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Fear is always factor for big-wave riders

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ON THE OUTDOORS

A surfer’s biggest worry in large waves, such as those that have been pounding Southland shores this week, is getting caught in the impact zone and held under for an excruciatingly long time.

Many have wiped out, then flailed mightily against the downward churning surf, thinking they might drown, only to poke their heads above water at the last possible moment, gasping for air.

Perhaps because of this fear, most surfers know their limits.

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But occasionally there is a drowning and when it happens, questions arise that become difficult or impossible to answer.

The latest casualty was Peter Davi, 45, who was found floating face-down Tuesday during a mammoth session at Ghost Trees off the Monterey Peninsula.

Davi was last seen attempting to swim to shore after losing his surfboard. The cause of death is not yet known.

Family members want to know why, with so many others in the water and many more watching from the bluffs, someone did not come to his rescue.

But some wonder why Davi, at 45 and well past his prime, was even in the lineup. Wave faces measured 50 to 70 feet, much too large for even the fittest of experts to attempt to safely catch without a tow rope and Jet Ski assistance.

When it gets 30 feet or bigger at Ghost Trees, the paddle surfers generally give way to tow-surfing teams, which have specialized boards with foot straps and use the personal watercraft to pull each other onto the faces of swells long before they even break.

Thus, after letting go of the rope, they can ride waves that are too large and moving too swiftly to be caught with arm power. If there is a wipeout, Jet Ski drivers are able to whisk in and pick up their fallen partners, often before the next wave pummels them.

There were at least 15 tow-surfing teams in the Ghost Trees lineup that day, but only two paddle surfers: Davi and Anthony Tashnick, who got out before Davi’s body was discovered by one of the tow-surfing teams.

“He was in over his head for one thing,” said Don Curry, 38, who was among the tow surfers present. “I don’t know what he was thinking.

“He was a very respected big-wave surfer in his day and for some reason he made the wrong decision to paddle out on a day that was strictly for tow only.”

Because tow surfers sit much farther out, they either did not notice Davi’s plight or did not consider him to be in trouble.

“Do we watch our backs while we’re out there? Yeah, we do, and we’re watching out for others too,” Curry added. “But when you’re not part of the game, it’s hard for us to notice you. We can’t be watching everybody.”

Jeff Clark, 50, who is legendary for his exploits at Maverick’s, a notorious big-wave haunt near Half Moon Bay, said Davi was among the Maverick’s pioneers and once a major player on the big-wave surfing scene.

“But his heyday was 15 years ago,” added Clark, who on Tuesday was tow-surfing at Maverick’s and endured a wicked wipeout and three-wave hold-down.

Asked about the fear factor, an emotional Clark said not everybody experiences one, and in that respect he and Davi shared common ground.

“He was a guy probably somewhat like myself,” Clark reasoned, “in that there is no wave too big to ride or situation too intense to keep you from doing it.”

Davi will be honored today during the opening ceremony for the annual Maverick’s Surf Contest, which will be held when Clark, the contest director, deems conditions worthy.

Laird to the rescue

Before the swell slammed California, it reached portions of Hawaii, and on Monday wave faces at a remote offshore Maui reef called Outer Sprecks “were at least 10 stories high,” said legendary waterman Laird Hamilton.

Hamilton and Brett Lickle were one of two tow-surfing teams present during an eerie afternoon session. The waves were steep and bunched up, making Jet Ski pickups tricky.

Hamilton rode one of the larger set waves, and when it began to close out, he dived into its face and swam through to the other side, avoiding being sent over the falls.

Lickle was there to pick him up and moments after Hamilton climbed aboard, another 80-foot wall of water swept over them, “and we got mowed like we were standing still,” Hamilton said.

“It was like getting hit by the biggest avalanche you’ve ever seen. We were driven underwater for a couple football fields, came up and there was another one that was equally as big.”

Three more waves broke on the surfers. Lickle began to grow faint and realized he had suffered a wide gash along the length of his calf and was bleeding profusely.

Hamilton, who was wearing only his wetsuit, took it off and used an arm sleeve to fashion a tourniquet above Lickle’s knee, possibly saving his life. They were still well offshore and could see the Jet Ski nearly half a mile away.

Hamilton swam naked to the Jet Ski, returned to pick up Lickle, then used his radio to call the Coast Guard, and an ambulance arrived to pick up Lickle on shore. The wound required 50 staples.

“It was heavy,” Hamilton said via cellphone Thursday. He then cut the interview short because the waves were up again, and he was going back for more.

Across the pond

Before the North Pacific swell reached Hawaii and California, tow-surfing teams in Europe were riding their own giants.

The Atlantic swell generated enormous swells and on Saturday and Sunday, surfers in Ireland and Spain conquered waves measuring to about 70 feet -- the largest ridden off those shores.

“What’s amazing here is just the string of days in a row all around the world,” said Bill Sharp, director of the Billabong XXL Global Big-Wave Awards, a yearlong contest that awards prizes in several categories, including largest wave ridden and photographed.

“Certainly the swell was pretty special along the West Coast. But to have the biggest days ever in Ireland, one of the biggest days ever in Spain, and then the next day a big old day in Hawaii and then a huge day in California, back-to-back-to-back-to-back. I can’t remember anything even close to that ever happening.”

Stories, photos and video footage can be viewed at billabongxxl.com and surfline.com.

Paying the price

High-profile surfing fatalities since 1990 (all paddle surfers):

* Mark Foo, 1994, Maverick’s. The veteran from Hawaii drowned after a wipeout during which he was believed to have either gotten his leash stuck in the rocks or was knocked unconscious by his surfboard.

It was a chaotic day, like Tuesday at Ghost Trees, and his friends figured he had gotten out. But part of his board was found two hours later, with Foo’s submerged body still attached to the leash.

* Donnie Solomon, 1995, Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore. The rising star from Ventura was pitched over the falls on a wave face measuring 40-plus feet and did not surface until after two more waves had broken. Moments earlier, he had caught what he described to another surfer as “the biggest wave of my life.”

* Todd Chesser, outer reef beyond Waimea, 1997. Waimea was closed out and North Shore beaches were closed, but Chesser and two others paddled out anyway.

A mammoth set rolled in and Chesser reportedly stood on his board and dived down to try to make it under one of the waves. His body was later recovered in the rocks near Waimea.

* Malik Joyeux, 2005, Banzai Pipeline. The popular surfer from French Polynesia suffered a severe wipeout that snapped his board and tore the leash from his ankle.

He failed to surface and a frantic search by dozens of lifeguards and surfers turned up his body 10 minutes later, still submerged, 200 yards east of the surf break.

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pete.thomas@latimes.com


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