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It was late in April or early May, 1995, and everyone figured the Mavericks season was over. A late swell of 25' on April 1st and 15' on April 2nd had been followed by total inactivity in the Northern Pacific. My 10'6" Clark was hung up in the rafters of the garage for the summer.
It was a Saturday morning, and I'd promised my wife that we would go way inland to check out the horses at an auction, not figuring on any wave action. I woke up at dawn for a pee, and as always, looked out the window at the reef below which is a perfect Mavericks indicator, being about the same depth as the reef at Mavericks. When this indicator is just toppling over, Mavericks is capping, and when it breaks top to bottom, Mavericks is going off. To my shock, a set was stacked up and I watched three or four waves completely crush the reef. My adrenalin surged, I knew I had to get another last wave at Mavericks for the season.
We were supposed to leave the house at 9:30, and it was already approaching 7:00. I whispered to my wife that I was going surfing at Mavericks and would be home by 9:30, and hustled out before she could realize what was going on. I grabbed a few mouthfuls of food, pulled down the 10'6", and blasted the two miles to the parking lot at Mavericks. Of course, it was empty as no one was expecting a swell (this was before the days of high tech internet prediction), but I pulled on my wetsuit anyway without even checking the overlook at Ross' Cove, hoping someone would be on it soon.
Mavericks is not the kind of spot I like to surf alone. It is big, gnarly, and a half a mile out to sea, directly out from a set of rocks the size of houses. Unless I know a friend is definitely en route and will be paddling out soon, I never surf it alone. I knew I just had time to paddle out, spend an hour, go in, run back, and hustle home, so I went ahead and ran down to the cliffs where we paddle out, knowing that if a friend showed up and saw my truck with no board, he would quickly suit up and head down the path.
From the top of the cliff I could see that a new, immature swell was coming up with a lot of west in it. The peak was very shifty, with major thick ones breaking real square all over the place. Definitely not clean, straight-forward Mavericks, which is hard enough to ride. I was pacing back and forth like a caged cat, wanting to paddle out, but not willing to break my own rule about surfing alone out there, especially with the extra dangerous conditions. After about fifteen minutes, to my great relief, a wetsuited figure appeared at the bottom of the cliff.
It was Mike Kimsey, which surprised me. He is an extremely nice guy, one of the few Mavericks surfers older than me, but not one of the regular chargers. He usually comes out on clean days, stays off to the side, and picks off a few waves. He told me he saw me on the cliff by myself from his house, and couldn't let me paddle out alone, so he had come down to paddle out with me and hang out in the channel. That's the kind of caring person he is.
So we paddled out. It was really hard to get into the right place out there with this swell. On a clean swell, there are a set of landmarks that will put you right on the spot, but this was not a clean swell. I dodged back and forth within the parameters of the usual lineup, but sets were still almost catching me inside. It was big, long period and thick, and all over the place. Under these conditions it can easily take over an hour to get a first wave, but I knew I only had 45 minutes, or I'd have to give up. Finally, with only a few minutes of self allotted time, I caught a fat one.
The take off was the usual rush. A major drop at high speed as the main peak sucked and threw. With an explosion of water on my heels, I eased a right turn, was almost engulfed, then raced forward over somewhat flat water as the wave crossed the hole and jacked over the next piece of reef. The reentry on this section is often the best part of the wave. You need to keep your weight forward to traverse the flat section with whitewater hitting you from behind, then the wave sucks out ahead of you as the lip pushes out of the middle of the face below you. You have to tilt forward to get into this section, then take the drop. If you blow it and get caught behind the lip, you will be sucked over the falls for a very dangerous wipeout.
This was the best and heaviest reentry I have ever had. I pushed over the top at high speed, then tried to get my weight back as I took an elevator drop of about eighteen feet, only inches of my rail in contact with the water and my face only inches from the face of the wave. When I regained full contact at the end of the freefall, I dropped another ten or fifteen feet, speeding out in front of the wave until I slowed enough to pull a long full rail bottom turn. At this point I was just thoroughly enjoying the sensations of adrenalin after making what I knew was one of the most exciting moments of thirty-odd years of surfing. I was relishing leaning into my bottom turn when I realized the wave was pitching out a hundred yards in front of me, bowling heavily back towards me from the channel, and there was no hope of getting over the top of the wave.
This is not what you want to see at Mavericks, and is a consequence of a swell with too much south in it. The boneyard in this section is extremely brutal, as the reef becomes unforgivably shallow, and by this time you are over half way to the rocks. A section coming at you wrapping in from the southwest off the channel is sure to send you for a violent tumble straight towards the rocks. So I leaned even harder into my bottom turn, coming all the way around as far as I could so I could dive into the face with as much penetration as possible.
