Fifteen minutes of a young surfer’s morning at Mavericks—California’s most brutal break

YOU PADDLE OUT—7:59:00 A.M. 

Long strokes from cupped hands propel your surfboard around Mushroom Rock at the south end of the Mavericks reef. Fog hovers low on the water, dense as wool batting. You hear a boom and roar of collapsing waves, like a barrage of distant artillery fire, muffled by this thick mist. Just past the black, dripping mass of Mushroom, you feel the sea surge under your board. You fantasize that you can sense a tingle in the water, a vibration against your fingers, energy that radiates from each huge wave as it detonates against the California shore.

Your neoprene gloves dip into a heaving, battleship-gray mere, then your webbed fingers tug you further out to sea as you aim for the rim of that impact zone.


Can’t see doodly-squat. You went to this surf break due to faith in offshore buoy reports on NOAA weather radio, as well as satellite imagery off the Web. Prophecies such as these guide your whole life… as well as many days for most other surfers on California’s coast.

A buoy located 357 nautical miles west of San Francisco predicted arrival of seas 16 feet high, with 20 second intervals between the crests, aimed at the Mavericks reef. Swells like that can sweep past the Farallon Islands and Four-Fathom Sandbank with minimal distortion, then next hurtle upon the submerged wedge of the Mav’s reef with maximum force. 

These swells were built by a storm near the International Dateline five days before. That gale blew 50-knot winds on the same vector for a hundred hours, rubbing up Pacific Ocean waves of formidable size. A jog in the jet stream made that storm veer north, while the seas it generated glided onward to Mavericks. Over a “fetch” of 1,600 miles, those vibrations proceeded to coalesce, lose some height and gain in coherence to form cleaner sets. Intervals between wave crests lengthened as each swell ominously battened with power.


Now a rill of pale foam rushes out of the fog, gleams, splashes over the nose of your board to whap you in the face. It’s a by-product of the unseen mayhem taking place just beyond the reef. It sends icy tendrils thrusting past the rim of your neoprene hood, and a trickle down the back of your wetsuit. Brr-rrrr! 

But actually, a cold splash in your eyes, up your nose, down your neckline, feels just fine—an invigorating reminder of where you are. Some guys pre-warm their wetsuits, pour hot water from a thermos in around their necks before they head out. You don’t. Not at Mavericks, where one must remain in the moment. You want a sting of cold water to punch up your alertness.

You’ve just paddled over the spot where Peck Euwer saw a great white shark blast out of the depths to gnaw a wide crescent in his board, at the start of the 2000 winter season. Sheer mass and power of those mighty waves is not the sole threat surfers must face out here.

Sometimes, you’ve glimpsed a jutting dorsal fin of that apex predator whom surfers dub The Man In The Grey Suit. After all, you surf in the Red Triangle, a zone that runs from Bodega down to Big Sur, with its western tip touching the Farallons. Sharks here can reach 20 feet in length.

“Jaws as big as a Volkswagen, guided by a brain the size of a lemon,” is your fave, gallows-humor joke about the sharks.

But waves with the height and mass of a four-story hotel pop up here far more often than shark fins do. They arise upon the slope of a submerged reef, then topple like a thick wall of blue bricks shaken apart by an earthquake. Surfers come to Mav’s to savor the release of all that energy, to play with it, to take a thrilling drop and glide from the towering ramparts as each new castle tumbles to ruin behind them.

Local waterman Jeff Clark calls it the planet’s biggest, baddest surf break. If a Mav’s swell glasses off and glides in from the northwest, the dramatic ride it offers can also be sweet. And yet that very same wave can also prove deadly, due to its coldness, thickness, height and power. Mav’s owns a kiss that can poison. Jeff pioneered this break at age 17, surfed it by himself for well over a decade. Finally, in 1990, he coaxed other Ocean Beach and Santa Cruz riders into paddling out to join him.


