Anatomy of a Bomb, part 1:
The morning of January 26, 2017 at Maverick's -- Northern California's most notorious big-wave location -- arrived like a gift. Clear, bluebird skies shined and a touch of northeasterly offshore breeze groomed the surf, and kept the air brisk. Buoy readings outside of Half Moon Bay were in the 13-feet @ 19 seconds range. It was a long-period swell with lots of energy and extra water slamming into the reef, jacking up the main peak into a vertical, slabby bowl. Mav's pioneer Jeff Clark called it one of the best swells of the year. In the parking lot, contention and controversy swirled about the Titans of Maverick's big wave contest -- the decision to not give it a green light on a day this good baffled competitors, media and fans alike. When the Titans' corporate ownership group filed for bankruptcy protection just a few days later, everyone would have their explanation.
But out in the water, a 20-something Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student from San Diego's Point Loma neighborhood was stealing the show.
Anatomy of a Bomb, part 2:
When the wave of the day lurched up ominously onto the Outer Bowl, Mashburn found himself out the back, deep on the peak alongside Willem Banks (who caught the second wave of the set). He was too deep, really. Way too deep and he paid a big price. The next day, Mashburn posted this to his Instagram: "Soooo, yesterday I was lucky enough to paddle into one of my biggest waves (so far). I got super blown up after making it to the bottom, lost my board, and took a hefty beating (thank you to everyone running safety). When I found the board, two of the fin boxes were destroyed from the rocks, so I took the fins out and tried using it as a single fin. This ended up being my only wave of the day. Worth it."
Anatomy of a Bomb, part 3:
Upon examination, the third angle of Mashburn's wave brings the old gunslinger's adage to mind... something about bringing a knife to a gunfight. Savvy vets in position to witness the ride lauded the kid's verve, but warned that taking off that deep never works out well. "I'm not there to coach other guys," said Mav's legend Peter Mel, "I'm trying to get my own waves, but it's a tough lesson to learn, he got destroyed. From the position he was at, it was an unmakeable wave. You gotta hand it to him, he went on a big one. He'll learn... or he won't."
Peter Mel has been spending more time surfing Maverick's this season than in any recent winter. The crowds are thicker and more talented, he said, and the shiny lure of sponsorship, social media glory and big-wave contest prize money has created a frothy, hot mess. "Back, 15 years ago or so, when I was surfing it with Flea [Virostko] and Skindog [Collins] and the others, there was a pack of 20, 10 of whom we're really trying to get set waves," said Mel. "Now, it's like 50, with a pack of 40 guys who really want it." He still gets his share, however. "To be honest, I got swatted on that one," said Mel. "I got stuck in the wind on the high tide in the morning, I tried but didn't make the drop. That one had a specific angle I like, it has a big wally face on it which can make for a longer ride. I've had to change my approach out there from 'inside-out,' to 'outside-in,' mainly due to the pack, and it's uncomfortable. Instead of seeing the wave stand up in front of me, then adjusting to the wave, I have to see the wave, commit early and put my head down and hope for the best. It's definitely not ideal, but I still love it."
In the annals of the most horrific wipeouts at Maverick's, the standard-bearer is -- and will always be -- the late Jay Moriarity's infamous "Iron Cross" free-falling air drop. Immortalized on the cover of SURFER Magazine in 1995 (these were the seminal days of the surf media's frenzied coverage of Jeff Clark's "secret" spot), Moriarity's wipeout still elicits a sickening feeling in the gut upon fresh viewing, even 20 years later. Raised on the beach at Pipeline, Nathan Florence is no stranger to air drops and gut-wrenching slams. And reports say he performed admirably on this day, except for one thing (see above). Florence heroically tested gravity while making his case for Maverick's infamy.
Wide shots of Maverick's taken from the channel tend to downplay the wave's seriousness. Pull back the curtain of photo cropping, and a deeper look reveals perils aplenty. Even with new floatation technology and professional water safety, significant danger lurks just out of frame in the physical (a pair of treacherous inside rocks dubbed Mushroom Rock and Sail Rock), emotional (deep, lung-busting hold-downs in "The Cauldron"), and psychological (mainly, curious sharks). Lest we forget that one of the main reasons Shane Dorian -- a surfer revered for his skill, experience and fitness in huge waves -- began experimenting with inflatable technology was a near-drowning experience at Maverick's in 2010. Above, Alex Martins draws a perfect line, making it look like a big day at Swami's. But it's not. It's definitely not.
Unfortunately for Italian big-wave impresario Francisco Porcella, this photo of him knifing into a rotund left will not be the wave that he is remembered for from that day. On a different wave during this session, Porcella made what might have been the most technically audacious drop of the entire year. And he did it sitting on his ass. That's right, he butt-boarded it. Goat-boated it. Go-karted it.
The Italian magician got hung up in the lip, his board disconnected and he sideslipped mid-way down the face only to correct the fall and land on his butt. In a rarely matched display of improvisation, Porcella steered his way down the face seated and rode away cleanly into the impact zone. Whistles, hoots and hollers erupted from the channel as Porcella completed a whitewater luge run on a 35-foot Maverick's beast.
San Francisco surfers are cut from a different cloth. Hardened by wind and weather, cold water and currents, time and tide aligned against them like a cruel joke. Ocean Beach local Matt Lopez knows it all to well. In a recent interview, he said half of his sessions ended in tears when he was first starting out at O.B. because the conditions there are so difficult -- he listed weird wind and tide, lots of big bumpy swell, frigid water, backwash from the San Francisco Bay, sharky lineups. But the brutal paddle out and massive lineup, however, is a perfect training ground for the trek 45 miles south to Maverick's. Lopez drives a baby blue board down the face on a bluebird day.
Nathan Fletcher is part of a loyal group of North Shore-based surfers who routinely take the five-hour red-eye flight into the Bay Area to surf Mav's. Fletcher's backside approach to the wave is a unique surf/skate synthesis. "Nathan's very experienced, he's spent a lot of time out there paddling, even during the years we were overdoing it with tow-surfing," said Mel. "He was one of those guys pushing the limits with paddling in and he doesn't over cook things, he doesn't try to catch too many waves. It's much harder out there on your backhand, you've gotta get under it just like your would at any big slabby wave, you've gotta lead with your head and Nathan's one of the best out there."
Looking lonely, Rafael Teixeira streaked down a clean wall. Cropped out are a dozen or so guys who were unable to stroke into this wave, and another dozen or so frantically scratching up the face hoping there isn't a bigger one behind it. Is it the most paralyzing, daunting feeling in surfing? Missing a big wave, only to spin around in frustration to see an even bigger wave bearing down on your skull? That ephemeral, intoxicating rush of blood to the head. Panic, fear and adrenaline tapping into our instinctual fight or flight mode. For some, it's the reason to surf big waves. For mere mortals, it's something beautiful to witness.