I’ll never forget that cover. The cover of SURFER Magazine that arrived to my house in June of 1995.* On it, a hooded, sixteen-year-old kid hovered in an unthinkably dangerous (and memorable) position – his arms spread eagle atop the lip of a monstrous wave at Maverick’s. You could feel how cold and terrifying it must have been there that day. I was ten, so my imagination was vivid, and I remember trying to identify with how he must have felt. He was certainly embracing for a horrific impact. He clearly had a courage and ambition few possess – as to my knowledge, not many kids charged big waves at that time. The image alone was striking, but the fact that the surfer pictured was a teenager made me wonder if I would have the courage to surf a wave like that one day. Who was he?
He was Jay Moriarity.
On June 15, 2001, six years after that cover dropped, Jay Moriarity died in a diving accident while training in the Maldives. Eleven years later, 20th Century Fox produced a feature film about his life called Chasing Mavericks. That film premieres nationwide today, October 26th.
I attended an advance screening of Chasing Mavericks a few weeks ago, and, like most surfers approaching a feature film about surfing, I entered the theater with a nervous mixture of excitement and trepidation. On one hand, I’m always excited to see a new perspective on surfing – especially one equipped with Hollywood’s resources. On the other, there’s always a protective instinct about surfing’s portrayal in media. We want it done “right.” Whatever that means. But we’re especially touchy with important stories like Jay’s.
Luckily, I think this film largely succeeded. First, it broached Santa Cruz surf culture, which is a different sect of surf culture altogether – less glamorous and clichéd than its Southern California counterpart, and I think it did so earnestly, even if at a surface level. First, It’s cold. It’s a bit more insular. But it’s charming in its own way. The Hollywood budget also produced some gorgeous photography of Half Moon Bay. In speaking with Greg Long – who has a brief speaking role in the film, he had hoped for a larger swell to arrive during the filming to really do the cameras justice, but most surfers will appreciate the scenic shots. Of course, there are a few sound bites of requisite, awkward surf-mentor-speak, but for the most part, the film’s greatest success is that it’s not about surfing.
It’s about a driven boy from a broken home, who negotiates challenging circumstances (poverty, a single mother who struggles with alcohol abuse, and an absent father) by directing his efforts towards the ocean. Gerard Butler plays Frosty, Jay’s surrogate father and mentor figure, and Frosty is every bit the surf sensei you’d expect. One part Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi from Point Break, a dash of Chandler from North Shore, topped off with a grizzled, NorCal edge that is uniquely Gerard Butler. Jonny Weston plays Jay Moriarity, and his rendition is eager and sincere.
One of the film’s most charming aspects is its allusion to the ‘90s, which, after all, is the time period that Jay Moriarity’s story took place. Pearl Jam, The Butthole Surfers, Mazzy Star and a familiar, grungy soundtrack combine with a few discreet fashion trends of the day, ala cloth belts, baggy jeans, and flannel, which certainly had me channeling the dream of the ‘90s during skate and surf session montages. On an unrelated note, I think it’s high time for more ‘90s nostalgia films. Filmmakers, keep ’em comin’. It was a great era.
Beyond that, it was refreshing to see appearances by professional big wave surfers like Greg Long, Peter Mel, and Zach Wormhoudt. While the pro surfers don’t have an overwhelming presence in the film, Greg Long assured me that they did their best to provide useful input to make the portrayal of surfing as “authentic” as possible.
And authenticity is the key here. I’m always interested to discover how accurate films based on true events and people’s lives are, and without knowing Jay Moriarity and the specifics of his upbringing, it’s difficult to discern the extent to which his home life, introduction to Maverick’s, and mentor relationship are absolutely true, but that might not be the point.
The point is that Jay’s story is an inspirational one. And the phrase “Live Like Jay,” was born in the surf community, has real meaning, and has inspired a multitude of watermen to embrace the day, the ocean, and their deeper ambitions. Chasing Mavericks succeeds in relating Jay Moriarity’s resilience and courage to a broader audience, which makes it a valuable addition to a short list of Hollywood surf films. Surely, a new crop of ten-year-old kids (and hopefully some adults, too) will watch this film with wide eyes, inspired by Jay’s story, and wonder what giant waves they’ll surf in the years to come.
*Correction Appended: An earlier version of this article misstated that Jay Moriarity’s SURFER Cover was released in 2005. In fact, that cover was on the May 2001 edition of SURFER.
For more on Chasing Mavericks: View behind-scenes-images from Chasing Mavericks, an interview with Greg Long, and The Inertia’s film Sine Qua Non: The Psychology of Big Wave Surfing with Greg Long.