I got through the wave, but got sucked back in as the wave pushed onto the reef. Luckily, I had penetrated enough to get away from the shallow water in front of the wave, and was sucked back onto a reasonable cushion of water. The thrashing was not too bad, and I surfaced in time to get off a good dive in front of the next wave. Again, I got under far enough to escape the worst of the thrashing, but my cord broke, leaving me to face the next wave with no board. I was amazed how easy it was to dive really deep and get under this wave without the encumbrance of a board on a cord.
During the ensuing lull I swam for the channel, and when I felt I was safe, began swimming towards land. Mike and another surfer that was paddling out, Tim Bodkin, were shadowing me from the channel. When the next set came, it subtly sucked me back onto the reef as the first wave pulled water off the reef. I thought I was OK until I noticed a wall of whitewater from the second wave of the set stacked ten feet above the green water of the first wave as it approached me. This gave me a bit of a jolt of adrenalin, but the set was not too bad. I managed to keep diving south towards the channel, and without a board attached I could get most of the way under them, only being sucked back in for a minor roll on each one.
Eventually I reached the channel and swam hard for my board, reaching it at the same time that Tim got to it. I paddled in, jogged to the truck, dressed in a flash, and walked in the door at exactly 9:30. The horse auction was really cool, there were some beautiful animals, and I could savor my last wave of the season, one of the best of a lifetime, when I thought about the waves I was missing.
It was late in the season, late April or early May 1996, past the end of the season, really, so the locals were looking for one last session at Mavericks.
The swell was definately big enough, but it was foggy, and fog doesn't work so well at Mavericks because the lineup is a half mile out to sea, and it breaks hard on a reef that nothing under 15 feet will break on. So without the lines of position from the mountains and only the set waves showing the location of the reef, it is really dangerous. Never-the-less, a few hardy souls paddle out in the fog when the swell isn't too monstrous, and this was one of those days.
All of my friend's cars were in the car park when I got there, so even though it was drizzling with about a hundred yards visibility, I suited up and jogged down the trail, then paddled out into the mist. When I got to the lineup, I sat a few yards further out and toward the channel, and asked what it was like.
I was told that there were some big sets, and that everyone had been caught inside just a few minutes before. Not two minutes later, Jeff, who was sitting deepest, wheeled and started scratching outside. When Jeff scratches, I scratch. He seems to have an extra sense about the place, and in the fog that's more important than vision. Sure enough, I just got over the top of a monster, shoving my board over the top. Jeff either got over it or swam through it, and everyone else got caught. JRay and Grant lost their boards, and Jeff caught a wave in a minute later to help them find their boards.
Doc and I were left out alone, and Doc turned to me to say he was going in on the next wave. I asked him to stay out for another twenty minutes or so, to let me get a wave or two. I had no desire to be out there in the fog alone with eighteen foot monsters sneaking through. He agreed, and we ended up staying out for at least two more hours, catching some good waves.
About two hours later, as I was peering out into the fog looking at an oncoming set, Doc, who for some reason was looking in towards the break, said, "Look, there's a whale coming right at us! He's a big one!" Sure enough there was a BIG whale steaming out along the edge of the reef, taking breaths in quick succession and coming straight at us at full speed, like he was going somewhere and was not aware at all that we were in his path.
Doc paddled in towards the pit, and I paddled toward the channel and out to sea. At the same time, a good sized set was coming. Doc wheeled around and stroked into the first wave of the set, a "small" one, but still about 15 feet (4-5X overhead). I looked back and saw the whale on the surface in the trough well below me, diving under the wave. Doc said he had to fade back into the pit to go around the whale, which is not something one does very willingly at Mavericks.
I stopped paddling after about 10-15 yards, and sat on my surfboard. I wanted to look back where the whale should be, but I also wanted to look out into the fog at the set that was arriving. As I waited for the whale to surface, it seemed amazingly still and silent. I could hear my own breath, and the adrenaline was rushing. Where was it? Was I out of the way? Time seemed to stretch, and I began to wonder if he had gone deep and would not surface for another mile or two. I had to stop looking over my shoulder for him, and looked out to sea to check the oncoming wave. Suddenly the whale blew right behind me, about ten yards away! I nearly jumped out of my skin. It had been so silent in the fog, even with the muffled sound of Doc's wave, that the whale's breath seemed startlingly loud. I turned and saw the mist from his breath hanging in the air. His head was just going under, and his body seemed to go by forever. He was HUGE and he was moving FAST! I could see the barnacles on his back, he was so close. As he went by, his tail gently slipped under the surface within about a board's length of me (I was on a 10'6"), and it seemed like I could feel the power of its thrust.
