Big Waves Mean No Small Preparation for Surfers
HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — The image of the quintessential American surfer — a bronzed slacker in board shorts — may be firmly entrenched. But that surfer dude bears little resemblance to the athletes known as big-wave surfers, a small community composed of men and women who often become amateur oceanographers and experts in wave dynamics in order to ride waves that can be more than 50 feet high.
On Saturday, this community will gather here for the Super Bowl of big-wave surfing: the Mavericks Surf Contest, which pits 24 surfers against one another — and against some of the most treacherous surfing conditions in the world.
An underwater rock formation is partly responsible for the spectacular breaks that can result in towering walls of water, which can deliver harsh punishment to the surfers if they wipe out. Mark Foo, a legendary big-wave surfer from Hawaii, died while trying to surf Mavericks in 1994. So big-wave surfers must do more than wax their boards and wait for waves.
In addition to maintaining a supreme level of physical fitness, they study weather patterns, listen to radio broadcasts by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and do whatever else it takes to understand the water’s movements.
Grant Washburn, 40, has challenged towering swells here for 14 years and is in the field for Saturday’s contest. At 6 feet 5 inches and 225 pounds, Washburn has the physical requirements. But he also does his homework. His color-coded logbooks show swell height and characteristics for every surf season since he arrived.
With that diary, and having spent many hours online recently tracking weather patterns moving over the Pacific Ocean, Washburn described the conditions he expected Saturday: the west-northwest groundswell would arrive with a basal height of 8 to 10 feet at 15- to 17-second intervals; the wind would blow from the north at only 10 knots or less; and midsize Mavericks wave faces would stand 20 to 30 feet tall.
“I’m confident there will be big waves without the long lulls that even bigger waves have,” Washburn said Thursday. “Later, it looks like the jet stream will bend back down, roughing things up.”
Mark Sponsler, 50, a regular here since 1995, helps decide the date of the competition each year. This year, the decision was made Thursday, giving surfers around the world less than two days to find their way to Mavericks.
Sponsler, a technology projects manager for a health-care organization, gathers data from an array of sophisticated government satellites and offshore buoys and feeds the information into programs he designed. These models of swell generation and propagation are instrumental in selecting the date of the contest.
“We search for a big storm way off in the North Pacific, out past the international date line,” Sponsler said. “That’s the best cradle for a Mavericks swell. Waves start their lives as wind. The longer and stronger gales blow in the same direction, the larger and more powerful the seas that result.”
Surfers want evidence that a wave-generating storm will play “crack-the-whip,” veering northward to bring wind and rain into Oregon and Washington while sending waves on to California — precisely what seems to have occurred this year.
Sponsler, self-taught in oceanography, said wave prediction was far less accurate 10 years ago. Using a dial-up connection, he had to try to glean cryptic data from Department of Defense weather Web sites. “We had no good way for us to peer down into open-ocean storms, get an idea what was going on inside,” he said.
Big-wave surfers rely on data from QuikScat and Jason-1, satellites with the Ocean Surface Topography Mission for NASA and its international partners. Jason-1 uses radar to scan undulations on the sea, providing average readings accurate within 3.3 centimeters from a vantage point 860 miles above.
Jason-1 also uses microwaves to measure water vapor, G.P.S. to pinpoint locations, and lasers to communicate with ground stations.
QuikScat measures direction and speed of ocean winds by analyzing microwaves scattered by the ocean surface. More information-collecting devices are plopped on the sea surface: the N.O.A.A. weather buoys, which measure swells as they tilt and ride over them and capture wind speed, gust strength and direction.
But once the surfers are out on the water, they are detached from all the sophisticated analysis. They have only their knowledge of how the ocean water moves.
“Wave physics are extremely complicated,” said Dr. William O’Reilly of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. “Some parts are not well understood by anyone.”
At Mavericks, the wave’s angle of approach is key. If the swell arrives from the north-northwest, it will be broken up by the Cordell Bank, the Farallon Islands and the sprawling sandbars of Four Fathom Bank. But if the swell shoots in from a west-northwest angle, it hits a near-perfect launch ramp of steadily shallowing water.
About 900 yards from the ocean’s edge at Pillar Point, the swell hits the underwater rock formation and is forcefully driven forward and upward.
Jeff Clark, who pioneered the Mavericks break in 1975 and organizes the contest, and the local surfer Matt Ambrose have dived to this reef when the ocean was calm to examine and better understand its structure.
It is at this spot that the surfers line up, lying on their boards and waiting for the right wave. They will have followed the storm since its generation on the North Pacific five days earlier, studied the three-day predictions on various Web sites, observed the buoy reports with growing excitement Friday, and then hit the Pillar Point parking lot by dawn.
On Saturday, they will be joined by 30,000 spectators.
Depending on the size, shape and direction of the swell, a surfer will maneuver in a small zone with about a 50-foot radius. Once a swell passes, he has roughly seven seconds to assess whether the next one is the one he wants to ride, three to five seconds to shift his position in, out, left or right, and two seconds to make a go/no-go decision. Then he must start paddling — sometimes for his life.
“When the science is said and done, experience has a say,” Clark said. “What’s the feel? Is my spider sense tingling? You don’t want to let a solid swell go by. At the end of the season, I don’t want to look down and see some ‘should’ stuck on my boot.”
After committing to a wave, the surfer must confront the sheer tonnage of hurtling water and hit a 10-foot-wide slot of the best spot to launch a ride with pinpoint timing, a maneuver that Washburn has described as akin to “trying to place a Dixie cup on the horn of a charging rhino.”
If he makes it, he carves down a tall, glittering wave face at speeds in excess of 30 miles an hour while the lip crashes behind him with a rumble.
If the surfer is lucky and skilled, the ride can last for a half-mile — a thrilling 45-second payoff for all the hours of studying the competition.