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Early December, 1998 has been productive at Mavericks. After several weeks of huge but mostly unruly surf in November, we finally got a few swells that were clean. One of these days (Friday, December 11, 1998) was even epic by any standard, with 15-18 foot fast breaking walls and a crowd of some of the best big wave riders this side of Hawaii pulling off phenominal rides.
At the end of the many huge, generally blown out sessions that marked the tone for November, one wild day in early December stands out for me. I was working at home that day, not to catch Mavericks, but because I needed to get a document finished and emailed to a project manager in Texas, and by working at home I could save the hour-plus commute and get the document to her two time zones away by the end of business her time. I'd been busting my ass over deadlines for six months, and when I got the document sent out at 2:30 (Pacific time), I suddenly realized that for the first time since I could remember I didn't have any more deadlines hanging over my head. After a few minutes of letting this realization settle in, I noticed out the window that the surf was huge, but once again blown out. At three o'clock I decided to at least check Mavericks, maybe I could get one wave before dark. I drove to the parking lot, ran to the top of the saddle to the north of Pillar Point, and saw three people out. The wind was backing off, and waves were definitely breaking. I made the decision to go for it, ran to my truck, got into my wetsuit, and run-walked the 3/8 mile to the paddle out area. It was 3:40 when I left the parking lot, and it would be dark at 5:00, so I figured one wave would be an accomplishment, and if I didn't get one, at least I'd get some exercise.
As I passed the jetty, I saw Grant, who had been out earlier, and he told me it was huge. I asked if the left (north) paddle out was a possibility, and he said Doc and JRay had made it, but he wasn't sure... As I walked down the beach, all I saw on the north side of the reef were endless twelve foot walls closing out the channel. I decided to go the long way, around the South end by Mushroom Rock. I got in the water, put my head down and paddled hard. It looked grim at Mushroom Rock for a while, with endless masses of whitewater to fight through, but I found the outbound current and dodged from hole to hole, and managed to make it through to the channel in about twenty minutes.
As I got close to the peak, I started to have doubts about whether I really wanted to be out there. There were only about two fingers of sky betwen the sun and the horizon (30 minutes), and the scene was truly raw and wild. The swell was thick, lumpy and bumpy, with about 15 knots of northwest wind on it, and the waves were unloading thunderously in long sections with the end of the section breaking just as hard as the peak. Doc and JRay were the only ones out, and they seemed so insignificant among the moving water that I felt more like a vessel at sea coming upon two other vessels in a storm than a surfer paddling into a line up. But there was a stark, raw beauty about it that made me glad to be there just to experience it. I felt like some sort of big wave hunter, come to stalk my prey, but not concerned if I had to paddle back in without bagging anything.
When I got to the peak, JRay told me it had been a lot bigger earlier, and now it was much more reasonable. It still looked pretty sketchy to me, but it was amazing just to be out there dodging among the peaks. With very little time to work with, I somehow adjusted to the setting, and started to focus on finding the spot. A few waves came through that, although not huge, seemed untouchable. However, somehow Doc was scoring waves one after the other. A big peak came right to me somewhat out into the channel, the chop on the top in just the right place to help me get in, and I got a really nice drop. The wave was peaking even further to the south, so I pulled a hard mid-face turn and streaked across the face. Out in front of me the wave peaked and broke, wrapping back at me. The white water was mostly at the top, and I briefly toyed with the idea of driving beneath it so I could get the long ride in to Mushroom Rock, and call it a day. But something about looking up at whitewater coming down and at me from 20 feet above in these raw conditions with no jet-skis and hardly anyone else out right at sunset brought out the conservative element in me. I wound up and dove into the face of the wave before getting to the whitewater, and got out through the back with just a moderate pull on my cord.
Of course Doc, who was paddling back out, said I could have made it, why didn't I go under the section? And I was already kicking myself in the ass a bit for just that. I probably could have made it. But what if I hadn't? It was a question I would ask myself, then repeat again several times in the next weeks. But why should I let it worry me? I was very happy with myself. I had paddled out in adverse conditions, got a hot drop, made a good exit, and paddled in shortly thereafter when the sun went down. It was very satisfying. And on the paddle in I noted that the waves that were breaking in the channel were warping back in towards the rocks, so getting caught in there would not have been good at all. But there was still that nagging feeling. What if I had gone for it? Going under that section and riding all the way in would have been so hot...
