Outside magazine, May 1998
Unlike any other athlete, a big-wave surfer never knows when, exactly, his marquee game will come. Keeping packed bags by the door and an open plane ticket ready to go, he might wait months — even years — for that once-in-a-lifetime moment. And when it happens, he has to drop everything and move. On a Thursday late last January, Evan Slater, a surfer from Encinitas, California, heard that a howling North Pacific storm had just blown the biggest waves in ages through Hawaii's Waimea Bay and that they were due on the West Coast by morning. More big surf had already hit in the last two weeks than in most years; SurFax, a service that crunches Pacific weather data to provide clients with a daily wave forecast, had recently quipped, "We're reminded of the Simpsons episode, where Homer goes to Hell and he's strapped to a machine that continuously force feeds him donuts. He liked it." But this new swell was something else altogether.
Outside Hawaii, only two places in the world reliably turn waves like these into high-quality big surf — "rhino waves," as they're known — and choosing between them requires both water knowledge and good judgment. The westerly direction of the swell that Thursday coupled with a sloppy local storm seemed to rule out the first, Maverick's, a deepwater reef near Half Moon Bay in northern California, so the smart money was headed for Killers, at Baja's Todos Santos Island. Some of the best big-wave riders in the world were already waxing boards, canceling appointments, and preparing to travel through the night. Which is the way it goes: These breaks all fire during the winter, are relatively far apart, and don't even perform their normal magic (much less the rare juju on its way that day) more than a few times in a normal year. A committed rush disciple just might have to face the ocean's wildest offerings in less than peak condition: jet-lagged, sleep-deprived, and all-around disoriented.
The tom-toms usually start with someone like San Francisco's Mark Renneker, a 46-year-old big-wave-riding oncologist and surf-meteorology obsessive. Calculating wind speed and direction for the far-off storms that generate waves (the one behind this swell, for example, got started off Japan), and then factoring in wave heights gleaned from ship reports and buoy readings, Renneker might come up with the right numbers on a Friday afternoon and begin working the phones. Maybe let the guys down south know that tomorrow looks like a Maverick's day. Or perhaps, like this time, that Killers was the only sane choice: clear skies likely all day off Ensenada, and the tide dropping just in time for the estimated noon arrival of the 4,000-mile swell.
In surf parlance, the term "big wave" means a wave of at least 20 feet. The word "feet" in this usage, however, bears only a mystical and as yet unrevealed relationship to dozens of inches. Developed in Hawaii as a way of sandbagging visiting haoles, this traditional wave-measurement scale rigorously underestimates actual surf dimensions — such that "20-foot" actually means waves with faces of at least 30 feet. The more reliable method simply measures body lengths: knee-high, head-high, double overhead, triple overhead.
But however you look at it, the surf generated by that Thursday's swell was enormous. Even as it began to build, professional surfers were flying into Hawaii for the invitation-only Quiksilver big-wave contest, held at Waimea Bay in memory of Eddie Aikau, a Native Hawaiian surfer who drowned in 1978 while sailing in a storm. The event requires at least 20-foot surf; by Tuesday night, the Hawaii wave buoys had jumped from 11 feet to 23.
By Wednesday morning, 40-foot waves were overwhelming Waimea every ten minutes, prompting comparisons to the legendary swells of surf history — most tellingly, to the Swell of '69. That was the year Greg "da Bull" Noll, a big-wave pioneer, caught what everyone was content to call the largest wave ever ridden, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the lack of photographic evidence. Regardless, the Swell of '69 was the biggest of the sport's first Golden Age, the moment when surfing's Neil Armstrong planted its first extraterrestrial flag. Big-wave riding has arguably entered a second Golden Age now, with aggressive young talent and new techniques stretching the limits of both wave size and performance — not just surviving monster waves, but riding them in high style. This swell, like that of '69, ranked as the biggest that a new generation had yet seen.
The contest organizers held the surfers at bay all morning, waiting for the waves to get small enough for this, the world's premier big-surf event. Aside from the sheer power of the swell, something else may have been weighing on their minds. For years, big-wave surfing had seemed curiously safe; despite its aura of lethality, nobody had died since the 1943 drowning of Dickie Cross right there at Waimea. But then, in December 1994, Mark Foo, the famous Hawaiian big-wave rider, surfed giant waves at Waimea and then caught a red-eye to face the very same swell at Maverick's the next day. Taking off on a big — though not monstrous — wave, Foo lost balance and fell. His body and shattered board were found an hour later, floating south of the break. A year later to the day, a veteran surfer named Donnie Solomon tried to push through a big wave's lip at Waimea only to get pulled back "over the falls" and drown. And finally, just last year, a fit and experienced surfer named Todd Chesser got caught shoreward of a big breaking set on Oahu. Held under repeatedly, he lost consciousness and eventually died.
