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Christy Davis Eating It and Grant Washburn About to Eat It at Mavericks
Photos by Martha Jenkins © (Photo Credits)

The Wipeout

Wiping out at Mavericks is one of the more amazing experiences in surfing. A wipeout in the pit on any size wave will be more violent than any you have known, will hold you down a long time, and usually will drag you further than you've ever been dragged. That is, unless you are right in the main impact zone, in which case you may find that you are blown straight down instead of in, and when you get to the surface you will find that you have been held in the main impact area for the oncoming wave. In any case, it is very likely that when it finally lets you go, you will be deep, and it will be a long swim to the surface wondering if the next wave will get you before you get there. And if you bail and swim under the Pit section, count on getting sucked backwards by your cord if it doesn't break, then flushed down 30-40 feet for one of the worst holddowns imaginable. I'll never forget the look on Grant Washburn's face as he came up to the surface through the back of a wave, then, looking right at me, got sucked back under. He told me it was one of the deepest holddowns he had ever experienced, and he has taken some heavy wipeouts at Mavericks.

If you get enough southing before you go down, you can get blown through the back of the wave because the wave has hit the hole. But if you wipe out as the wave hits the next ridge after the first hole, the thrashing is still incredibly violent, but more inward than downward, and it won't let you go until it has carried you a long way (and thus held you down for a long time). I always found that wipeouts in big waves send you in huge gyrations many feet up and many feet down, with major reversals in direction. At Mavericks, it's more of a continuous slamming in one direction (down and in), like a constant pummelling instead of the massive changes in direction. It definitely has to be classified as violent.

The Crowd

The problem with the really well forecast, perfect, big days is that so many guys are in the lineup, some of them not really knowing the exact location of the specific areas of the lineup, that they push each other further back into the lineup, and further back into the pit. This makes for some truly spectacular airdrops and wipeouts, but if you set yourself up in the most reasonable place to takeoff, you're always in front of someone. This may sound like the normal situation at every other surf spot around, but in this case, you have guys that may be great surfers but who don't necessarily know and understand and appreciate the nature of the Pit, jockeying for position, and pushing each other into real danger. Meanwhile, those of us who know the place the best and know exactly where we want to take off can't get a wave to ourselves. This is exactly what happened on December 23, 1994 when Mark Foo, Ken Bradshaw, and Brock Little paddled out with a crowd that included Jeff Clark, Evan Slater, Peter Mel, and others that do know the place on a west swell (the more west, the more dangerous at Mavericks). You can tell from the pictures and videos that everyone was taking off way too far back to make most of the waves. If the crowd were thin that day, people would have been taking off twenty yards further south and most of the waves would have been makeable. And actually the same is true of December 19 and 21 of that swell, which included an incredible amount of carnage on waves and wave positioning that were simply unmakeable.

The result of the crowd at Mavericks. Peter Mel coming from deep in the pit runs into Evan Slater still dropping from the corner. Both surfers were squashed a moment later.
Photo by Martha Jenkins © (Photo Credits)

To get past the problem of the crowds, a few of us watch Mavericks like a hawk. We surf it a lot in marginal conditions, including big and blown out, or when very few waves are big enough to actually break. This experience gives us an edge on clean days, because we know the nuances of the place, but I just won't be pushed deeper into unmakeable situations which put my life at unreasonable risk. So on the big days with the big crowds, I just don't get a lot of waves, or I wait until after the lighting for photography gets bad after noon and the photographer boats and most of the crowds go in, which risks blown out conditions. Therefore, I don't get my picture taken a lot, but that's not why I'm out there. (Although I sure would like to see some shots of me on some big ones. I know there are some out there as I've been out on almost all of the good days for the last few years. I had a few particularly good days in February (12th and 15th?) last year. Can any of you photographers help me out on this??? I'll be happy to pay or give you a plug on these pages.)

A Word to the Wise

A few words of warning are in order here. A lot of people think they can just paddle out and surf Mavericks because they are hot surfers. It's easy to paddle out here. But you better be in real good condition, and you better spend some time watching long enough to see what happens when a real set comes through.

A few years ago there were a few guys that paddled out and hung out on the inside, which doesn't really work at Mavericks because the wave hits the main underwater ridge-top then passes over a hole, so if it doesn't break on the main peak, it usually fakes breaking inside until it hits the next ridgetop. Those few guys were in the way when sets hit, but they managed to get away with it that year because none of the clean crowded days were big enough to have any REAL pay-your-dues type waves. (Last year was a different story altogether, with the main peak swamped by sets breaking another whole reef out. We'll see what happens this year if the swells aren't as big.) On a typical big day at Mavericks, there is always the possibility that a wave or set will come through and break on the next ridge out from the main peak, or that it will break all the way across the lineup. When this happens, everyone but the most weary are caught, and the consequences are not pretty: a thorough thrashing, the scare of a lifetime if you're lucky; a broken board or a trip through the rocks if you aren't.

Also, some days are a lot more dangerous than others. Southerly winds and northerly currents, which usually coincide with more westerly swells, can make for treacherous conditions. A wipeout on even a small wave can mean no escape from the remainder of the set, and an almost certain trip through the rocks.

Anyway, the criterion for whether you should paddle out or not has little to do with whether you are a hot surfer. Some of the most consistent guys out there aren't what I would call hot surfers on normal waves, and I've seen guys like Chris Brown out there with his tail between his legs with a look of true terror on his face the first time he paddled out. (Chris has returned periodically and ridden Mavericks quite respectably. Not only that, he is one of the nicest, most smiling guys to surf with that I know.)

Be prepared to swim fifteen strokes or more to reach the surface after the longest and most violent holddown of your life. Be willing to sit on the sidelines learning what Mavericks has to offer. Be calm, deliberate, and intelligent about pursuing waves out there. Caution and respect are more important than showing off or proving yourself to anyone, including yourself. I've probably backed out of a lot more waves than I've caught, including ones I kicked myself in the ass for weeks over. But I want to make every wave I catch, and I've got more important things in my life, like living for my wife and two beautiful daughters. In the course of time, I catch plenty of waves, including an occasional macker.

For More On Big Waves, Including Lots Of Photos, Check Out:

My Home Page. More on Mavericks, Ocean Beach (S.F), and Other Surfing Subjects

Christy's Ocean Beach Page. More Big Wave Photos.

Also be sure to visit Mavericks Stories (NEW; 1st Story Online 1/11/97, more to come soon), including:

I have selected a few prime links for you to check out. Some are my favorites, a few are not the usual surf links, and between the rest of them, you can find virtually any surf related site around.

Christy Davis Falling Off the Edge at Mavericks
Photos by Martha Jenkins © (Photo Credits)

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