On probably the first of the clean swells of the season I caught one of the best waves of my life. It was one of those 20 second period medium sized monsters (16 feet on the hard core scale) that jacked so hard on the take off that I had to top turn and head south for the corner where the wave was only vertical because where I stood up was going past vertical, and there was no way to take the drop straight down. I angled hard in a low driving crouch (lesson well learned from Peter Mel) with no more than six inches of rail in the wave, chattering across the small chops, my face inches from the black water of the face. It was definitely one of the best drops of my life, on the fine line between a great ride and disaster.
When I cleared the pit and reached the vertical section of the corner, I turned left to drop straight into the reform section which was walling up as far as I could see, then pulled a full rail turn to get myself down that wall to safety. As I was cruising across this magnificent 20 foot tall clean black wall I looked back and realized that I was pretty far out in front of the lip, thought to myself that I was a bit chicken, and carved left into a cutback. The wall was still clean and lined up way out in front of me, and I've pulled such cutbacks before at Mavericks and regretted it, getting caught behind the renewed speed of the inside section, so I aborted this cutback and decided to just cruise across this massive wall. I mean, how often does one get to casually cruise across a smooth dark wall with at least a 20 foot face for several hundred yards, weaving multiple S turns? So I cruised out enjoying the rare treat of a huge long wall at Mavericks (Mavericks usually goes off in short intense bursts, jacking up over shallow sections, backing off over holes in the reef, then surging forward again). A perfect end to one of the most exciting drops of my life.
This again brings up the issue I want to focus on. Just where is the border between good solid, sane, respectful surfing, and not fulfilling your potential or the potential of the wave at a place like Mavericks? People laugh at me when I tell them Yes, I surf Mavericks, but I am very conservative; but I really am. The wave described above illustrates the point. I caught a balls to the wall take off, but hesitated to cut back to get into more critical water on the inside, where I certainly could have had water over my head, or even a tube. In a 10 day period, I had two more waves that really brought this issue to my mind.
Several days later was one of the best days ever at Mavericks (Friday, December 11, 1998). It was the perfect size, 15-18 feet on the critical scale, with a few legitimate 20 footers in the course of the day. There was a full crowd but there were plenty of waves. The waves were again breaking in long walling sections, almost (and sometimes) too fast. At Mavericks we are used to catching the main peak, taking the insane drop, then riding over the hole as the wave backs off and trying to get into the next section, which surges forward and unloads again with full sucking fury. But this day was different. The initial take-off was not as heavy as it can be, but if you didn't head south as fast as you could, you were going to get eaten. I saw several of the best local surfers catch insane waves, do everything right, and still get buried by the wall after making the intial section. And the wave was wrapping, heading back into the rocks, with the inside sections just unloading. Luckily, the water rescue jet ski people were there practicing for the contest. They pulled at least six people out of serious situations where they would otherwise have gone through the rocks.
The line up was full of some of the best in the world. Paddling back out after a wave I saw Shaun Rhodes catch a monster, hanging at the top perilously, then plunging down a 30 foot face while Mike Brummet plummetted 30 feet with the lip behind him. By the time Shaun made progress down the face I thought he was done for with no chance of beating the wall which was already sucking out 50 yards in front of him. But he pulled a radical mid-face power turn and out-raced the wall with 30 feet of water hanging over his head all the way. When he reached the shoulder, the white water exploded behind him, foamballing up all over him, he hung tight and raced into the next section out of sight. It was one of the most impressive acts of surfing I ever witnessed.
And a few minutes later Matt Ambrose caught an even bigger wave, dropping out of the sky and apparently catching full air for at least 15 feet of vertical and making it. Jay Moriarity was paddling into wave after wave with an hysterical little giggle each time he paddled over the top and stood up. And of course Peter Mel was catching many fine waves as documented in the magazines(as were others).
Too many waves were being shared by two or more people, and with the unusual walling speed of the waves, this turned into potentially dangerous situations several times. I shared a few, both in front (I confess and apologize to Benji, who I apparently accidently stuffed, although the video shows he never had a chance anyway) and behind others, but there were waves to be had solo, too. I got into a synch where I would paddle into the zone right after the biggest wave of the set to catch a medium sized wave, and I also got a few medium sized ones to myself by hanging tight inside of the pack on sets that were not big enough to max where the outside pack was sitting.