I turned to face the oncoming wave, and it was a big one, like a 17 footer (5X+ overhead), and I was in the perfect place. I have always felt that marine mammals in the water are good karma, so I said to myself, "Whale wave, go for it." I turned and stroked into it, and it let me in easily, which is rare at Mavericks. As I cruised down the glassy face in the fog, I felt so comfortable that I actually stood up almost straight, as relaxed as is possible on this big of a wave. Suddenly I saw three large bumps coming up the face of the wave, and I had to do three full extension absorbtions, but I stayed on my board. I cranked a bottom turn and came up into a huge tube. As I looked out of the tube I could see Doc paddling back out looking right at me. I had lost my speed and didn't think I had a chance (this happens a lot at Mavericks when you go up the wave to get into the tube because you are actually going 10-15 feet uphill), so I dove off while the diving was good and got through the back of the wave. I realized later that the three bumps were whale wake!
Doc and I agreed that the whale was a full grown grey whale, at least 50 feet, and travelling at a good 15-20 knots. I don't think either of us is ever likely to forget our "whale waves" in the fog at Mavericks.
We went in shortly thereafter, and as I rode past Mushroom Rock all the way inside, Doc said a much smaller whale jumped clear out of the back of the wave behind me, but I didn't see it.
A week or so after the whale wave session, another late season swell hit, this time a little bit smaller. I paddled out a bit late, around 10:30, in brilliant sunshine. Again, it was just a few friends out, and everyone said the waves were good. Ten minutes later the fog rolled in, and everyone went in except Mark Sponsler and myself.
Surfing Mavericks in the fog wears on you, especially when it is the second time in a week or two. At Mavericks, you always have to deal with the adrenaline rushes when the sets come, but in the fog the adrenaline is pumping almost all of the time, because you have to stay so keenly aware, wondering if a monster is going to loom up in the fog and catch you out of position because you don't know where you are sitting.
After about three hours, Mark and I were both fairly worn out, but we wanted to catch a few more waves. There had been a long lull, and now the swell seemed to be coming back on (it was). The current seemed to be picking up from the south, which is not good at Mavericks, so we seemed to have to paddle south to get over the sets as they came out of the fog.
Mark caught one of the first waves of a set, and as I watched him pull out around the corner into the channel, I saw that not only did the next wave look like it was going to get him, but I seemed to be too far into the pit myself. I scratched hard to the southwest watching Mark over my left shoulder. He just got around the next wave, and I got over it, but the following wave was much bigger, and I was definitely going to get caught.
Getting caught inside by a rogue twenty footer is my worst nightmare about Mavericks, and it appeared that it was about to happen to me after three hours in the fog at the end of my last session of the year. Mark watched in consternation as it walled up and unloaded about ten yards outside of me. Luckily, I kept my head, and instead of scratching madly outside, I paddled at a controlled pace to the south to get as far away from the pit as possible, took some deep breaths, stood up on my board, and got a good dive off with a good breath.
My tactics paid off as I seem to have reached the hole in the reef just south of the pit. Also, by not paddling out, I was not in the impact zone, but was in the zone where the whitewater is reflecting back up. Although the wave was big enough to break out past the usual lineup, I managed to dive almost all of the way under the wave in green water (I always have my eyes open under water), which means I was in the hole, because if I wasn't, the white water would have reached down to the bottom. It wasn't until I was almost through the wave that it sucked me back in, which I expected, and the hold down wasn't too bad, at least considering that I was preparing for the worst. I came back up and managed to get to the channel without getting hit by the next wave.
I paddled up to a wide-eyed Mark, who had seen the whole thing from the edge of the channel, and we decided that an upcoming swell in the fog with a northbound current after three hours dodging sets was not the best situation at Mavericks, so we called it a day. I pretty much knew it was going to be the last session out there for the year, so I got to think the experience over for many months until it broke again.
The '97-'98 big wave season opened with a roar on Wednesday, September 25, 1997 as an amazingly powerful swell pounded the whole Northern and Central California Coast.
I'm not sure what the swell size ended up being, but the period was listed at 25 seconds on the bouys, and everyone I know who counted it out put it at more like 27-28 seconds. With the extra period comes not only more wavelength and water in the wave, but much more velocity, exponentially increasing the energy.