Hoots and howls from a line of surfers drift your way before you see those hazy shapes, the upper halves of a dozen men, maybe a gal or two, all lifted together on the shoulder of an incoming swell. It’s a ragged cohort of Mavericks’ regulars, afloat on their big-wave guns at the south end of the take-off zone, craving some gain in visibility. Their yells praise the giant mounds that sail past in the mist, while they also mourn the sad fact that these ghostly humps must—right now—go unridden.

See, it would be near-suicide to move into the take-off zone. A rider could easily get clobbered by something huge, with no idea it was even getting close. You’d have a zero chance to take any evasive action.

Phone calls and text messages of these surfers had reached a frenzied level hours before dawn. The Santa Cruz guys bet on a sure thing. They stayed near their hometown, to ride at Third Reef and Steamer Lane. Meanwhile, tow-in teams motored their Jet skis and other personal watercraft toward Ghost Tree, off Monterey. Down there, fogbanks lingered well offshore. So, sunshine was able to warmly shower that entire scene.

However, Jeff Clark, Grant Washburn, Matt Ambrose, Shawn Rhodes, Mark Sponsler, Doc Hazard, Randy Cone, Ion Banner, Hide Minami and four other surfers who lived around San Francisco and Pacifica and Half Moon Bay chose to hand-paddle their boards out to Mav’s. Praying that weather deities might grant a clear space for at least a few epic rides on this spectacular break.

They know that even a dense fogbank can either show or go via atmospheric waves of barometric pressure, when not shoved on its way by an actual breeze.

So, it’s those locals and you. Sometimes you’ve paddled out here and not much has happened for anybody. At other times, an enormous bunch of amazing stuff has happened way too fast. What phenomena shall crop up along that broad spectrum today?

You’re 28. You live in the East Bay, in Hayward. You’ve got an Arts degree you haven’t used for anything. You make ready cash as a roofer and painter. You work to live, but you live to surf. You plunged into Bay Area waves as a grommet and boogie boarder at the age of eight, some two decades ago. Then used a shortboard to chase shorebreak off Stinson and Muir Beach and Rockaway. Completed your apprenticeship at Fort Point and Ocean Beach and Point San Pedro. As your skill level rose, you acquired a taste for cold water combat with winter surf. Methodically, you began to edge into the scene at Mavericks. Riding here now feels like your kismet or fate. The pull it exerts on you appears to be both potent and ceaseless—so thus, irresistible.

Mav’s now dominates many a waking thought. Despite tours of surf breaks in Hawaii, Baja, Tahiti, Panama, this break remains a Mount Everest, a North Pole, your sacred grail. Buds, pals you grew up with on the waves, accompanied you to check this place out. After a few nasty pummelings, they backed away. You alone persisted.

You don’t feel much in sync with the Mavericks mob. Not yet. Locals in the line-up don’t vibe you, or bestow a questioning “stink-eye” as they did on that very first day that you paddled out. But something’s still missing from their level of respect. To clear a final hurdle, you figure you must prove to them that you can jump in the game when Mavericks goes big. Today could be that day.

Jeff used to invite a couple dozen of the world’s best riders to his annual contests. In January 2008, before you ever tried to ride here, you perched up on the cliff, a half-mile away, observing through a high-powered spotting scope, as San Clemente surfer Greg Long won with slashing rides across 30-foot faces. Today’s swells could go bigger than that! But hopefully, not as big as the 2010 event, when immense foam piles churned at high tide across the exposed part of reef, swept over the cove, and smashed into spectators on the beach and the harbor breakwater, causing concussions, contusions, and even broken legs. 

You had no prayer of making Jeff’s list of invitees or alternates. Never even hoped for it. You don’t seek a ribbon, a trophy, an endorsement, a magazine spread. The plain and simple thing you most ardently wish for—whilst choking on foam, getting pounded and nearly drowning out here amid your meager harvest of some two dozen shoulder rides—is a wink or nod from Jeff or Grant or Matt that says you’ve arrived. You’re now a real Mavericks surfer. 


Abruptly, that encompassing quilt of grey fog starts to thin and shred. Air now drifts past your wet cheeks. Northerly breeze has sprung up to whisk the mist away. Good that the wind isn’t offshore, or easterly! Anything that stalls a board at the top of a Mav’s drop makes a ride far more dangerous. South winds are hazardous too, prompting currents that make it tougher to swim out of the impact zone—a place dubbed The Boneyard.

