He made surfing history by conquering one of the largest waves ever ridden, but Taylor Knox says it was a different kind of wave that had him really wrestling with nerves.
The kind formed by 50,000 raucous baseball fans on hand to watch him throw out the ceremonial first pitch before a game two months ago between the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Diego Padres at Qualcomm Stadium.
"Throwing out that first pitch was the most nerve-racking thing I've ever done in my life, way more so than that big wave," the pro surfer recalled this week from his hotel room in Durban, South Africa, where he's competing in the Gunston 500.
But Knox delivered a strike, sat back and relished the moment as the baseball fans, watching the big screen, cheered his wild ride on a real wave in February 1998 at Todos Santos Island off Ensenada.
He won $50,000 and a good deal of fame by successfully negotiating the sheer face of that thunderous breaker, estimated to peak at a mind-boggling 52 feet.
It earned him a victory in the highly publicized K2 Big Wave Contest, a one-time promotional gig awarding the hefty purse to the person riding the biggest wave during the now infamous El Nino winter of 1997-98.
Knox was on top of the world, a celebrity even beyond surfing circles. He got to fly with the vaunted Blue Angels. He got to throw out the first ball at the Padre game, to his good friend and fellow surfer Trevor Hoffman.
"I sometimes use him as a source of inspiration," Knox said of the Padre reliever. "After all, he is one of the best closers in the game. Besides, it's just cool to surf with him."
Strange, that someone with the wherewithal to ride 50-foot waves and live to tell about it should find himself in need of inspiration.
But since winning the K2 contest things have not gone swimmingly for the 28-year-old Carlsbad resident, a well-rounded surfer with superstar ability who instead finds himself in the sport's version of the minor leagues--the World Qualifying Series.
After six years on the elite World Championship Tour, Knox failed to qualify for this year's WCT and is scratching his way through the lineups at venues around the world trying to earn enough WQS points to qualify for the world tour.
He can take a giant step toward that end in next week's Shockwave U.S. Open of Surfing at Huntington Beach Pier, a six-star WQS event offering competitors the largest points allocation of any American venue.
Knox was ranked fifth in points going into this weekend's Gunston Open. The top 16 at season's end qualify for next year's WCT, which boasts the world's top 44 surfers. The top 28 on the world tour automatically qualify for next year.
That Knox isn't competing with the likes of such wave-shredding stars as Mark Occhilupo, Damien Hardman, Shane Dorian, Sunny Garcia and Rob Machado this year has many within the surfing industry scratching their heads.
The former U.S. champion is known for his hard-driving, fluid style and quick, solid moves. He was the world's fifth-ranked surfer in 1995 and it seemed only a matter of time before he won a world championship.
"I always thought Taylor was world championship material, and it's still a mystery to me how he could fall out of the top 28," said Ian Cairns, a former surfing great and current event director for the Panasonic Shockwave Beach Games, which features the U.S. Open Monday through July 26 and culminates with the Gotcha Pro, a WCT contest July 28 through Aug. 1.
"I think he puts too much pressure on himself to get that 10-point ride, instead of just going out and ripping the wave, just surfing it," Cairns said. "That should be automatic, and yet he thinks he has to force himself to rip a wave. That would be my analysis."
Knox said he merely lacked motivation last year, but rotten luck also was a factor in his dropping down in class.
He was suffering from severe food poisoning at last year's U.S. Open and failed to advance out of the early rounds.
At the season-ending Pipeline Masters, at the famed break on the North Shore of Oahu, a strong showing would have earned him enough points to remain on the world tour, but he went over the falls with his board during practice and his fin sliced a tendon in his arm, knocking him out of the contest.
This year he started strongly in his bid to get back on the WCT. He won a four-star event in Australia in March and was leading in WQS points most of the spring until a broken foot suffered in a non-competitive session in May at Oceanside sidelined him for seven weeks, causing him to miss a six-star event in Europe.
"I had my toes bend all the way back to the top of my foot," he painfully recalled.
But at fifth place, he's still in good shape and he's returning home to a break he has mastered over the years. Winning the U.S. Open would be huge.
"But my main goal, really, is to kick [butt] the rest of the season and get back on the world tour," Knox said. "I want to be the guy people forgot about who comes back and does really well and has people saying, 'Uh-oh, he's back.' "
GOING TO THE EXTREME
The U.S. Open is the world's largest pro surfing competition, with more than 700 men and women competing on conventional surfboards, longboards and bodyboards.
