee, a San Francisco doctor named Mark Renneker. "They're enjoying the foreplay too much." By early February there were people predicting the event would never happen. Then, on Feb. 16, Clark called the 20 invitees. "I see an opening [in the weather]," Clark said. "Tomorrow should be good."
By the next day at 8 a.m., all 20 invitees were on hand. Clark and most of the contestants boarded a boat and headed, through fog, a half mile out to sea. Clark was anxious. He has been a constant presence at Maverick's for nearly 25 years, the first person to have surfed it. He is Maverick's sheriff and spokesman and meteorologist. But a winter fog this heavy and sluggish was something even he never expected. Many of the contestants, Virostko among them, were jumping out of their skins. They were like racehorses trapped in the starting gate. They were ready to surf.
By 11:30 a.m. the fog had lifted, and the event began. The 20 surfers had been divided, randomly, into four groups of five. Members of each group would have an hour to catch three waves apiece. The five scoring judges, who were watching from the contestants' boat, would consider the difficulty of the wave and the position and control of the surfer on his ride, then rank the ride on a scale of zero to 100. A perfect score for the three waves would be 300. The surfer with the most points would win.
Virostko was in the third group, along with two other Santa Cruz surfers, Jay Moriarty and Jake Wormhoudt. Renneker, 46, the oldest contestant in the field, was also in the group. So was Ross Clarke-Jones, an Australian and an eminent figure in big-wave surfing. From the contestants' boat, Virostko saw what the surfers in the first two groups did. The wind was dying, the tide was going out, the surf was getting big and glassy. Virostko was ready to charge.
For his first wave, a 40-footer, he made a beautiful drop, essentially skiing down the face of the wave. The breaking wave exploded in a huge whitewash, and Virostko raced ahead of it to safety. The judges were impressed: 83 points.
On his second ride Virostko did something few surfers in the world can do. Rather than ski down the face of the 35-foot wave, he used his feet to point the nose of the board straight up and went free-falling. Two helicopters were rumbling above his head, the contestants on the boat were hooting and the surf was roaring, but Virostko never lost focus. He positioned himself to catch the oncoming barrel and rode inside it. When he emerged from the tube, he surfed the wave to its terminus in the inelegant thrashing style that today is a mark of expertise. The judges were awed: 98 points.