Two surfers charge out of the line-up.

Man in the lead might be Jeff himself, paddling for the take-off zone even though it doesn’t look like any real swell is arriving at the moment. That curly-headed old boy must be well up into his fifties by now. On land, Jeff moves stiffly, as if his back and neck and ribs were carved from a single block of wood. He has fused vertebrae, abundant scar tissue. But he still charges hard, jumps right in the game whenever it looks good. 

The surfer right behind him might be Grant. Certainly looks like the big guy, the G-Man, six-foot, four-inches tall, 225 pounds, a wedge of muscle and bone, long arms tipped with webbed gloves that propel him as if he were swinging oars. One of Grant’s paddle strokes seems to be worth three of anyone else’s.

There! A lump sails out of the scraps of mist, an incoming wave missed by everyone but those two, heaving up, up, up as it hurtles in. It rises like the back of a kraken that breaches lustily from the sea, then begins to sprout pale feathers from its neck. That’s the point where Jeff launches his ride. His drop looks perfect, he barely has to make another stroke. But then you think, Ah! He’s late, he’s in too deep, all the way across the Bowl, he’ll never escape, he won’t make his section. Then you understand, wait, no, Jeff’s actually does have it dialed, he’s not going for a right, but a left, slicing away to the north—a direction hardly anyone else rides on a swell like this.

Then the swell sweeps by, and Jeff vanishes.

Grant is already up on the swell that immediately follows, yanking his big gun under his feet then standing up with long arms extended like wings for balance. He cranks a bottom turn, going for the run to the right. He passes swiftly below you as your board hops over the wave’s shoulder. His wall should hold up for an awesome ride.

See, that’s how it’s done! And that’s what you should do, too.


Excited laughter and chatter percolate out of the line-up. The surfers watch the ocean shift from slate grey to deep blue, as clear sunlight lances down. This whole scene soon appears considerably more inviting. You imagine sharks are rendered furtive by the growing brightness, and drop deeper to skulk amongst remnant shadows.

Suddenly, it looks to be a classic day at Mavericks. Yet it will stay impressively uncrowded for a while. Not many guys gambled on such dense fog burning off or being swept back. Those who won this bet perch happily upon their boards, yapping and gesturing to one other. 

Three of them turn their heads, study your approach. You offer a small gesture, wave hello. Two heads nod back.

Don’t get too close. Part of the deal. Always respect locals and the lineup. You don’t want to seem pushy, presumptuous, or God forbid, drop in by mistake, interfere with someone’s take off or ride. You know your place. Stay well inside, on the south shoulder, try for the swells that the others pass up.

After the locals score themselves a few primo rides, well maybe they’ll not object if you sidle over a bit closer to the best launching site.


Once again, make damn sure of where you are. On this restless, foam-flecked sea, it’s easy to shift out of place. You look inland, “range” different vantage points on shore, certain trees, certain peaks, buildings and antennas of the Air Force missile tracking station that sits high on the cliff, and try to triangulate your position. 

Seems about right. Then you notice something unusual. Surface of the blue sea, slick and glassy, now seems to roil and boil slightly, as if large bubbles of a different sort of water were being driven up from the depths. Those boils slide past the nose of your board, from left to right. This jogs your memory, reminds you of something you once heard Grant talk about as he sat at his usual table at Salada Café.

Dammit. Now, what did that guy say? You can’t quite recall…


Outside, to seaward, behind you, you suddenly hear desperate yells from the lineup. Startled, you twist your neck to glance back over your shoulder. Shit!!!  Rogue wave. A huge lump, way bigger than anything you’ve seen so far, is bearing down. In fact, it’s already walling. Thought you were far enough outside, but no, not for this beast. Other surfers scatter, arms windmilling as they scratch toward safety zones southward, to the north, try to jump further outside.

Three seconds have passed since they began to flee. No evasive route is left for you. You must spin your board to paddle hard right at the damn thing, perhaps angle a bit further north, hope  to skirt the worst of the peak. Or if failing that, maybe punch through its crest. 

