By definition, bucket list items are things we dream of seeing, doing, winning, achieving. Some bucket list items also come with the thrill of the chase. For me, both are the formula for most things at the top of my own list, and they usually entail the words surf or wave. And by surf and wave, I mean the big kind…of the 40+ feet variety. The kind I’ll probably, no definitely, never ride with epoxy resin at my ribs, but at best will view from a spectator boat or charter chopper. That’s alright though because the sport of watching, planning, following and maybe witnessing such a thing is a challenge and hobby unto itself.
Most people outside the surf world don’t realize what a thing it is to find a monster wave happening with legendary surfers on it. It’s not as easy as putting a push pin on a map, buying a plane ticket to Tahiti on your week off, and then assume Chopes will be standing on its massive hind legs for a show. There are seasons and scientists, and they direct a grand show with limited tickets.
I started with a reasonable goal, that is, just visiting the site of one of the few available big wave haunts in the United States. Lucky for me, my husband was all in for driving California’s stunning Hwy 1 for our wedding anniversary in the fall of 2014, which was a shared wish list destination for both of us. We started that trip in San Francisco and drove south on the 1 towards Los Angeles. First stop just south of the Golden Gate? Sleepy Half Moon Bay, home of a great big golf ball (well, the Air Force tracking station) on Pillar Point Bluff. Oh. And Mavericks.
As I try to do in my posts, I’ll save the complete Mavericks back story for you to read on Wikipedia. Yet you need at least a few facts to understand what it is. Mavericks is a wave that happens when a strong winter storm meets a perfect and unusual shaped underwater rock formation off the shore of Half Moon Bay. It is two miles (that’s right, two entire miles) out to the break in shark-heavy waters, the swell is the result of Pacific coast winter storms, it’s best viewed from a precarious bluff (unless you score a boat or helicopter ride), and it usually sees its most harrowing heights, topping out at over 80 feet, at night. It’s brutal out there and is also ominous standing on that slick, boot-sucking bluff with the wind blowing everything sideways. But if the winds calm down, the swell is still on after dawn, and with decent binoculars or a long camera lens, it can be the show of a lifetime.
Alas, my first trip to this place, also known as Princeton-by-the-Sea, was peaceful, warm, clear, and of course flat, with just a little ripple on the water – glorious, typical, October California weather. All I could do was snap a joyful picture to prove I’d at least stood there and then focus my energy on what would be a fabulous 9-day trip from north to south, with our convertible clinging dangerously close to the dry edge of the west side of our map.
I was happy with my moment for a brief period but all it served to do was increase my itch. As soon as I made it back to the east coast I forever daydreamed about how to get back to Half Moon Bay for a long weekend AND how to coincide a trip with a swell.
As the holidays approached, an unusual work opportunity required me to work and travel every weekend leading up to Christmas. I agreed with one condition that one of those weekends land me in San Francisco. So, the weekend before Christmas I found myself again driving across a giant bridge, sipping wine in Sausalito and driving breathtaking redwood forests between Santa Clara and Half Moon Bay.
I was ecstatic to touch down in Northern California again so soon and my heart was already pounding because I knew one of those Pacific ocean storms was coinciding with our visit. I wasn’t confident it would amount to anything but my co-worker and I still pointed our rental car towards Devils Slide for a blustery drive south to Pillar Point Bluff, and with a solid 24 hours until work required our attention elsewhere.
As soon as we arrived, Tom and I hoofed it up the slick, messy bluff for a first glimpse. And true to my earlier description, the wind was howling across the cliff, rain was blowing sideways and the mighty Pacific was thrashing and churning. Visibility was minimal but it looked like Mavericks had not yet come to visit. With nothing else to see, and our jeans clinging to our legs, we slid back down Pillar Point and headed towards Jeff Clark’s Mavericks Surf Shop and then a bite to eat.
So here’s the thing. Sometimes it pays to hang out in a place where surfboards are rented, t-shirts are sold, and surfers hang out. They’ll tell you stuff. Like what the conditions are, and are going to be. In this case, we also heard how the sponsors were right then flying their best to Northern California, and even more specifically, what time boards would hit the water. As the words sunk in, I swear while I stood among the hoodies and wetsuits, that the world stopped spinning for a moment. I found myself there by a stroke of good fortune, in Jeff Clark’s legendary establishment, with sparks and stoke buzzing around and through me. In just 12 hours, at 4am on December 20th, the swell that is Mavericks would rise.
Back in Santa Clara, Tom and I agreed to meet at the car before 7 o’clock the next morning. Thirty minutes later, we parked on the side of the one lane road that leads back to the bluff’s base. Cars and surfboards were everywhere as we trekked along to our destination. The anticipation for what I might see was unbearable, but the rain had ended and the fog was lifting. Up we went again and at first glance with the naked eye we saw what appeared to be a lot of birds on the water – remember, it’s two miles out. Of course with lenses and binoculars we quickly realized all those birds were actually wetsuits waiting for the next set. It wasn’t but a few short minutes before I saw what I’d come so far to see -the Mavericks wave.
That morning, later known as Super Saturday or twelvetwenty, we cheered the mightiest big wave surfers. We groaned as boards snapped and ribs bruised. Boats were knocked around Mark Healey’s Self Proclaimed “Best Wave” at Mavericks on 12/20/14 and I, at one point, was in tears for the sheer marvel happening in front of me. We took some amazing photos despite the distance, a series of which capture what would become an XXL Big Wave Awards 2015 Wipeout of the Year Award Entry Jamie Mitchell & Chapman Murphey Going Down.
Mavericks roared for about 12 hours and although Tom and I had to leave for work, we waited until we saw the wave peak with a 45 foot face. Sunday morning brought post after post by leading surf magazines whose drones buzzed both surfers and spectators. Through these videos, and pictures from boats and bluffs, the full magnitude of the best Mavericks swell since 2010 finally hit me – and I got to see it in person.
It would be nice to finish this post now but the magic of this trip continued through the next (and last) day with a successful Monterey Bay whale-watching trip off the coast of Santa Cruz. In hindsight I should have played the lottery because I found myself still winning. But that’s another post for another time, and also an amazing story.
Three months later the stoke remains and I’m still grinning as I share my story.