On one of these waves I got into the main peak fairly easily, and power turned immediately to get south because I knew how fast it was breaking. After covering some ground (water actually), I banked left and dropped over the ledge into a huge long section. It threw out heavily as far down the line as I could see. For a brief moment I saw the opportunity to backdoor the biggest tube I have ever seen from the behind-the-peak perspective. In a flash my mind weighed the possibilities. Turn up into the barrel with no hope of exiting - a 15 foot Mavericks suicide tube (20+ foot face) - or drive low and long and try to beat the section. I knew from experiece that with waves this size at Mavericks, to drive up the face into the slot in the tube you need to actually gain at least 15 feet of altitude. Even with all of the power of the wave, you inevitably have to lose speed. If I had seen the tube coming when I pushed over the top, I could have taken a high line and been better positioned for the tube. Also, the tube at Mavericks always clamshells at the end, there is never a clear exit. I was already well down the face, so I made the decision not to go for the giant tube, and I drove long, low, and hard. I'm not exactly sure how I did it, but as the lip freight trained past me, I managed to dive hard into the face (so hard that I had to keep my arms folded so that my elbows penetrated first, and even that jolted my shoulders) and get out through the back, only being sucked down briefly. When I came up I could see the water patrol revving up to help me, but I was out the back, got onto my board, and paddled to the channel.
The next wave ridden after I got back to the lineup was a blueprint of my wave ridden by Peter Mel, and he did pull into the tube, ride there insanely deep, then bail and get thrashed. The photographers all screamed and hooted, and the pictures were published in all of the magazines. Even without the Peter Mel aspect, I played and replayed that wave in my head. Could I, should I, have gone for that tube? It might have been the wave of a lifetime, would have made my mark at Mavericks and maybe put me in the magazines, would have pushed the limits. But what I did do has no shame. I did the sane thing, getting into and out of an intense situation with proper decision making. I didn't get into trouble, I didn't need to be rescued. I didn't even get thrashed. But if I had gone for it, would it have been stupid or brave? Would I have gotten out the back after bailing in the tube, or would I have been sucked over the falls from inside the tube, thrashed mercilessly, and dragged right in toward the rocks, praying for a jet ski to save my ass? For Peter, it was a heavy thing to do, and he has twenty years on me, and surfs all day every day while I sit on my ass in the office. I know I could have gone there, but I do not know if I would have been past my limits. I guess I'll never know. But I've thought about this wave a lot, and I know what I did was smart. I have a rule that I never go for a wave at Mavericks unless I really believe I will make it. This helps keep me out of trouble, and quite frankly, alive. To go into a sure fire wipe-out situation would violate my first principal of safety at Mavericks. And when I hold my one year old baby in my arms, I know the safe choice is the right choice. But what would it have been like inside that tube???
The following Wednesday the swell came on strong. Another 20 second period swell, with all of the attendant wave velocity and power. And to make things even more interesting, the wind was strong out of the northeast all day, subsiding a little in the late afternoon. Unlike every other surfspot around, offshore winds at Mavericks are not good. They hold you up until it is too late to make the drop, and the result is carnage (to wit, the morning of Monday, December 19, 1994). But northeast is better than east or southeast, and the waves were beautiful.
As I paddled out from the north side in the mid-afternoon, I saw Evan Slater catch a nice medium sized wave, get held by the wind, and drop with only an few inches of fin touching the water on the way down. When I got into the lineup, even Grant was talking about how heavy the drops were, even though it wasn't huge. It was fairly crowded, and after watching a few waves I was wondering if it was going to be posssible for me to get into one of these beasts. However, I found myself at the right place for a nice medium sized wave, put my head down and paddled like a bull, got under the lip and into it, hung up high for an instant, and went into my low driving crouch angling to put my board on the rail and prevent taking flight. Dr. Jeff (a friend) was on my right, but luckily he angled and was not in my way. It was another of those memorable drops, and after Jeff cut out I got a really nice second section too.
I paddled back out feeling great. My next wave was a bit smaller and easier to make the drop. I made the first section and pushed over the top into the next section. It was standing up way down the line, so I hit the accelerator as fast as I could, but after about 50 yards it was feathering way out in front of me. I had to make a decision if I could drive under it. I stayed pretty high to store up speed if I needed it, but decided to get out. The lip was starting to go, and I wasn't sure I was going to get over it, so I drove as high as I could and launched myself over the top for an airborn bailout. At first I thought I would just get a little air, but after the wave cleared out from below me, I found myself flying through the air maybe higher than I've ever gone (my cord is 22 feet and I pulled my board over with me), and I did a 3/4 somersault before landing flat on my back, followed closely by my board. Luckily, I didn't contact my board, and was paddling back out when Doc paddles up and says again, Oh, you could have made that section, why didn't you go for it (by the way, Doc ended up getting dragged through the rocks that day).
