SI Vault
September 13, 2010
When violent storms send giant swells rolling across the Pacific, the world's most daring surfers will drop everything and travel anywhere to risk their lives riding a wall of water as high as 100 feet
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September 13, 2010

The Wave

When violent storms send giant swells rolling across the Pacific, the world's most daring surfers will drop everything and travel anywhere to risk their lives riding a wall of water as high as 100 feet

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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."

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