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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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.

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