So once again, I'm confronted with this same question: should I be pushing the limits of these waves, going for backdoor sections that I would not hesitate to try in lesser waves, playing with big lips and taking the hard knocks and dirty socks when I push too far or misjudge? After all, I probably could have made some of these sections I backed out of. Well, I'll tell you what. The current was raging north that day, especially after the wind went northeast about 30 minutes before sunset, and I had to swim through a wave about 10 minutes before sunset: the wave sucked out heavily, dragged me by my cord for 30 feet periscoping me so fast I was putting up a rooster tail with my head until my cord broke. As I tried to swim south for the channel, I realized I was going nowhere. I tried to swim out towards the outside, same thing, going nowhere. I swam through a wave or two, then put my head down and swam about 25 hard strokes to the south, making only about five yards.
This was not good. Even if I did reach the channel, I knew I would most likely be sucked back onto the reef in the middle section as I swam in, then dragged through the rocks. The boats and jetskis had just left, and I was thinking I would have to swim north across the pit and into the reef on the north side when Bob Battallio paddled up on his 11'8" and asked if I wanted to get on. I was on the nose of his board before he finished asking. It took us both paddling our asses off as hard as we could for 5 minutes before we made the channel for sure, and another 15 minutes to get to Mushroom Rock, where I got off and swam so Bob could negotiate the whitewater there. While we were paddling in, JRay caught a wave and went by to find my board. He saw it up on the reef and went on to get it, while Bob came to my aid again inside Mushroom Rock because the current was so strong that it would have taken 15 minutes to swim the 50 yards to reach the reef. We finally got to the reef, and my board only had two 1-2 inch dings, although it was high and dry behind Sail Rock, which is the size of a large house. So when I think about if bailing on that wave was the right thing, I have a feeling it was.
After thinking seriously about this issue as related to the four waves described above, I have decided that my instincts are good, and if I decide to bail on a section that might otherwise have ended in a glorious achievement (or a severe beating), I should not worry about it, and should not think any less of my abilities, regardless of what others may counsel after the fact. So be it: My primary rule for safety is to only put myself in situations that I truly think I will make, and I will continue to follow that rule on the inside sections at Mavericks as well as on the main peak. I may miss some glory, I may always wonder if I could have made the section, but it only takes one stupid move at Mavericks to get into real trouble. I'll leave the questionable calls to others, more valiant or less cautious than I. Caution is the bettter part of valor.
Something worth knowing about Mavericks: Althought the Main Peak, the Pit, the Cauldron, is the truly scary part of the Mavericks experience, the reformed sections on the inside break with incredible power and violence, and as the reef is getting continually shallower at this point, these sections can sweep you into the rocks in two waves, especially with a bit of west in the swell, which is always the case when it is walling up and sectioning ahead of you at Mavericks.
Saturday, March 13, 1999
It was one of those days that was almost really good at Mavericks: Sunny, winds light enough out of the southwest not to matter a lot, a good long period swell, and only a few friends out. The only problem was that it just wasn't quite big enough. In two and a half hours, only a few sets big enough to ride at Mavericks came through, and I missed some of them, so I only got three waves. It seemed like a really good day to surf somewhere else.
Still, three waves at Mavericks is a good session, and all three waves were pretty good drops, at least triple overhead, which is still very small Mavericks. And it was good to sit out there with a few friends, with plenty of time to talk about the season to date, and enjoy ourselves. After all, it is a spectacularly beautiful place, but one we have grown to enjoy in its benign appearance to us on such small days, while in reality such days hide how treacherous this section of coast can be to others, less accustomed to the power of the North Pacific.
I wanted to get home to my family, so with a little bit of regret at leaving such a beautiful day at Mavericks, but realizing there really wasn't much left to ride, I headed in after my third wave. When I got to the beach, an elderly couple was checking something out to the south, and, as I walked up the beach, the somewhat excited man with a pair of binculars took me by the elbow and insisted in a Germanic accent that I look at what he called "an 18 foot boat upside down.
