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I paddle to the south of the pack, safely in the channel, deciding to watch for a while and avoiding eye contact so as to hide my nausea. It’s deceptively flat out here between sets, almost calm. The sun is shining. Harbor seals poke their mischievous whiskers up. But when a wave finally comes, the tone changes.
When the first green wall—tall as a four-story building—marches off the horizon and pushes onto the reef, the base of the wave – the cauldron, as it’s called – drops below sea level, sucking in its gut. It would be one thing if Mavericks were just an exceedingly tall wave that rolled in and crumbled onto sand. It doesn’t. The deep-ocean surge collides so suddenly with the jutting stone reef that the wave becomes as thick as it is tall, driving forward like some angered aqueous rhino.
There is the hook as the swell boosts to full height, and then that weightless, eerie quiet as the lip falls toward the sea. When the lip connects, forming a vapid core as big as the Holland Tunnel, the explosion of white blows higher than the wave itself, 40 feet up, and the sound, Jesus—an explosion.
Nobody catches this wave, and I feel glad about this. Nobody should be getting near that whole situation. And I should definitely go back before anyone sees my ghostly frightened face. But behind this monster there’s another monster, and a surfer is going. I recognize his paddle and his wetsuit. It’s Alex Martins, one of the Mavericks competitors who occasionally fixes my boards at his San Francisco shop. I feel simultaneous relief that I know someone in the lineup (maybe I’m not a total outsider) and worry. I feel like calling out to Alex—don’t do it! The wave looks like it will simply consume him or slingshot him to the moon. But Alex pops to his feet quickly, up early, before the wave goes vertical, composed even as he rides down, down, down, an ant against the green swell.
Oh dear God that looks awful. But something also just shifted in my brain, something deep in that social structure part. I know Alex. Alex is human. I am human. I have dreamed of doing this from the age of 12. People do this. I can do this.
I paddle closer to the pack, nodding and trying to look manly and confident. Nobody acknowledges me. The other faces are familiar only through surf media: Flea, Grant Washburn, Tyler Smith, Skindog. I wish Doc was here. These are all my comic book superheroes! Flipping hell, how did I end up in a surfing movie?
My strategy, if I’m really going to do this (and I’m still not sure I am) is to move slowly. Sit here on the shoulder of the pack and watch. Learn exactly what to do. More importantly—what not to do. I’m not going to try to be a hero. I tell this to my ego firmly. Know your place.
And so the minutes pass, the minutes turning to strange, trancelike hours of watching, hours of gradually moving deeper into the path of the beast, hours of hedging, second-guessing. I try to cheat inside and paddle for the smaller sets—small, meaning, oh, just a few giraffes high—but at the top, I’m looking over the edge of a cliff as it crumbles. Everything in me wants out and back and away. All I can think is that this is where fear makes sense. Mark Foo died on a day just like this, his body floating in a lagoon after catching an edge on an 18 footer. Mark Foo, who never came back—never.
But I’ve trained for this. The statistics are on my side, I tell myself: thousands of waves ridden by humans just like me, without incident. You must push past instinct. This is the greatest of human feats. This is philosophy, science. This is—
Oh, mother f—
A rampart of green almost twice as big as anything that has yet come, far outside, has eclipsed the sky. It’s a freak set, a rogue. And so the mayhem begins, the herd mentality. Everyone scraping for the horizon. The wall is coming closer, a dreadful malice in its wedge. It grows and grows, high high above us, and I feel it so clearly, more clearly than ever: that will to live that isn’t even part of consciousness. It’s something in your bones. I’ve never paddled so hard. The men ahead of me look like minnows leaping up the falls, just barely scooting over the crest. Most make it over, but it’s too late for me. I’m in the dragon’s shadow now.
Automatically, I fling my board forward and dive down into the pocket, trying to get under. Diving deep, deep, into the murk, hoping, praying and—what’s this? I’m somehow suddenly through. I breathe air, but just when I think I’m safe, I feel the tug, the slurping at my toes. My board is caught in the vortex and the leash, Velcroed to my ankle, is yanking me down. One last gulp of air, and—