Surely, even if you’ve only a passing interest in surfing, you’ve heard of Mavericks, a big-wave spot about 25 miles south of San Francisco. It’s one of the two towers of impossibly big, scary, and dangerous waves, a cold-water counter to Maui’s Jaws. Mavericks, as well as Jaws, is a big fist of reef that punches abruptly up from a deepwater seafloor, focusing a tremendous amount of energy in one small patch of ocean. Mavericks will hold waves of any size; as the Pacific gets angrier, the waves at Mavericks just get bigger, never losing their perfect shape.
Last week, one in a series of storms raging in the Gulf of Alaska sent a particularly muscular swell more than a thousand miles that was aimed squarely at Northern California. Big-wave surfers—a decidedly separate wing of the surf spectrum from the regular workaday surfer—descend from around the world when a swell this powerful heads for Mavericks. But it’s still the local guys, from the nearby towns of Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz, that set the performance, and courage standard at the wave.
On January 8, Pete Mel, a beloved Santa Cruz pro and a standout at Mavericks for decades, rode, quite simply, the most incredible wave ever seen. It’s the beautiful and frustrating nature of surfing that there aren’t really standards one can apply to wave size and ferocity. It can’t be said that Mel finally rode a wave of a certain size that surfers have been chasing for years. He didn’t perform a maneuver surfers have tried and failed to achieve for countless winter seasons. He didn’t thread an unthreaded line, the way a climber might be the first to send a devilishly hard route. Every wave is different, and Mel likely assumed this was just a good, big wave when he paddled into it, with no thought to the possibility he might be seconds away from making history.
So, here’s the wave. You’ll want to watch this wave on a desktop, or laptop, filled to full screen. Seriously, if you’re reading this on a phone, wait until you have access to a larger screen. It will be worth it.
There is a moment, a few beats after he gets to his feet, when the full power of the wave begins to draw water off the reef, a shelf appears below Mel, and he pushes past it, committing himself to whatever maelstrom may come. That decision, to accept the immense danger of the moment, to trust his ability to handle it, is what separates big-wave surfers from small wave surfers that may be far more talented.
Mel arcs across the bottom of the wave, and, with nowhere else to go, relaxes and stands tall inside the barrel of what was likely a 60-foot-plus wave at takeoff. It’s impossible, even for a surfer, like your author, who has ridden waves for nearly 30 years, to understand what Mel felt at that moment. The power and the calm, the speed and the slowness of the moment, the fear and the courage. You can see all of those emotions coursing through his system as he kicks out of the wave, and sits on his board for a moment, absorbing every feeling imaginable.
Oh, and John Mel, the guy standing on the PWC in the channel? That’s Pete’s son.
There isn’t really a comparable wave to this one. Larger waves have been surely been ridden. More ferocious ones too. But the ride as a complete package of wave judgment, skill, immense power, and cartoonish perfection, stands unique and above every other wave ridden in history.
Above Youtube video is thanks to the incredible work of the folks at Powerlines Productions. Top photo is screenshot from the clip.