Sure enough, there was a shiny white hull bobbing up and down in the whitewater down at Blackhand Reef, the southern-most section of reef that stretches at least a half mile south of Pillar Point, causing marine traffic to detour south around a bouy that seems impossibly far south of the safe haven of Pillar Point Harbor. My heart jumped. This definitely meant there were people in the water. I instictively knew I was going to have to paddle down there to see if anyone was alive to be saved. The thought of finding only dead bodies crossed my mind filling me with a momentary dread.
I jogged up the beach stopping at each of the few people I saw, asking if any of them had a cell phone. I knew that without motorized help, there was no hope of helping anyone alive out there. As I reached the jetty stretching south on the seaward side of Pillar Point Harbor at the cross road between turning toward the parking lot and the cell phone I knew was in my truck or paddling out to Blackhand Reef, I met Susan Schaefer, the wife of a friend, Colin Brown another Maverick's local, with her twin babies and stroller. I was in a quandry. To run for the phone or paddle? Susan, a doctor used to delivering babies, coolly resolved the dilema. "I'll run for help, you paddle." As she took off with the twins, I caught a quick glimpse of a black dot just inside the capsized boat, and knew there were people alive out there in need of immediate help.
I ran down the beach, struggled to get the one glove I had removed back on, got through the rocks and sprint paddled as fast as I could paddle the full half mile to the end of the reef, about a quarter mile past the end of the seaward side of the Pillar Point Harbor jetty. As tired as I was, I did not let up, just breathing harder and telling myself that there were people out there for whom every minute might mean life or death. As I got near, I could see two people in the water about twenty-five yards east of the hull. One of them was shouting at me, but I was heading straight for them already. When I got near the first one I shouted asking if they were the only two, praying they were as there were no others in sight. They were, so I yanked the first one up onto my board, then headed for the other one about ten yards further out. This guy did not look so good. The first one was bigger, and had fared better, still able to shout and move. The skinnier one was just barely hanging on to life, barely cognizant of my presence. I pulled my board over to him and yanked him onto my board in front of the other one, instinctively putting him between the bigger guy and myself. Their chests were on the board, their feet hanging off the right side of my board. I positioned myself under the nose on the left side of the board holding the board from flipping towards them. It's a good thing my board is 10'6" long and 3-5/8" thick, and it's a really good thing these guys had full upper body vest life jackets, or they never would have made it.
I shook the smaller guy and tried to get through to him that help was here, a boat was on the way, and he was going to live. I kept telling him to keep breathing, to hang on, he was going to live. He did not look good, but he had enough strength to hold on, and when I started kicking and paddling with one arm both men were able to kick. Almost immediately a wave broke on us, covering us with about six feet of whitewater. The men bobbed to the surface, and I quickly pulled them back onto my surfboard and began pulling us off the reef.
Blackhand is a notoriously treacherous reef. It is extremely shallow on the seaward side, but pockets of deep water mixed with rocks and sections of reef sticking up cause waves to break and currents to swirl for about two hundred yards shoreward from the initial line of the reef. This is the area these two men had been caught in for the last hour. Then the water drops off again, and it is about a half mile to the east before the beaches of Half Moon Bay. To the north is the pocket of water I had paddled out from, and the wall of the harbor jetty turns and extends back toward the beach to the east. About half way to this beach is the entrance to the harbor, and I wasn't going to wait around for help. I wanted to make progress towards that jetty and the harbor entrance, to get close enough to attract the attention of any passing boat. Unbelievably, the hull of the capsized boat had been bobbing up and down, clearly visible for over a half a mile, and none of the boats coming and going in and out of the harbor and around the bouy south of Blackhand had seen it.
We actually made good progress considering. I pulled hard from the nose, and I could feel good thrust from the kicking of the larger man on the tail. The smaller man, who I later found out is named Mario, kicked at first, which I felt was good, as it might get his blood going and warm him up a bit, but after a few minutes he began to fade. I really don't know how long the whole thing took, I initially figured I was with them for at least ten minutes, probably fifteen or even considerably more, and I now believe it was about thiry minutes. Colin, who ran out to the end of the jetty said it was much longer than ten minutes, and from the overall progress we made, I believe him. (See the discussion of times near the end of this story.)
