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

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On Jan. 21, the front yard and driveway of Crandal's Huntington Beach home look like a surf-industry garage sale. Two white SUVs are parked out front, each attached to a small trailer carrying a Jet Ski. A pair of narrow, 9-foot-plus boards, called "guns" or "rhino chasers," lie side by side in the grass, a pile of shorter boards stacked a few feet away. Two of the boards have straps attached to the deck. Two black wetsuits are stretched out on the driveway in direct sunlight, drying after a morning surf session. Duke, the family dog, trots out of the garage with a neoprene glove in his mouth.

Crandal, 55, strides out the front door, wearing tennis shoes, wraparound sunglasses and a backward San Diego Padres hat. He's short and stocky, with tanned, weathered skin. He has grease beneath a few of his fingernails.

"You ready for this, Skipper?" Crandal yells. Staats is driving the other white SUV and has just arrived.

Clay and his friend Jessie Steelman are packing up the car. Both look the Southern California teenage-surfer part: shaggy blond hair, zip-up hoodie over a T-shirt, and skinny jeans. The third teenager is a friend from Florida, who caught a red-eye flight to make it in time. He's sporting a Miami Heat hat and is regretting having had lunch that afternoon instead of going to buy a thicker wetsuit.

Shortly after 1 p.m., the two-car caravan is on the road, headed for the border. Over the course of the hour-and-a-half drive, Crandal is on the phone, talking with friends who are tracking the swell from various big-wave outposts. A friend in Hawaii says the swell has dropped from Thursday but is holding consistent in the 20-foot-plus range. Another friend, his former tow-in partner, recently moved to Santa Cruz and is scouting Moss Landing. It is also showing good size. Some say the swell is fading fast; others think the group will motor up to Killers on Saturday morning and score classic conditions. It feels like a total crapshoot, but Crandal seems confident.

The caravan makes a final stop just before the border to refuel the cars, fill the extra gas canisters for the Jet Skis, and add a third and final vehicle. Dana Barré, a chiropractor from Cardiff in San Diego County, drives a massive gray truck with an extra lift and giant tires. His truck is towing a Jet Ski trailer, as well.

When the truck pulls up, Barré flashes a middle finger out his window, and then walks into the store. He reappears carrying a 30-pack of Tecate. He's a thickly built man, with disproportionately broad shoulders and short, curly brown hair. He's dressed like he just rolled off his couch, black socks and all. Since the swell wasn't expected to be anywhere near Barré's desired size—the bigger the better, with gaping barrels—it took some cajoling from Crandal to get him to come along.

"It was either this or spend all weekend working on my 'honey-do' list," Barré admits.

Together, the group merges into the slow-moving traffic crossing into Mexico. After passing through Customs at the border, the group is on the toll highway racing along the coast. After weaving through the Mexican countryside, the road bends around a final stretch of land, unveiling Todos Santos Bay. The sun has just sunk below the horizon, splashing the sky with pastel shades of red, orange, pink and blue. The ocean's surface carries a deeper shade of each color, except for a single spot in the middle—Isla de Todos Santos, silhouetted against the darkening sky. It looks like a giant oil stain on the ocean's surface, except for two blinking lights on opposite ends.

Before finding food or a place to stay, the three vehicles head to the marina. On evenings before anticipated big swells, it's alive with surfers tinkering with boats and Jet Skis, prepping boards and launching whichever watercraft will get them to the island. On this night, no one else is present—that's either a very good sign or a very bad one.

By 6 p.m., the cars are parked close together, the music turned up loud to the wailing beats of Ben Harper. While Crandal and Staats tend to the boat's motor, changing the oil by headlamp, the boys load the 12 boards onto the boat, attach the rescue sleds—which look like a boogie board for the obese—to the Jet Skis, and then launch them into the water. Ray Catteeuw, who rode down with Barré, is repositioning the straps on his tow-board. Originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, Catteeuw is relatively new to the big-wave game, with enough brains and muscle to handle the beatings. He's a computer analyst by day and a recreational rugby player by weekend.

Once everything is set for the early-morning departure, the group heads into town to find a taco stand and a few beers, plus stock up on food for what will be a long day on the water.

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The phone's ring pierces the thin walls of the hotel. Then comes the rush of water through pipes, the creak of a door, the pounding of fists on wood. Crandal is anxious to get back to the marina.

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