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

That all changed in July 1987, with a two-page spread in Surfing Magazine. With a single click of his camera shutter, Larry "Flame" Moore had unveiled a new big-wave frontier. In the photo, then-two-time world champion Tom Curren (he won a third in 1990)—a soft-spoken, enigmatic figure, considered one of the most stylish surfers of all time—was gliding down a 20-foot foam-covered face, clad in a multicolored wetsuit. Clearly, this was someplace new. It was a break called Killers, located off the northwest tip of Isla de Todos Santos.

"It was kind of a groundbreaking moment," says Sean Collins, the chief forecaster and founder of Surfline, a swell-forecasting website. "It was the first photo that confirmed there actually were big, ridable waves outside Hawaii."

Just two hours south of the U.S./Mexico border, Ensenada sits at the deepest point of Bahía de Todos Santos. Its harbor makes Ensenada a popular destination for commercial fishermen and the boating crowd, as well as tourists. Nine miles off the coast, sitting in the middle of the bay, are the twin peaks of Todos Santos, home to crowds of seagulls and the occasional herd of elephant seals. Red-and-white-striped lighthouses sit at opposite ends of the islands.

Though he wasn't the first, Skip Staats was among the earliest surfers to frequent the spot. Crandal calls him the unofficial mayor of Todos Santos.

"In the early '80s, I went down with a friend from Newport Beach, and all I had was a little 6-foot-8-inch squash-tail thruster. Looking back, that was the wrong call—the board could barely handle the wave," Staats recalls. "We had a few solid days, and I got my ass kicked—and I loved it. I was hooked. It was the first time I'd found real waves near home."

Gary Linden, a surfboard shaper and big-wave charger out of Oceanside, was also among the early Todos Santos converts. These days, it's hard to picture Linden paddling into a 40-foot wave. With the way he hunches forward, he seems frail enough to be flicked over with a finger. And yet, at 61, he still catches the biggest waves from the deepest position, making the most critical of takeoffs. For him, the experience at Killers—the regulars mostly refer to the wave simply as "Todos"—goes beyond just surfing.

"The wave in itself is amazing, but there are a lot of good waves around the world," he says in his gentle, hushed voice. "[Todos] is also about the experience of being out in the ocean, on an island, with whales going by, nature all around. It's a natural experience: It's peaceful and calm and a reminder of what you need to live."

Linden is now involved with an annual big-wave contest held at Todos Santos, if and when the waves get big enough. Big-wave surfing has gone mainstream; every year, surfing megabrand Billabong hosts an XXL challenge, delivering substantial cash prizes for the largest wave ridden, the most ferocious wave ridden, as well as the worst wipeout.

Surfers have made big-wave surfing a profession. Brands such as Red Bull and Quiksilver sponsor men and women (of whom there are few) who hunt and ride the biggest waves around the world, including breaks in Hawaii, California, Oregon, Tahiti, Mexico, Peru, Ireland and a spot called Cortez Bank, a wave that breaks 100 miles off the coast of San Diego.

Beyond the surf industry, big-wave surfing has appeared in national magazines and had books written about it, and the sport even made a cameo appearance in a James Bond film; big-wave surfing's lone celebrity, Laird Hamilton, was the stunt-double for 007.

Despite the risk involved, it's a flourishing part of the surf industry. But there are those, like Crandal and his group of friends, who choose to do what they do simply because they like the thrill. The majority of the time, they're out riding big waves when there isn't a cameraman or photographer for miles. They're men with jobs and families and a lot to lose. And they keep charging, swell after giant swell.

*     *     *

By the evening of Jan. 19, 2011, the purple blob that had begun appearing on swell-model charts days earlier was holding steady. Forecasters believed that 40-foot waves could crash down on Waimea Bay in Oahu, igniting the heralded "Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau," the most famous big-wave surfing contest in the world. Contest organizers rushed to construct the scaffolding overnight. The invited surfers, along with members of the media, caught last-minute flights. Before daybreak the next morning, spectators had already begun showing up and parking along Kamehameha Highway.

But "the Eddie" didn't go. It was big, but not quite big and consistent enough, in the contest brass' opinion. There would be no $50,000 winner's check handed out.

All that mattered to Crandal was that most of the big-wave fraternity was stranded in Hawaii, and the swell was now on its way toward the West Coast—which meant he and his buddies just might get Killers to themselves. After daily communication with various swell-seeking friends, a trip to Ensenada was set. "The wind's good; life's good," Crandal says, sounding like a kid who just received his driver's license.

« Previous Page
Next Page »