You sink in a river of water a monster this size slurps up toward its crest as it leaps from the sea. In a second you could be sucked up into the lip feathering over your head, then get pitched “over the falls,” driven down deep into The Cauldron, a rock-rimmed, downward-tugging pit of aerated foam. You could be held there as the next wave delivers a hydraulic triphammer blow on your head. And the next wave as well. Don’t forget, this dude was so big you had no chance to look over it, and see what approached behind it. Could be another gigundo. Maybe something even larger!

So you snatch a deep breath, roll off your gun and shove that long board hard up into the air stream, the virtual wind that now rushes up the face of the wave. Then you turn, dive deep into that thick blue wall and kick hard and breast stroke twice. 

You’ve made it. Your head pops out the back of the wave. Thank God there’s no savage yank from your leash. That would indicate your board got caught in the tumbling lip—always a worry, since it could then drag you backwards, a wake purling off the sides of your skull, your mouth an “O” of astonishment and horror, sucking in a last breath as escape is thwarted and you get hauled over the falls anyway, despite your best efforts to escape.

But you feel no yank like that. You look up to be sure, and watch your board fly back down, fluttering and twisting like a long yellow leaf as it drops from the sky. Just don’t let yourself get speared when it lands. And you don’t. So you reach down, tug your gun over back to you with the leash, then clamber aboard.

Now you finally recall what Grant said at that Pacifica café! If you observe a surface boil amid a lull, a huge set might be about to appear. Just before it arrives, a new sheet of current can tug everyone north, out of position, and right into The Bowl.


A swift glance to the outside suggests that last wave was a rogue. Other swells approach, but nothing close to that size. The gnarly bastard must’ve topped fifty feet, measuring from the pit of its trough to the tip of the crest. Scary! Yet, still a blessing. The other incoming swells now seem less threatening.

The rogue also swept out the lineup. In a mad scramble to flee, other surfers moved out of the most desirable take-off spots. Consequently, the order has been altered. Not by your doing, but a sheer act of God. For the next minute or so, the Mavericks break is yours. All yours.

Unimaginable, breathtaking, priceless opportunity. Don’t blow it! Don’t waste it. Read those incoming swells. Make your call. Then make your day.

Feel butterflies flutter in the pit of your stomach? No, more like a whirling squadron of screeching gulls! Every nerve is lit. But simultaneously, you feel a kind of psychic eddy. A sublime coolth also is available. You’re like a World War II fighter ace in a leather helmet and Mae West vest, sitting behind a whirling propeller and a roaring engine, seeing a signal flag waved by an officer as chocks are yanked out from your plane’s landing gear. Time to launch off the flight deck. You’re a patriot, a hot pilot, a true believer, you’re trained, rested and ready, it’s time to go into battle, no shrinking back or pulling out!

Instincts from years of experience kick in with no conscious choice. You breathe hard, not in quick and panicky bursts, but in belly-deep, in-and-out major pulls that aim to bring oxygen to the bottom of your lungs as you prepare for physical demands you might face in seconds.

How do you like this spot where you sit? Since you just punched through a mighty crest, your placement might be good. Well, maybe paddle just a tad further inside.


You do grok the undersea geology of this place, its bathymetry. To a fish finning around down deep, the broad wedge of the submerged part of the reef would look like a rocky staircase, with a set of five risers and broad steps that grow shallower over the course of 900 yards.

Jeff likes to say, to really visualize this model, hold up your left hand. Now spread your fingers and look at the back. Your thumb gets to be the launch ramp, the first rocky stair, where the incoming swell stubs its toe and all its energy jolts toward the sky—yanking seawater along with it. That’s where The Bowl forms in the wave, and the place where surfers can first jump on for a ride. If the swell’s tall enough, it’s also where its lip can first pitch out to smash down into The Cauldron.

On this back-of-the-hand model, your index finger represents the next rock stair, where the swell jacks up once more, releasing still more energy into its rising form and shaping its wall anew. That wave peak initiated at The Bowl will chase straight through here, progressively folding over as it travels south. If the wave is big and bad enough, sometimes its whole crest pitches out at the second or third step, to thunder down in a close-out. 