Good news for surfers and spectators is that surf is expected to be at least shoulder-high throughout not only the U.S. Open but the Gotcha Pro.
But even if the waves are subpar, there will be plenty of action--on the beach as well as in the water.
Organizers have added to this year's event in-line skating, bicycle motocross, skateboarding and wakeboarding competitions, thus transforming a traditional surfing contest into a two-week extravaganza that begins Monday and runs through Aug. 1. Also on tap are live bands and film festivals.
Not all the surfers are stoked by the additions, saying the surf contests should stand alone and that the circus atmosphere takes away from the main events.
But extreme sports mega-festivals, attracting huge crowds and bringing in big bucks, are the wave of the future and apparently are here to stay.
Crowds are expected to exceed 250,000 each week, and be forewarned that parking will be at a premium.
Albacore remain the main attraction for Southland anglers, and the bite is building but it always seems to drop after a day of heavy pressure.
On Thursday, boats from San Diego to Long Beach were operating in a large area in U.S. waters 70 to 80 miles offshore and doing well, posting counts of up to 100. But today probably will be a lot slower because so many boats were out.
Of special note was that the Cat Special out of Oxnard caught six albacore and was still fishing Thursday afternoon just beyond Santa Barbara Island, an indication that the fish are moving even farther north.
South of the border, the bite off Ensenada has slowed substantially, but probably not for long. There remains a huge school of exotics much farther south, according to captains on multiday trips.
The Qualifier 105 out of Point Loma Sportfishing, for example, returned this week from a five-day trip with 480 albacore, 403 yellowtail, 44 bluefin tuna, 30 yellowfin and three bigeye. Capt. Jeff DeBuys went back out and Thursday said he had 175 bluefin tuna weighing 35 to 45 pounds aboard.
The bluefin were traveling north at a rate of 60 to 120 miles a day and could be as close as Ensenada by this morning.
Capt. Tommy Rothery of the Polaris Supreme made that observation via sideband radio to Philip Friedman of 976-TUNA during a chaotic bite Thursday morning. He wouldn't reveal his location, though, saying commercial seiners--who love to target bluefin--have been calling Friedman's hotline to learn where the fish are.
* Application deadline for special dove and quail hunts being offered as part of the Department of Fish and Game's Game Bird Heritage Program is Aug. 1. Through an agreement with private landowners, limited dove hunts will take place beginning Sept. 1 on Black Bench Ranch in Riverside County (Sept. 1 and 4), Monte Paloma Ranch in Santa Barbara County (Sept. 1 and 4) and Rancho Jamul in San Diego County (Sept. 1, 4 and 5).
Quail hunts are at Monte Paloma Oct. 16-17 and Dec. 4-5; and Cuca Ranch in San Diego County on Oct. 16, 17 and 23.
A standard-sized postcard including preferred hunt dates and locations, hunting license numbers, names and phone numbers should be mailed to DFG, Game Bird Heritage Special Hunts, 330 Golden Shore, Suite 50, Long Beach CA 90802.
The name of one guest hunter can be submitted on the same postcard but prospective hunters may only submit one entry for the drawing.
* The Youth Outdoor Safari, sponsored by the Los Angeles and Orange County chapters of Safari Club International, will be held at Raahauge's Shotgun Sports in Norco on July 24.
The event--which includes decoy painting, target shooting, falconry and bird calling--is intended to "maintain and grow the number of young hunters," said Jeff Buck, spokesman for SCI. Cost is $10 per adult or $15 per couple, but there is no charge for children. Details: (909) 735-7981.
It has been nearly a week since Roy E. Disney's 72-foot Pyewacket shattered the elapsed-time record in the 40th Transpacific Yacht Race with a 2,225-mile sprint from Los Angeles to Honolulu in 7 days 11 hours 41 minutes 27 seconds.
But the really big news is that the two sailors on the smallest boat ever to compete in the race did not vaporize after all.
Having not been heard from since setting sail more than two weeks ago, Bill Boyd and Scott Atwood of Long Beach finally got their radio to work and notified race officials that their 25-foot vessel, Vapor, would be limping past Diamondhead, broken rudder and all, sometime Saturday morning.
* FISH REPORT, PAGE 11