Big-Wave Surfing's Swell Guys

The monster swells can be big business, but for one group of OC surfers, it's still all about the ride

Big-Wave Surfing's Swell Guys

Corky Crandal is standing on a dock, loading the last of the equipment into his boat, when five federales come striding toward him. Each one is carrying an assault rifle. He knows what they're going to say before they say it.

"The marina is closed," the one in front of the pack declares in English.

Crandal continues to load, acting as though he doesn't notice or hear them. It's nearly 5:30 a.m. in late December 2007 at a hotel marina in the Baja California port town of Ensenada. Waves are crashing into the marina's rock jetty, filling the still-dark skies with a thunderous roar and a thick layer of mist. Crandal appears to be sweating as he hands the last of seven surfboards to his son, Clay, who's neatly arranging them at the bow of the boat.

"The marina is closed," the man repeats.

Crandal turns and nods his head. With his hand resting on his rifle, the man scans his eyes across the boat, and the two Jet Skis tied to the dock beside the boat before returning his gaze to Crandal. The nod seems to be enough: The five men turn and begin walking back up the dock.

As soon as the Mexican national policemen are out of sight, Crandal turns to his crew and in a loud whisper says, "We're going!" He throws the last of the equipment on the boat, and then unties both of the Jet Skis while Clay unties the boat. When the boat is loose, Clay turns the key, bringing the boat's motor to life.

Moments later, Crandal sees the federales sprinting back toward the dock. They're yelling commands in Spanish and waving their rifles.

He jumps into the boat and immediately goes full-throttle on the single-prop motor. The guys driving the Jet Skis do the same, and the three-vessel squadron races toward the marina opening and into the open Pacific Ocean. Minutes later, a stern warning crackles from the radio: If the group doesn't turn back now, they will be arrested upon return.

They continue heading west.

"We were going no matter what," Crandal says years later.

The previous evening, Crandal and his surfing crew made a late-night drive to Ensenada. A storm has been sweeping across the Pacific, bringing with it enough swell energy to produce massive 30- to 40-foot waves off the coast of a small, uninhabited island in the middle of the bay. The island is Isla de Todos Santos (All Saints Island), and the wave is called Killers.

Twenty minutes later, the boats approach the narrow pass of water that divides the island into two. The pass is as wide as an Olympic-sized swimming pool is long. Once through, Killers will be in sight.

The sun has yet to rise above the mountains to the east. Crandal can feel the wave before he can see it.

In the dawn light, he watches it glide toward the island. It begins to mutate from a massive mound of water to a standing sheer cliff, like the ones bordering the island. The wall of water is the size of a three-story building. As it reaches the rock outcropping, which extends from the island, it crashes down, throwing its peak forward, creating an almond-shaped cavern. When the lip of the wave comes in contact with the ocean's surface, it sounds like TNT detonating, continuing for as long as the wave breaks.

These are the waves they've come all this way to surf. It's as big as Crandal had anticipated.

"When it gets that big, it's difficult to figure the size," he says. "You can't really tell until you're on the wave, and then it's just different levels of fear. You look up and you think, 'Oh, that could hurt.'"

Over the course of the day, only one other Jet Ski manages to find its way out. The federales shut down the marina, so the guys had to launch from a beach nearby. From sunrise to sunset, Crandal shares the lineup with only two other tow teams. With the waves as big as they are, moving as fast as they do, the assistance of the Jet Ski is essential for Crandal, who is in his 50s.

The waves he rode on that day were some of the biggest of Crandal's surfing life. He remembers himself counting the seconds that passed during the drops down the face of the waves. It's like snowboarding the steepest of mountain faces, while having to outrun an avalanche every time.

Shortly before sunset, with exhaustion setting in and fuel running low, the crew begins to plan its return. Crandal makes a call to a friend, who works at the local university and has some pull with the authorities. She makes a call to the harbormaster, and by dark, the crew is safely unloading at the dock. The federales sit in their truck and watch.

*     *     *

Surfers with broad shoulders and big boards have been stroking into moving mountains of water since the '50s. At the time, the only places known to fulfill the big-wave fixation were in Hawaii—Waimea Bay on the North Shore of Oahu and various outer reefs off Maui and Kauai. Hawaii, with its open-ocean exposure, warm water and giant aquamarine wave faces, was the proving ground.

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