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In search of the shock waves

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Mike Parsons stepped out of the sun to answer the phone.

"What are you doing at Tavarua?" a caller asked.

It was a silly question. Parsons was doing what everyone does at the remote Fiji island. "I'm just surfing and having a blast," he answered, politely.

That, basically, is Parson's life. He chases waves for a living. His sponsor picked up the tab for his two-week Fiji adventure, one spent carving turns on the shoulders of 10-foot lefts peeling so beautifully over the Tavarua reef called Cloudbreak.

The swell had dropped on the day Parsons was called to the phone, but the forecast was for it to pick back up. He didn't want to go home.

But one of the voices, during a brief conference call, was that of Surfline.com president Sean Collins, informing Parsons that he was one of the winners in the Nissan Xterra XXL Big Surf Awards.

The call was placed Tuesday. Parsons arrived home Thursday afternoon and a few hours later, at the awards ceremony, the San Clemente surfer was honored for his outstanding performance during the winter of 2001-2002.

What a lousy winter it was for surfing. Big waves were few and far between. But Parsons rode more than anyone else, and his successful drop, followed by a death-defying tube ride, on a towering wall of water at Jaws, put him over the top.

It was his first trip to the notorious Maui break, and it was an intimidating initiation. The thunderous waves were shaking the cliffs. He and his tow-surfing partner, Brad Gerlach, rode out to the reef atop a shifting and chaotic sea.

"It's like you have the whole ocean coming at you," Parsons said.

He suffered only one serious wipeout. He made it to the bottom but he had been towed too deep on the shoulder to make the section. He straightened out and the wave broke. It blasted him out of his board straps and what seemed like 50 yards through the air. It then took him under and carried him another 150 yards. He surfaced, gasping for breath, and a member of the jet-ski rescue squad, which plays so vital a role at Jaws, was there to pick him up.

This happened Jan. 7, and it was a day Parsons will never forget. His tube ride scored a perfect 10 on the cards of the judges, during a tow-in contest eventually won by another duo.

The XXL judges, using calipers and rulers to examine the photos, eventually determined Parson's wave to measure 64 feet from trough to crest--good enough for only third place. The same day at Jaws, Cheyne Horan of Australia was towed onto and successfully negotiated a 65-footer.

But the biggest wave, though it was not nearly as steep or hollow, had already been ridden, during a late-November swell at Maverick's off Half Moon Bay. It measured 68 feet and earned Carlos Burle of Brazil a check for $50,000 and the keys to a new sport-utility vehicle.

Parsons is hardly bitter. The XXL has been good to him. Last year he made $66,000 for his tow-in ride on a 66-foot wave during a historic conquest of Cortes Bank, a submerged seamount 100 miles off the Southern California coast.

This year, contest presenters Surfline.com and Surfing magazine handed Parsons $5,000 simply for the effort he put in.

"There was no other surfer who, basically, was at every big swell this winter," Collins said. "Whether at Hawaii or Maverick's or Todos Santos, Mike was always there."

Parsons is an uncurable big-wave addict. He and Gerlach were at Maverick's during the epic Nov. 21 swell, but when the south wind came up and put an end to that session, they got in their car and made the long drive home. With only a few hours' sleep, they awoke at 3 a.m., got back in the car, drove across the border, hopped on a boat and were at Todos Santos Island at first light, just as the same swell was beginning to hit.

"I did that three times during the winter," Parsons said. "And I did the same thing at Jaws. I caught the red-eye to LAX and was at Todos [Island] by noon the next day."

Parsons is among only a few big-wave specialists who believe that--given the advancements in technology and through Collins' pioneering forecasting methods--it's only a matter of time before someone slides down a 100-footer.

And, yes, he fully expects that someone will be him.

Big-wave surfing has evolved to the point where the biggest waves, those moving too fast to be paddled into, require a driver on a jet-powered personal watercraft, a tow rope, and a specialized board.

Not wanting to lose sight of the sport's roots, the XXL contest did have a paddle-in category. The award, a $10,000 check, went to Paul "Pato" Paterson of Australia, who scratched his way onto a 48-foot wave on Jan. 7 at Oahu's Waimea Bay.

Baja Beat

* East Cape: The Mexican department of fisheries on Wednesday, responding to mounting pressure from local communities, temporarily banned the use of gill-nets on a 50-mile stretch of coast between Los Frailies and El Cardinal. The nets are believed to have played a role in the deaths of three whales that had washed ashore, fueling the movement to rid southern Baja waters of the indiscriminate fishing gear.

Robert Van Wormer Jr., secretary of tourism for Baja California Sur, is leading a push to have gill-nets banned throughout BCS, which would protect 60% of the peninsula's coastline.

"Only when we have no netting will we bring back to life the famous underwater aquarium Jacques Cousteau used to talk about," Van Wormer said.

Southland Bite

While there are signs of an impending El Nino south of the border--East Cape waters are already 78 degrees--the only signs off our coast are red crabs in the offshore currents. The water remains unseasonably cool and the waiting game is still being played regarding the exotics, notably white seabass and yellowtail.

Have Worms, Will Travel

The students are always there the day before the Eastern Sierra trout opener, waving signs at passersby en route to their favorite destinations. They are the seniors at Big Pine High, and their signs read, "Worms for Sale."

Selling worms for opening day--this year's opener is April 27--has been a tradition since 1968; the money is used to help fund the senior trip. This year's trip, if the students can raise $2,600, will be to Maui for a week. To help put them over the top, they also will be selling Indian fry-bread tacos and tamales.

"We used to dig the worms up ourselves, but now we need so many that we have to order them from a farm back East," said Amy Steinwand, the school's parent-class advisor.

Winding Up

Just when you thought it was time to stow the skis and snowboards ...

A cold and blustery storm Wednesday plopped a fresh blanket over much of the Sierra Nevada. Lake Tahoe resorts and Mammoth Mountain received about a foot of powder, giving spring skiing a wintertime feel.

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