How a disastrous morning at Mavericks led to the biggest wave of my life
By Kyle Thiermann
I lie in bed and visualize catching the biggest wave of my life. I think about how it will feel to stroke in, stand up and feel weightless as I ride down the face of the wave in a low, crouched position. I don’t know exactly how visualization works, but I do know that it fucking works, so I close my eyes and try to paint a colorful picture with my mind.
It’s winter and I am in my RV, Starflyte, in a dirt parking lot behind the OPL, a dive bar in Half Moon Bay, California.
Tomorrow the waves at nearby Mavericks will be the size of billboards and detonate on the reef with such power that the richter scale 50 miles away in Berkeley will register the activity. The consequences of eating shit on a wave this size can be disastrous, and a bad wipeout can feel like falling on a huge skate ramp, then having the ramp collapse on you.
On the floor between my front seats and bed, surf photographer Ryan “Chachi” Craig blows up his air mattress. I climb into bed inches away from his head and put on a playlist called “Sounds of Ayahuasca.” The first song is of a shaman whistling and shaking beads. I meditate and feel incredibly bohemian. Chachi and I have known each other long enough that I feel no obligation to hide my weirdness.
“What the fuck are you listening to?” Chachi asks. I turn the music up and smile.
The next morning, we plan to drive a wave runner out so he can shoot photos close to the wave and I can rest and refuel between surfing. Taking a wave runner out is also a lot faster than paddling out from the beach, which can be a grueling war against unending whitewater. A day this big only comes around once every few years, and we don’t want to waste time.
The morning is already balmy as the sun crests over the hills. Chachi backs the car off the launch ramp and I straddle the wave runner. When the wave runner is buoyant in the water I turn on the engine, it revs for a moment, then dies. It must be the battery. We drive up the launch ramp to park. I connect jumper cables between the vehicle and the ski. I vaguely remember hearing that you shouldn’t do this. I turn the ignition and the cables explode into flames.
Chachi screams a little.
I turn off the engine, disconnect the sizzling cables and remember that YouTube exists. An annoyingly friendly “how-to” video informs me that attaching jumper cables between a car and wave runner can cause a fire and destroy both batteries.
We look under the wave runner and see that it wasn’t a battery issue after all. I had sucked a loose rope into the intake valve. We’re already late for the session, so we give up on the broken water vessel and decide that Chachi is going to shoot from land and I am going to paddle out from the beach.
I drive from the launch ramp to a small dirt parking lot nearby. I need to reverse from the main road and maneuver my way into the lot. I think I’m paying attention.
My rear tire falls into a ditch between the road and the parking lot. I try to drive out and only dig myself deeper into the hole. I’m causing a traffic jam. My rear tire spins freely for minutes afterward, mocking my pain with every revolution.
A firefighter-looking dude in a Tundra offers to tow me out. I attach a kinetic rope to my axle. “That’s your stabilizer,” the firefighter tells me. I tie the rope to my other axle. He tows me out easily.
Finally, I walk down the dirt path to the paddle out spot, sweaty and frazzled. I run into an accomplished surfer who is already finished. “It’s really fucking big out there,” he warns.
I dunk my head into the icy water and paddle out. I find a break between sets and make it to the lineup without too much trouble—except the fact that I'm battling a bad case of surfer's ear and have forgotten my ear plugs After punching through a few waves, both of my ears seal shut and now I am almost totally deaf. This will be the liminal stages of an ear infection and I won’t be able to hear again for a week.
I make it to the takeoff spot and try to get a sense of how big it really is today. The next set lets me know. A 50-foot wave approaches, I paddle up the face and literally fly over the crest of the wave. I land hard on my board and the spray turns the lineup into a misty rainbow. I can feel my heart pounding in my head like a nail gun.
I like to catch waves, even if they’re not the biggest, so after slowing my breath I paddle into a few medium-sized waves in the 20-foot range with easy takeoffs to build some confidence.
Then, I make a conscious decision that I want a big one. I paddle out further than the rest of the pack and wait. It’s about 2 p.m. now and the water color has changed from deep blue to turquoise. The wind has gone slack. My energy has shifted, as well. I am no longer frantic. I sit out there breathing through my nose and notice my jaw loosen and my heart slow. I’m just there.
I see the wave I want. It’s not the biggest wave of the day, but it’s certainly the biggest wave of my life. Maybe 30-35 feet. I get in early, outside the main bowl where the energy apexes. I’m riding straight into it. I point myself down the line in a low, crouched position and see that it’s going to heave out and barrel. I touch the face of the wave with my hand and duck under the lip, just barely. Everything goes black and the wave vaporizes me. I get sucked down, put my hand over my nose and clear my ears. I still feel calm and am actually enjoying the experience. As I tumble beneath the surface I feel like I’m in the mosh pit of a rock concert. I pop up, make it to the channel to the side of the breaking waves and smile. The whole experience lasted less than a minute, but sometimes it takes hours of suffering to enjoy a minute of bliss.
Image By: Audrey Lambidakis