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Where danger comes in waves

Thomas is a Times staff writer.

Greg Long has charged down the sheer face of a 40-foot wave, but it has broken with such explosiveness that he is devoured by an avalanche of white water.

Embroiled in turbulence and hurtling toward rocks, the San Clemente surfer strives for composure and struggles to climb the leash attached to his 9 1/2 -foot surfboard, hand over fist.

Mavericks, the infamous big-wave surfing venue beyond Pillar Point, already has killed on this late November morning, which marks the arrival of the season’s first large swell.

Overhead, a Coast Guard helicopter crew searches for two fishermen whose boat had capsized.

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Long has been submerged in the mid-50-degree water for 20 seconds. He cannot reach the surface. His right eardrum is ruptured, leaving him disoriented. He craves air and tugs so fiercely on his leash that the lower half of his board is pulled under.

Its nose points skyward, eerily, like a tombstone.

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These are tumultuous times for expert big-wave surfers. The recession has them on edge; the annual Mavericks contest, one of the world’s premier big-wave events, is in jeopardy because of sponsorship troubles. Surfers themselves find it difficult to lure or maintain corporate support.

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“Dreams are being crushed,” says Hawaii’s Mark Healey, who is sponsored by the surfwear company Quiksilver.

On the bright side, nature pays no attention to economics. A new season has dawned and Aleutian storms are generating massive, swift-moving swells.

Surfers will ride them regardless of income.

The swells first slam into Hawaii, then California, then Todos Santos Island off Ensenada. Surfers, at times, can literally greet the same swell at each location.

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On this day at Mavericks, a powerful storm pulse funnels through deep channels and leaps over a crescent-shaped reef, half a mile offshore. Waves here are so dense and thunderous they can register on seismic instruments at UC Berkeley, 30 miles away.

“You can’t compare this wave to Hawaii; it’s like nothing else,” says Dave Wassell, who lives on Oahu but has flown overnight with Healey to greet the swell. “It’s got cold water. It’s got giant sharks. It’s got giant waves and giant rocks.”

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Long is still down. Thirty seconds have passed. A second wave has bounced him off the bottom and propelled him closer to rocks. Again he climbs his elastic leash, like a kid on a gym-class rope.

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Long, 25, is a prominent member of the big-wave fraternity, known for taking off deep on the shoulders of the largest waves. After he won last year’s Mavericks contest, Surfing magazine labeled him “one of the top three big-wave riders in the world.”

Long built his reputation as a paddle surfer and that has boosted his credibility. There are two means of catching big waves: paddling in or getting a tow behind personal watercraft.

Larger, faster waves, with faces 70 feet or higher, can successfully be caught only by the tow-in method. Tow-surfers take turns driving the vessel and getting towed onto shoulders of waves on a custom surfboard with foot straps.

But paddling into big waves at breaks such as Mavericks is far more daunting. Because surfers rely solely on arm power, the takeoff is often late and occurs as the wave is actually breaking.

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Long lives in San Clemente from March to November. From there he conducts wave-hunting missions along the West Coast, to Hawaii and occasionally Europe.

From April to May he is in Mexico. From June to September he is in South Africa, able to jaunt to Australia and Indonesia.

He is paid by the surfwear company Billabong to maintain visibility in magazines and contests. But he would be riding giants regardless, he said before greeting the new swell, because it is an addiction.

“You get this feeling that is unrivaled by any other feeling,” he explained. “I’m sure some people get it in other sports, such as mountaineering and rock climbing. But really, when you’re dealing with forces of nature and those forces are moving, the mental and physical challenge is just incredible.”

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It’s the morning of Nov. 29. The mammoth swell has arrived beneath a shroud of fog that prevents surfers from safely venturing on boats or personal watercraft from the Pillar Point marina.

They mill about the launch ramp, abuzz with nervous energy. Water sloshes about the marina -- evidence of an ocean in motion.

On the highway, sirens blare and red lights flash. Word has spread of a fishing boat capsized and draped on a reef. The victims are two Milpitas fishermen -- a stark reminder of Mavericks’ indiscriminate force.

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Grant Washburn, a surfer and filmmaker, recalls the saga of five people who stopped years ago to fish in the impact zone during a long lull, unaware that giant waves broke so far from land. A set rumbled shoreward and the first wave flipped their boat. Only four surfaced. A second wave swamped them and two surfaced. Ultimately, one fisherman survived.

Only one surfer is known to have perished at Mavericks: Hawaii’s Mark Foo in 1994.

Mavericks surfers, by and large, are physically fit, schooled in swell dynamics and respectful of the waves’ raw power. They have all experienced long hold-downs or suffered injuries, mainly dislocated shoulders, tweaked necks and torn knee ligaments.

“You want to ball up when you fall because Mavericks is like a wrestler: Once he’s got your arms, you can’t get them back,” Washburn says. “It’s like tearing a chicken wing off.”

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Finally, the fog gives way to a flood of sunshine, revealing enormous waves, plus the rescue helicopter. Long, his brother Rusty and their father, Steve, have caught a ride out aboard photographer Robert Brown’s motorized catamaran, along with Washburn, Baker, Wassell and Healey.

A strictly paddle-surfing crowd is on hand. Wave faces are 35 to 45 feet, breaking top to bottom. Wassell is first to take off. He skips down the face with his yellow surfboard and is pounded by several thousand tons of water.

Baker rides two waves in near succession. Many others paddle for waves, but pull back in fear. Some are out on boards merely to watch.

Finally, Greg Long careens down a large set wave -- his first and last. As he begins his bottom turn, the cascading avalanche gathers him up like a twig.

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His subsequent 40-second, 100-yard ride is entirely underwater, but he attains the surface in time to avoid the rocks and get whisked to safety by Mavericks legend Jeff Clark aboard a jet-powered craft.

The surfer, clutching his right ear, is rushed to shore and taken by his father to an urgent-care facility. Back at the lineup, Rusty Long, a respected big-wave charger in his own right, paddles alongside Brown’s boat and is told his brother is OK.

Rusty, 27, is visibly relieved, but also curious. He looks up at Brown and asks, hopefully, “Do you think he’ll be able to surf tomorrow?”

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pete.thomas@latimes.com

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latimes.com/sports

See video of surfers taking spills at

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Mavericks during Thanksgiving weekend.


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