I became impatient waiting for a boat, and became extremely frustrated. I could see people on the jetty, and I could see a sailboat in the distance, but not within hailing range. I was afraid Mario would die right there on my surfboard. About halfway through our time on my board I made an effort to get the men on the board completely so we could paddle, and this was a mistake. We made about five strokes, then capsized, and when I got them back on the board, Mario was too far back. He was clinging so tightly that I could not move him forward. I had to flip the board and bring him back on further forward, so we could be balanced. In the process I became tangled in my cord, and fearing that I could get wrapped up if we went over again, took it off my ankle. By the time I yanked Mario back onto the board, his life jacket was up around his head. He was almost to the point of eyes rolling back in his head, and I was afraid that if he lost consciousness and let go he would drown. I shook him and talked to him, but there wasn't much there.
I was getting pissed. I knew help had to be coming, but where was it? Why weren't any boats going in or out of the harbor? We had made enough progress to maybe hail a passing boat coming or going from the harbor entrance. Finally I saw a small white fishing boat come out of the harbor. Up to this point I hadn't yelled at all, but now I started yelling at the top of my lungs and waving. I did not want this man to die, and he was definitely fading. I felt completely insignificant waving, waiting for the waves to push us upward enough to be seen. Moments later the harbor patrol boat came out of the harbor, turned seaward and followed close by the jetty. He was going to miss us and pass us heading out to the capsized boat which had to be at least two hundred yards behind us to the west. I began to loose it, yelling at the top of my lungs (I became hoarse as can be the next day), and splashing as hard as I could thinking the white water would be easier to see than my black wetsuited waving arms, which finally worked. The people on the jetty saw me and all started shouting and pointing to the us as the harbor boat went by. Just after they went past our line of position, they got the message, saw us and turned towards us.
I suddenly noticed that the small white boat was there with us, so my screaming and splashing really had worked, but it moved off as the harbor patrol boat arrived. As they approached, they threw a life ring and pulled us in. I told them the smaller guy was critical, and needed to taken aboard with no delay. They grabbed him and pulled him aboard, which was a huge relief as he was really almost gone. They then threw the ring to us again and pulled us back along side. They tried to lift the larger guy aboard, but it wasn't going to work very well. At this point the harbor patrolman told me to leave my board, which was not going to happen, so I told him if I had to leave it, I would paddle in. The other guy was much better off, so we took a few seconds to pull my board aboard, they put down a ladder over the side, I went under water and placed his foot securely onto the bottom rung, and he climbed aboard as they they pulled him. As I climbed on, the two patrol men were placing blankets on the two fisherman, so I brought the ladder aboard and said let's go!
As the engines roared and we began to head in, siren wailing, I finally felt a small amount of relief. But I was still worried about Mario. The harbor patroman was lying next to him talking to him to keep him conscious, and I lay down on him from the other side, rubbing him and trying to help warm him up. We both talked to him, and by the time we arrived dockside he had improved enough to weakly ask if we were close to docking, the first words I had heard from him. I happily told him we were ten feet from the dock, and for the first time really knew he was going to make it.
An ambulance was waiting, they cut the clothes off the two men and draped them in dry blankets, and it seemed to take forever to get the two shivering men off the boat and into the ambulance. The two men were admitted to the hospital with severe hypothermia, and were released that evening. I hung around until the ambulance left, gave my name and address to the police, and got a ride back to the parking lot at Mavericks, where the friends I had been surfing with were astonished to find me there instead of at home, and they learned about what had happened.
I think that if the tourist couple had not pointed the capsized boat out to me, I never would have seen it, and it would have been half an hour to an hour before another surfer came in, although Colin might have arrived to paddle out within fifteen or twenty minutes. I seriously doubt that Mario could have survived more than about ten more minutes, it was that close. The bigger guy probably could have lasted another half hour or forty-five minutes. He said he thought they had been in the water over an hour when I arrived, and judging from their condition, the temperature of the water (51 degrees F), and the progress of drift of the boat over the reef, I would say this is pretty accurate.
For a while I didn't know how dramatic the initial accident was, but it was the kind of day that there would only be major sets every half hour, so I figured they probably saw clear water, didn't know the local waters, tried to cut inside the bouy, and got nailed by a set. Mario subsequently told me they had been south of the bouy, had run out of gas, and drifted north onto the reef. Because of the long period between sets, they didn't realize they were on the reef until it was too late. He told me the wave that got them was the size of a house, it broke over them, and took the whole boat down. When a set breaks at Blackhand, it is very powerful, so much so that no surfer or even tow-in surfer has to my knowledge attempted to ride it, in spite of the fact that it peels off super hollow in big surf.