Wave uplift repeats at every stony finger, until at length you reach The Boneyard and then those reef parts which jut out above water: Sail Rock, Crown Rocks and the Mushroom. On a big day, you don’t want to get shoved through these jagged, exposed promontories, warted by barnacles, welted with razor-sharp mussel shells. Not like what happened to Flea Virostko in ’98, when his leash and the tail off his busted board were snagged. Flea was held below water, fluttering like a blade of kelp, only occasionally able to fight to the surface and snatch a breath, until that leash finally fatigued and snapped, to release him.

Today those surface rocks and the Boneyard are a spume-shrouded mirage, the span of three football-fields away. You’re ready to launch yourself eastward, heading toward them. Hopefully, not into them. But see, it’s not all up to you. A wave shall unveil surprises in its own good time.

A small swell surges past, rocking the board, but you barely notice it. Your gaze is riveted on the approach of a set of swells. Those long mounds appear to move with a steady, stately grace. Actually, they’re rushing toward you damn fast. Swells with an interval of 20 seconds between crests—equating to a distance of 1,100 feet—travel close to 37 mph in the open sea, a bit less after they drag over the Continental Shelf, then this reef.

You won’t need to shift position at all. Not until you see the first swell of the set, which looks to be the first of a big pair, come through. That will give you an excellent chance to scout before you try for the second of the pair, the one you think you’d like to ride.


OK, here. A giant wall, streaked in blue and grey mounts ever higher as it closes in. Seawater is slurped up its shimmering face, and you get shuttled aloft as though riding an escalator. From this wave’s apex, you peer down into its trough, a chasm that yawns at least 40 feet below. You sit back on the tail of the board, stick your legs down straight, even your toes are pointed downward so they’ll act like brakes. You need there to be a zero chance that you’ll slip off by mistake. 

From this perch you can glance southward along that still-rising wall as it sweeps toward the next finger of the reef. Looks like it will sustain its shape well instead of pitching forward and closing out. You seem to be at the center of the edge of The Bowl, perfect for a swell of this size. Great.

Perhaps if you were a far more seasoned talent, like say Peter Mel—dubbed the Condor because of the wingspan of his long arms—you’d try for a spot a bit further north. Dramatic swoops all the way across The Bowl are moves that Grant “Twiggy” Baker also performs to perfection. He won the 2006 Mavericks contest in exactly that fashion on swells of about this size.

But it’s no time to nurse a delusion of grandeur. You’re in deep enough, barney. You glance back over your shoulder and confirm that the second swell resembles in all respects the one that just swept under your tailfins.


The flat of the trough leading into the second swell has arrived, and it’s time to start paddling hard to launch your ride. When you put your head down, dip your hands and stroke, your epic begins. You’re now committed. Whatever’s going to happen, will happen.


A last swift glance over your shoulder. Both hands dig deep to pull you ahead. This time, you’re not aware of your rapid shuttle on water that escalates up the towering face. Your universe has narrowed to a slot that includes the nose of your board and the rush of water below. Dig, dig, dig! Taking too many strokes doesn’t seem possible. Taking too few is the thing that you fear. You must want this ride, demonstrate that desire in full, stay intent on catching it. Right now, nothing matters more.

The horizon whips upward out of your vision, because two noses, the nose of the board and the one right between your eyes, both of them point straight at the trough. Your final hand strokes achieve zero purchase, in fact your arms are knocked back toward your waist by the shimmering, wrinkling, stretching surface that hurtles by beneath you. 

Zero gravity. Adhesion to water is gone—verticality has beaten suction. As you go weightless, it’s no struggle at all to stand up. Just pull the board below your body and plant your feet on the deck.

It’s a split-second move yet one that feels drawn out, like a dance in a dream. Time has apparently slowed, not because impulses travel along your nerves any faster, but because your nerves fire off a hundred times more frequently. Adrenalin floods your brain and your muscles, increasing strength and honing reactions. Your heart beats fast, steady and hard. Senses are dilated, making vision more acute.

