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.