So basically, the boat got swallowed by a fifteen foot sucking tube. These guys had to deal with that, then an hour of intermittent breaking waves with rocks sticking up here and there in 51 degree water. Blackhand also is known for breaking on you, pushing you over the reef, then sucking you back onto the reef, not letting you go (people sometimes try to paddle around Blackhand to Mavericks on giant days that are too big to get out at Mavericks itself, and that is where this knowledge comes from). Blackhand has been taking down boats and ships since western man first arrived, maybe before, and it has the spooky feel of a graveyard. It is amazing that these two guys survived long enough for me to get to them.
I know I saved two people's lives by my actions, but it was the two tourist's actions in alerting me, and Susan's unhesitating decision to run with twin babies in a stroller to call for help that ultimately made it possible to save these guys' lives. I was never in danger, I just did what every experienced surfer knows how to do, and that is to deal with the forces of the ocean. I have to say though, that it feels really good to have actually saved the lives of two people. I am just really glad that I was able to do it. The most poignant thing for me now is when I am with my family, to think that these guys are alive today to be with their families.
I have since learned some of the details of the initial accident in conversations with Mario. He and his brother, Bremmie, are fairly experienced with the waters around Pillar Point, and they had been out there before. They knew they needed to round the green bouy south of Blackhand, and had done so when they ran out of gas. Apparently the gas gauge did not read accurately, and they had failed to bring the spare gas can because they drove down in a different vehicle form the one they normally take. They called information on a cell phone to get the number for the Coast Guard, but were given the wrong number, got discouraged, and did not keep trying. They did not believe they were in a serious enough predicament to call 911. Although they knew they were drifting towards the reef, they seem to have thought they woud pass inside the reef. As big sets were only hitting every half hour or so, they misjudged the situation, and suddenly found themselves facing a large breaking set. At least they had put on their life preservers as soon as they ran out of gas.
According to Mario, a large wave hit them broadside, taking the whole boat under. When asked if the wave was 8-10 feet or the size of a house, Mario replied it was the size of a house. It sounds to me like they were pretty much nailed by a set wave of 12-15 feet, perhaps getting more or less tubed. When the boat came up, they managed to extricate themselves from the wreckage and hold on to the bowline, but that just caused the bow to flop over and sink, so they abandoned the boat and tried to swim. Mario wanted to get rid of his shoes, but Bremmie told him not to, they would be more use against the cold than trying to swim. They tried to keep each other's spirits up, but by the time I arrived, Mario says he was unconscious. He says all he remembers of the rescue is my face appearing in front of him, then nothing until he came to in the ambulance. He remembers that all the crew of the ambulance were sweating profusely, they must have had the heat cranked way up!
Mario said they tried the cell phone at about 12:30, and think they went down at about 12:45. I went in from surfing some time after 1:30, and Colin says he thinks Susan made the 911 call around 1:45, roughly the same time I reached the two brothers. It was 2:45 when I made a call to my wife from the docks, so I think we reached the dock at around 2:30. Getting us into the boat and to the dock took about 10 minutes, so that would mean the two bothers were in the water for about one hour and thirty-five minutes, and that I was with them in the water for about 35 minutes, which seems too long, I need to check into these times some more. The Harbor Patrol said it was five minutes from the time they received the call until they reached us. The remaining time was lost between 911 and notification of the harbormaster. The Coast Guard helicopters arrived a half hour after it was all over, and at least one of these guys would have been dead by then.
On another note, it cannot be overstressed how important it is to know what you are doing when dealing with the ocean, especially in the treacherous waters around here. The calm appearance of the ocean on a beautiful day with a long period swell combined with the alluring calm of the safe harbor at Pillar Point are an invitation to the inexperienced to venture beyond their limits. The long invisible arm of Blackhand Reef can easily lure inexperience navigators to think they don't have to go all the way south around the entrance bouy to the channel into Pillar Point Harbor. Don't be fooled! Bouys are laid out by experienced seamen with absolute safety in mind. Always carry the charts for your area when out on the water (and if you are surfing, know the waters you are in, the same information on the charts applies to you!), know how to read them and study them, know how to read bouys, follow the correctly marked routes, carry and know how to use radios and other emergency equipment, and if you can't do all of this and more, stay ashore! What appears to be beautiful and benign, can turn foul amazingly fast and kill you dead if you don't know what you are doing.
So learn the ways of the ocean. In surfing, sailing and in boating, your knowledge is as important as your physical prowess, skills, or equipment.
If you have a good story, email me. I plan to set up a guest stories page. You can even include a picture or two.
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