A sharp jolt, a wiggle from the tail of your board! This wave’s crest, starting to pitch, tried to knock it sideways. But triple-fins on this 9’2” gun bit into the wall and corrected the kick. At least you know you’re in touch with the surface of the water, though it does not seem that way. You feel more as though you’re in free-fall, riding on empty air like a comic book Silver Surfer, as you drop, drop, drop, drop. But this ain’t no cartoon, dude, it’s the real deal, and you best land this sucker right.

Now it’s “toenails curled into the board wax” time. A huge mistake would be attempting to turn before you attain ultimate escape velocity, before you locate a good smooth swath for a bottom turn. With that fat, weighty lip chasing you down toward the trough, you have a need, a greed, for speed. Go fast!
Keep your weight forward, keep that nose down. Knees flexed, don’t be stiff. Look forward, see reverberation wavelets bouncing back from the exposed reef? And small ridges of windchop rushing up the blue wall? You need to take those hits, absorb every jolt and jitter of the board.

And now? Now? Turn now? No! Trust instinct. Look straight into the trough, focus solely on the place you need to go. Don’t think about turning down the line yet, keep on collecting speed. The pull of the rising swell has stretched and smoothed the sea surface, attenuated it, see, there’s a glassy patch coming right above the trough… Now! Lean on your toes, put a hand out toward the water almost as if you were leaning down on a solid post as Jeff does, and crank your bottom turn! 

That turn instantly rockets you back onto the towering face of the wave. But in the next heartbeat you must lean on your heels, pull off a top turn, then start slashing a cut southward across the face. And after that top turn comes a moment when you can at last truly see where you are. The fate to which you’re committed. Awed, you shift your gaze from a feathery lip just beginning to roof out overhead to an immense, blue-green wall jacking again all the way down the line to the south.


This damned wave is gorgeous, as well as the biggest, baddest swell you’ve ever been on, no lie! You fly along faster than you’ve ever ridden, going 35, maybe 40 mph. Only the inside rail and tail of your board touch the water as you streak down that aqua cliff, ribboned by bands of white foam. Shit, the sucker’s going vert right under you and in front of you too! Is the next section even makeable? Soon it will whap into another finger of the reef and jack once more, maybe even close out. By God you do know that you must go wicked fast and drop as far as the lower third of the face to harvest a burst of more speed to have any hope of making the section and the section after that… and the… well, who the hell knows?

Salty spume hovers like faint mist that stings your face as you blast through it. Eyes burn, streams of tears leak back into your hood. Although this part of your ride could appear smooth and graceful to spectators up on the bluffs, half a mile off, your board actually quivers and lurches like a runaway rail car on a warped track. How strange, that your ability to steer its course depends on such a frail relationship as the adhesion of your bootie soles to the board wax.

Behind you rumbles a blast of coarse, bass decibels as the wave’s crest crashes into The Bowl. But you can’t hear it. Your world has gone soundless. All brain activity is intent on two things: what you sense and see about your quickly shifting path ahead; and what you visualize you’re able to do about it.

Meanwhile sheer instinct and conditioning make you breathe, breathe, and breathe some more. Full lungs provide new fuel; they also are your life insurance. Should you go down in a savage wipe-out, you’ll need your tank topped off. Many big wave surfers can hold their breath for 3-4 minutes if they’re indoors, sitting on a couch. It’s a different scenario if you’re held underwater while King Neptune uses your body as a speed bag. Then, you’re good if you can last a full minute.


Here! You kick the nose straight down the face again. The jack-up hits and your forward speed goes to warp. G-forces strain your ankles, knees and hips. Even so, you need to crank right again, keep your trim, watch out for any reverbs, ledge waves, those chop shelves, rippling up the face.

Those are likely what sank Mark Foo right in this spot, back in 1994. Foo was a star rider for Hawaii who charged out here after an all-night flight. The swell he rode was similar to this one but smaller, 12 feet at 20 seconds. But he buried a rail in some chop, bogged, lurched off his board, then smacked into the water on his belly – probably punching all his air out. Next, he was swept up and over the falls, to be driven down deep under that crashing lip.