The waves at Mavericks were not only 15-18 feet with legitimate 20 foot sets on occasion (25-40+ faces), but they had way more velocity than I've ever seen out there. It was so hard to match velocity that almost all of the heaviest set waves went unridden. I know I (and everyone else) backed out of a lot of waves that were going so fast that my effort seemed completely insignificant. Grant Washburn and Peter Mel picked off some major waves, and the small crowd of locals all got a few, but wave counts were low and the awe factor was high. Every wave was serious.
Sets were few and far between, as happens with long period swells, but some sets contained five to ten waves, adding to the seriousness of the situation, and raising the fear factor a notch or two. The tide was high all day, with a midday low of only three feet, so only the bigger waves broke on the main peak, making it even harder to catch waves. The long period and wavelength also meant that the waves refracted more than usual, so the inside section wrapped heavily and headed straight for the rocks. Not only that, but the direction was about 285 degrees, enough West to make the rocks a threat even on a normal day.
On one wave, Mark Sponsler found himself with nowhere to go on the second section but into the tube, which held open for a tantalizingly long time before clamshelling and sending him through the rocks. He had made it to the inside section but still went between Sail Rock and the next rock. Normally, a trip through those northern most rocks is reserved for wipeouts on the main peak. Later in the day a 20 foot monster set caught about five people inside, and I think at least one of them went through the rocks.
Being the first overhead waves in a long time, caution was generally the order of the day, and we all watched in amazement as waves hit the Pit, sucked and pitched as hard or harder and thicker than anyone could remember seeing. The visuals were completely amazing, and made up for the low wave counts. Most of the waves that were ridden were caught on the corner or the shoulder, with massive tubes ripping off behind the rider. Even so, taking off on the corner was hard, the inside was going ballistic, and the speed was off the scale, so every wave was pretty exciting.
Doug Acton caught a lot of the action from his wave runner, the only photographer to get the water angle. Hopefully, I will be able to provide a few of those photos on this site in the near future, as will Mavsurfer.com. I'm sure there were plenty of photographers on the cliffs, so if you know of any, let me know so I can try to get a hold of a few photos. I always offer any photographer who provides photos a plug on my photocredits page with URL, phone, FAX, or address for contact, and will even provide a gallery page if multiple photos are forthcoming.
I was the first surfer into the water, followed by Grant Washburn who gets the honors for first wave of the season. I logged in with the third wave, and managed to get six waves for seven hours in the water. At one point I took off on a wave, looked down and realized there was no way to make the drop, turned right and tracked along the lip until I got far enough south for the wave to be less than vertical, then dropped heavily and made the wave. The next wave I think I caught a little air dropping in behind JRay, and the wave after that I turned to drop in, realized it was a mistake, and tried to back out. I had to let my board go into the Pit, and as I tried to back out the lip slapped me on the back. I though I was going over the falls on a big one, but managed to swim backwards through the lip with an extra effort to safety. My board was photographed by doug Acto spinning in the vortex, and my 18 foot cord noodled into a 21 foot cord. I paddled off to the shoulder and thought about the progression of the last three waves for about an hour, before attempting another wave with a renewed attitude of caution. My wave count for the day was not extremely productive, but the day was very memorable. It was heavy out there.
Thursday morning was really big and heavy too, but the period was down to 17-20 seconds (normally considered heavy) and the visibility was limited, which means the lines of position were not available. So seeing the Santa Cruz crowd and attendant photographers show up in the morning, I laid off until the afternoon, which was lully but still produced a few big ones including a few 20 footers which mostly caught a few unlucky souls inside. With less and smaller waves in the afternoon combined with the high tide, it was really hard to catch waves. I guess the morning was really good.
Apparently in the morning, though, there some very heavy waves ridden by Grant, Jeff Clark (who missed Wednesday), and the Santa Cruz crew, and those are the only waves to be reported in the magazines to date. When I paddled out at noon, I saw a few sets break at 16-18 feet that were ruler perfect, oil glass, peeling in G-land shaped tubes for about 200 yards off the main section and not even faltering over the hole into the second section, just SUCKING and ROARING, looking totally perfect but totally unrideable. No one was catching anything to speak of at that point, until the wind shifted lightly onshore an hour later, making it a bit more reasonable to get in.
Apparently the swell macked out the whole coast. On Wednesday Scotts Creek was reported to be 15 feet and tubing, and the Central coast was so big everything was closing out. Ocean Beach, San Francisco was unusually rideable because of the long lulls making it possible to get out, with a bit of luck, and the high tide making it not quite so killer. All of the mysto reefs were supposedly going off too.
Overall, the season opener was a truly remarkable swell. If this portends the future, this El Nino year could be a big one.
I'll try to get some photos of the swell, so check this site out again soon.
Until then, happy surfing...
Mavericks Stories II has Come::
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