In the end, the organizers called off the Quiksilver at midday Wednesday. Walls of whitewater were rolling across Hawaiian highways, uprooting palm trees, and blowing furniture into backyards, sending Oahu's Civil Defense to Code Black. Haleiwa Harbor and all North Shore beaches closed. But before the clampdown, a few surfers jumped on jet-skis and headed for distant offshore reefs. One pair, going full speed on their 700cc Wave Runner, got run over and nearly drowned in a 30-foot wall of foam. Another team that included Ken Bradshaw, the foremost big-wave rider of his generation and Foo's companion the day Foo died, made it out to a break called Outside Log Cabins. The size of the swell ruled out traditional paddle-in surfing, but Bradshaw made a kind of history that day by getting towed like a water-skier into a wave he later "conservatively" called 40 feet. By this he probably meant that it had a 70-foot face and a barrel big enough to hold a small savings and loan. The surf-world buzz repeatedly described Bradshaw's wave as "cartoon," even "beyond cartoon," and a growing consensus was calling it the largest wave ever ridden on the North Shore.
Now buoy and ship reports showed that same swell roaring across the Pacific, holding speed and size unusually well and promising what Thursday's SurFax called "a rhino stampede."
At dawn friday morning, huge waves poured over Ensenada's mile-long harbor jetty. Fishermen — who knew well that rich gringo surfers would need boats — crowded the docks shouting, "Big boat! Big, fast boat! Come with me!"
Crawling out of a white, surfboard-loaded Suburban, we breathed urine, fish, and desert grasses riding the morning breeze. In addition to their almost comical taciturnity, there's a loose humility to young big-wave surfers, their eyes more quietly distant than aggressive. There was big, blond, easygoing Keith Malloy, a 24-year-old professional surfer and friend of the late Todd Chesser; Santa Cruz's Josh Loya, a quiet Maverick's regular who'd caught a late flight into San Diego; and blond Evan Slater himself, who was building a career as an editor at Surfer magazine but still chased big waves at every opportunity. Stretching like cats, they pulled muscles into readiness, didn't talk much about the fear they must have been feeling — just a little chatter about how many boards to bring, which wetsuit.
An open fiberglass outboard puttered into the dock, and the nine- to ten-foot boards went in first. Rounding the end of the huge black jetty, the boat began to skip and pound, bouncing off chop and climbing open-ocean ground swells. From the wave peaks, Todos Santos Island appeared hazy on the horizon. Running well outside the island's shoals, we motored into sight of Killers, a submerged reef that breaks giant waves into rideable shapes. There, a blue mountain rolled under several speck-figures lying on long surfboards.
"Hey, that's Taylor," Slater said quietly, referring to Taylor Knox, a successful pro from Carlsbad, California, "and Snips," meaning Mike Parsons, the unofficial mayor of Todos. Mike Stewart, the best bodyboarder in the world, was out there, too.
A good-size wave rolled over the reef then, but never quite broke. "Tide's still kind of fat, huh?" Malloy said.
"Yeah," Loya responded. "Wind's offshore, though."
A jet-ski driver circled, ready to pull guys out if they got in trouble.
"I like seeing him here," Malloy muttered. Foo, Solomon, and Chesser had all died in conditions no more dangerous than those before us.
Slater peeled off his sweatshirt and pants, pulled on his wetsuit. Loya checked the knot on his ankle leash and touched up his wax job, not wanting to risk the slip of a foot.
As they got ready to go, I brought up the K2 Challenge. Late last year, K2, the ski and snowboard manufacturer, offered $50,000 to the surfer who got photographed riding the season's largest wave, wherever that might be. I was wondering where these surfers stood on the matter, how much it motivated them. After all, the Challenge forbade jet-ski tow-ins, and if ever there was a day to paddle into the biggest wave of the season, this was it.
Malloy just dropped his huge spear in the water and jumped after it — no comment. Slater tried to be polite, but was too focused on following Malloy. Only Loya had anything to say. "I'd rather move to Oregon and grow dope for a summer," he offered. "The odds are a lot better."
The topic seemed to make all of them squirm, and as they paddled off, I thought about why. For one thing, the Challenge, due to end March 15, had the potential to lure unqualified surfers out of their depth. But probably more troubling to guys like these was the way it clarified the blurry lines between the purity of the surfer's pursuit and less noble aspirations. In other words, the $50,000 potentially waiting in the trough of every big wave undermined the dearly held belief that real surfers never do it for money.
Soon after Slater, Malloy, and Loya reached the other surfers, the wind at Killers went completely slack, and the surface took on the character of royal-blue oil. Parsons caught a "smallish" 15-foot wave, but mostly the guys just floated in a small pod, waiting. Looking out to sea. Perhaps wondering what was happening at Maverick's, wondering if they'd picked the right spot.