No one knows what happened to Foo underwater, but his board got smashed to bits. The tail section, still hooked by the leash to his corpse, looked all battered and dinged as though it had been snagged and wedged into rocks.

When Mavericks goes flat calm—which can and does happen during the summer—surfers have scuba and free-dived here, plunging down to scout the reef, to better understand their battle zone. Jeff said backs of those rock fingers are, “as jagged as the New York City skyline.” Matt said the reef overall is, “as pocked and porous as a cheese grater.” He once was able to poke his head and a diver’s flood lamp into one narrow hole, to see it open up into a hollow chamber as big as a bedroom.

Fine place for a rockfish, maybe. Not so good for a surfer. That’s the spooky region whizzing by just underneath your board.


Suddenly you feel numb and sickened, since you see that you’re late. So late. In too deep! The wave launches skyward and prepares to pitch out its crest high above you. A whole section ahead is going critical.

Turns out, this swell is not precisely like the one that went before, that wave you studied as you sat back on the tail of your board less than a minute ago. If you’d grabbed that first ride, you’d be fine, able to try for the next section or carve out to hop off over the shoulder, whichever you wanted.

But this wave must be slightly bigger, or faster, or differently angled, and here’s where that variance shows up. It will pitch out, then harshly collapse, and there’s very little you can do in response. You’re caught too low down on the face and too far back inside, behind this new peak—which is too long to outrun, in any case. As speedily as you travel, it isn’t fast enough.

Option one, you really don’t want to take. You could use remaining momentum to squirt out in front, way out into the trough, and hope that lip crashes down well behind you. But it might land on top of you instead.

Impact of such plummeting tonnage wrecked the knee of Surfing Magazine editor Evan Slater in 1998. It took extensive ligament surgery before he could return to the line-up. If it does land at your back, next you’d have to step off your board and let yourself get mowed by a huge, roiling foam pile. But you know, that zone ahead amid the reef shallows is where the nastiest beatings occur. It’s where Flea got hung up.

Huge Wave Barrel

The only other option is to pull up into the tube that could form below the pitching lip and hope it holds up. That could result in a heinous wipe-out, perhaps even a fatal one. Still, it’s the move with the best style. God’s own truth is that you’re just too terrified to turn out front. Going up and high will at least grant you a few more seconds before the big wreck. At best, you’ll be able to say you got “tubed” at Mavericks. That is, if you live and can ever brag about it. A split-second of deliberation, and you go for it.

The space you soon occupy below that giant pitching lip is otherworldly gorgeous. The wave crest arches, curves, smacks into water beside and below your board with a hoarse, tearing noise, like someone ripping a swatch of silk. That sound, your brain does let you hear, since it’s so unusual. Meanwhile, sunlight stained sapphire pours down through the blue arch over your head like it’s sluicing through a cathedral’s rose window.

The tunnel that forms around you offers at its far end a lopsided oval door that reveals the world outside. Through that shifting aperture, you perceive that your wave is still jacking up, still stretching out. For one brief, glorious instant, you fantasize that you’ll succeed, that you’ll actually be able to ride out of this tube. Then you see that no, you won’t. That oval escape hatch is not getting closer. It’s receding. You’re dropping down the gullet of the dragon, about to be devoured in its maw.


Any option of escape is gone, bright blue skylight is gone, breathable air is gone. Now you’re immersed in a chaos of foam and spray, pelted on the back by clots of water as if a soggy demon hurls beanbags, trying to smash you off your board.

Unbelievably, you manage to stay up, still surfing. Trim is maintained, your board drives ahead, the soles of your feet are still planted solidly and through them you even sense the hard maple stringer running the length of your board as it quivers like a plucked cello string and you rocket forward fast, faster, fastest.

Lips must remain now sealed on your very last breath inhaled, don’t try to take a new breath amidst so much foam. You’d only cough and choke, as if falling off a too-rad turn on your snowboard, while descending a chute full of powder. Such slopes have taught you not to inhale till you stop moving. In the next instant this barrel could collapse, or you could be whirled upside down as it goes, whereupon you’ll need every last wisp of air you now own.

