Surfing the biggest the planet has to offer

'Chasing the Swell' captures the thrills and dangers of the big wave surfing contest season, which began last week.

At the Mavericks surf spot south of San Francisco, the ocean is on steroids.

A huge groundswell, the gift from a storm off Japan, closes in on dozens of surfers who dot the bluish-green Pacific. Most sit on their boards while a few jockey for the takeoff spot as the wave crosses a crescent-shaped reef and morphs into a peak three to four stories high.

The rising swell lifts Mark Healey of Hawaii. After paddling hard at the crest, he jumps to his feet, drops down the near vertical face and turns toward the unbroken shoulder. He is pursued by an avalanche of whitewater, so thunderous it can register on seismic instruments at UC Berkeley 30 miles away.

So begins "Chasing the Swell," a surf video in three chapters produced by the Los Angeles Times. The film chronicles the exploits of a handful of big wave hunters last winter as they traveled to Waimea Bay on the north shore of Oahu, Mavericks off Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay, and Isla Todos Santos, a small island off Baja California. It is an exciting primer for anyone interested in this year's big wave season, which began last week.

Among the giant killers are Greg Long of San Clemente, Shane Dorian of Hawaii, Chris Bertish of South Africa, Ramon Navarro of Chile and Carlos Burle of Brazil. They are prominent members of a sub-phylum of surfers who specialize in big waves — a small but growing fraternity that probably numbers no more than 100 regulars.

"Riding the big ones, the really big ones, the really steep ones is about as exciting as life gets," says Mike Schlebach of South Africa. "You just hope when you get to the bottom you are still in one piece."

Long, Dorian and their cohorts rely on their own strength to paddle into the largest waves they can catch. The traditional approach sets them apart from tow-in surfers who use personal watercraft and methods pioneered by Laird Hamilton of Kauai, Hawaii.

Though members of the group occasionally use tow-in techniques, their primary goal is to push the envelope of their paddling skills so they can get into larger and larger waves unassisted.

During the past decade, the latest generation of big wave riders has helped popularize a form of the sport that was once limited to Hawaii and dominated by Hawaiians. Based on contest wins, Southern California is now home to the best big wave rider in the world, Greg Long, who is named after the legendary Greg Noll.

Today, it is not uncommon for Hawaii's top riders to venture away from home to Mavericks, Todos Santos and other world-class breaks. Big wave contests are held worldwide with a variety of entrants, and new spots are still being discovered — the latest this month, an Irish break called Prowlers.

Like their predecessors Mike Hynson and Robert August in Bruce Brown's "The Endless Summer," members of this elite group are in search of the perfect wave. But in "Chasing the Swell," size matters.

In each chapter, you hear the perspectives of skilled watermen who hurtle across waves five stories high and live to tell about it. Experience their hunt — in which they use the latest meteorological techniques — the adrenaline rush of their steep takeoffs, and the knee-buckling pressure of their bottom turns before riding inside roaring tubes that can devour office buildings.

"It's like watching Evel Knievel jump the Grand Canyon," says Evan Slater, a big wave surfer and a former editor in chief of Surfing Magazine.

Not everyone makes the wave on this surf safari. After a dramatic entry into a cresting monster at Mavericks, Shane Dorian is punished so thoroughly in a wipeout that he retires to a cabin cruiser anchored near the break.

Hitting the cold, dense water of the Pacific at 25 mph or faster is like landing on pavement — a body blow usually followed by an oxygen-starved bout underwater and an additional pounding by the ocean when — and if — the surface is reached.

Dorian is lucky. Before a Jet Skier plucks him out of the sea, he is caught in a no-man's land of surging whitewater that has pushed surfers into Mavericks' jagged rocks.

But the thrill and sense of accomplishment from big wave riding can overcome the high price one can pay.

South African James Taylor is so enthusiastic about the pursuit that he feels pangs of disappointment and a sense of loss if he can't get into the water when the swell runs high. He would rather paddle out and not catch anything than be stuck on land. At least I can be there, he says.

For those who may never surf a huge wave, or even if you have, drop into "Chasing the Swell." At least you can feel as if you're there.

dan.weikel@latimes.com

sachi.cunningham@latimes.com