As it turned out, about 20 surfers were paddling in circles at Maverick's at the time, trying not to get killed. Offshore wind usually improves waves, but Maverick's heaves over so brutally that wind coming up the front slows down your entry, stalling you right where you least want to be: in the lip, which can drive you to the rocky bottom 25 feet under. A westerly swell like this one also produces both a current drawing you into the impact zone and waves that, when they catch you there, blast you toward a hideous cluster of rocks. Mark Renneker later reported that either two or three consecutive waves — nobody was quite sure — spun one surfer around like a propeller and denied him air for over half a minute. A Brazilian named Deniks Fischer wiped out so badly he tore every ligament in his knee, burst an eardrum, and was left temporarily numb from the waist down. Screaming for help, he got rescued only by a boat crew throwing him a life preserver.
Conditions at Todos looked much better, though when the tide finally began to drop at noon, I felt a faint onshore breeze. Nothing spoils surf faster. It picked up even more in the next few minutes, and I could feel the tension in the water: If the swell didn't hit sometime soon, and if that wind kept building, this whole mission would end up a colossal waste of time.
Suddenly, Killers turned on. Loya lay on his board and paddled for the horizon as two outsize sine curves bent out of the benthos and bore down on the crowd. The others followed. Malloy wheeled first and caught one, absolutely free-falling for perhaps ten feet, somehow landing on his board. Loya took a high line on the next, cutting fast along the wave's summit ridge. The tide had begun to run out now, and for 30 or 40 minutes waves broke with cannonlike booms. Slater, flying in front of one, seemed a tiny doll skipping before a flash flood. Terrance McNulty, an underground big-wave hero from San Clemente, caught several genuine monsters. Now that the huge stuff had arrived, drowning became a very real possibility; someone — from the boat, we couldn't see who — got blown toward the island by successive rows of foam, then dragged himself back onto his board only to be blown off again. The jet-ski prowled the impact zone for long seconds before it could get to him. But the surfers kept at it, riding 20-foot waves to their dying shoulders and then sprint-paddling back for more. The sun kept shining, the wind held its breath, and one massive blue wall after another drained a foregoing pit and poured forward.
And then the biggest set yet appeared, and something extraordinary happened. Slater turned and paddled with one wave. The bottom kept dropping below him, blackening into a wall of shadows as Slater pulled and pulled, trying to get his board sliding down the thing's face. Just as a thick lip bounced into being, Slater hopped to his feet in one motion. Halfway down, as the floor vanished, his legs straightened and he began to free-fall, down and down as the mouth of the wave spread wide. Then he landed square and his knees compressed. Laying his board over on a rail, Slater carved to the right, sending out a spray of foam as the jaw clamped shut with a shocking detonation. It was the largest wave I'd ever seen surfed.
But the moment soon passed. First, a beast broke far outside the crowd and blew everyone off their boards, putting them through a serious rinse-cycle and dragging them 50 yards deeper into the impact zone. When they'd all clawed back up to daylight, a ripple of fear came off the foam. The wind had kicked up yet another notch, cross-chopping the surface in a way that can buck you off a wave and make paddling to safety impossible. The window of optimal conditions had closed.
That's when a wave of another order of size appeared and did something quite different. Instead of breaking in the usual place and peeling to the right, it broke like an avalanching cornice and rumbled left, which meant that as our boatman yanked frantically at the engine cord, the guys in the water had some serious thinking to do. This kind of reversal — a wave normally a right becoming a left — can be terrifying, upending all the knowledge you've been counting on to keep you safe. You thought you were only flirting in danger's way, and it turns out you're lying on its train tracks.
As that backward mountain of foam rolled toward the already tired men in the water, our boat's engine engaged. We shoved up the face of an incoming berm, down its back, and then over another one. When the waves had passed, the surfers fought their way back to the surface, panting. Lying on their boards, they breathed awhile, shook it off, noticed that the wind had turned on strong again and that whitecaps already flecked the outer waters. Loya appeared beside the boat first, and then Slater and Malloy. They hauled themselves in, dripping, coughing, and flushed with pleasure, and we headed for shore.
In the end, you just have to trust that there's nothing else in the world like pushing your board off the edge of a heaving 30-foot wall of water, harnessing all that titanic impetus, and doing something beautiful and pointless with it. Far from a man-versus-nature showdown, it's an utterly wild kind of play. Timothy Leary once said that in the far future humans would attain a state of purely aesthetic existence; surfers, he felt, had already arrived.
When all their boards were piled in the boat and we had started for home, the guys sat down and actually talked for once. About what? Maybe the fact that they had just done everything Solomon, Foo, and Chesser had died trying to do, and had come away unscathed? To the contrary. In fact, the chief issue was whether they should change back into their clothes now or leave their wetsuits on for the ride back to the harbor.
Wondering if this could really be it — the total occupancy of their minds after several brushes with death — I remembered something a friend once said to me. I'd remarked at the unflappability of a particular big-wave rider on a similar day. With a knowing smirk, my friend had said, "Just ask how he slept last night."
So I did.
Slater smiled his egoless smile. "You want to know the truth?" he asked. "I thought I was driving to my death this morning."
And then he turned to Malloy. "You really leaving your wetsuit on? Won't that be kind of clammy?"
Daniel Duane's novel Looking for Mo will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in June.