In your brain, this thought reverberates: I’m dead, dead, dead! Also, a stream of profanity ricochets in your skull. You’re in the building trades, so you know from swearwords. Even so, a shred of your consciousness clings to both physical pose on the board and your psychological poise, not from hope, but from habit, and a sheer lack of any other idea of what to do. And you await and you dread that nasty, crushing, inevitable hit.

Then strangely, miraculously, everything around you turns bright blue again. The oval door hovers before you once more, then comes toward you at an astonishing velocity. Next, you squirt straight out through it. Water droplets hover, suspended all around you, glittering in bright sunshine like a shroud of diamonds. The reason they remain so still is that you now move at the same speed that they do.

This magic moment has been brought to you by the tube collapsing at your back. In its fall, it squeezed out a bolus of air and spray. Because you didn’t freak and kept your board’s trim intact and stayed on your feet, you earned the right to be propelled forward inside a ragged cannonball of spume. You’ve literally been saved by the gun, spat out, shot from a hydraulic barrel.


There’s a chance to keep riding. The wave traverses a gap between the third and fourth fingers of the reef. You’re near the crest, loaded with speed and an option to score more, you could drop again, make another section, maybe even stay on long enough to wrap around the Mushroom Rock for the ultimate long ride.

But nah, you don’t want it. Maybe another time. Right now you feel empty and calm and pure. And in the back of your mind you suspect that you’ve already used up all the luck available to you on this particular morning.

So you shove down with your right foot, jab that rear rail deeper, turn hard, soar up past the lip, and suddenly discover that you’ve kicked out into the sky, soaring into aerial freedom.


It’s not that you actually fly so high. However, as the tall ridge of the wave sweeps on, it vacates all the space it once occupied. You pause for an instant at the apogee of your flight, twenty feet over a foamy sea. You know what to do, you skate and snowboard, it’s like catching air above the rim of a halfpipe. So, one half-rotation in mid-air, pulling the board against your feet with both hands. But now you’ve got to land in water. Donkey-kick it away, feeling a slight tug from the leash as you point with your hands and angle your body to dive.

There’s a chunk! you feel, rather than hear, as your board hits the water a safe distance away. You tilt your joined hands, frog kick, zoom back up to the surface. Pull the board back to you with the leash, and climb on. Look around, to the outside. No other swells are coming. It’s a lull, you’re safe, you can relax. 

Look around, both outside and inside and inland. Over by the Mushroom, there’s a guy who sits up on his board, gazing back at you, clenched fists and arms upraised in a broad, U-shaped gesture that says he saw your triumph and shares it. He’s offering his kudos. It’s probably Grant Washburn, pausing on his paddle back to the lineup after his own long ride in. The other guys outside only saw you drop onto your wave. But waiting on the inside, Grant scored a ringside seat for the entire show. He knows exactly what just happened. You wave back to him, wonder if he can see your grin, because it feels like it splits your cheeks, that it might be wide enough to be seen in San Jose.

You pull up your legs, roll over onto your back, let your limbs flop into the water, stare up into an indigo sky. You feel sobered, happy, terrified, fulfilled, exhausted, daunted, exhilarated. You don’t know how you feel. You’d like to laugh, scream, or weep. All emotions you could not let yourself experience during that brief, intense ride now reverberate inside like photons in a laser crystal. Key moments flash again before your mind’s eye. When one does, you are again in that very spot. Did all of this just happen? Seems like a fantasy, a hallucination.

Maybe you’ll awake, sheathed in sweat, back in your tiny studio in Hayward, clutching the sheets up to your chin with your knotted fists. Just having dreamed the whole thing.



It’s Grant. He’s paddled right up to you, taking a detour from his straight route back to the line-up. You raise your head, look at his stubbly chin, long jaw, those earnest and kindly, sea-blue eyes of his.

“Well played,” says Grant.

NOTE: For primetime videos of Mavericks surf action, visit Powerlines Productions