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

By 5:33 a.m., under a black veil of a sky, Crandal is at the helm of his boat, cruising at 25 knots toward two blinking lights in the distance. Trailing the boat, the outlines of the Jet Ski and its driver are faintly visible against the lights of Ensenada. The only light between the boat and the island is the swath of moonlight sparkling on the water, like a trail of diamonds.

"This is what it's all about," says Crandal, with a knowing smile and a nod toward the stars.

Twenty minutes later, the island is in full view as dawn begins to shine. Large boulders are at its base, where the water meets the rock.

Just beyond the island sits a foreboding fog bank, thick as oatmeal. The south end of the island has already been swallowed by it.

The tide is still low, ideal for the spot. The water's surface is smooth, best for riding waves, especially big waves, where tiny ripples of chop can feel like moguls when traveling at speeds of nearly 35 mph.

Around the final bend in the island, Staats says, "There she is; that's Killers."

The ocean is flat. The fog bank inches closer from the south; the horizon is perfectly visible to the north. The rock jetty sits unbothered by the surrounding seas. Disappointment creeps in faster than the fog.

The engines go silent. Dozens of seagulls perch on the sloped island, in what looks like stadium seating. Their calls sound like laughing. Barking seals can be heard somewhere in the distance. Water surges up against the rocks and recedes back into the sea.


And then, there's a movement on the horizon that seems to be building toward the sky, like something is rising beneath. It seems alive, moving in the direction of the lighthouse. As it gets within 100 yards of the finger of jagged rocks, it increases in size, almost doubling within seconds. The swell has traveled all those hundreds of miles, passing through a deepwater canyon that funnels it toward Killers. The ocean depth goes from 200 feet to 30 feet when it smacks into a shelf below the surface, simultaneously slowing its pace and forcing all that energy upward, increasing its height above sea level. Just before it reaches the rocks, the swell turns into a wave, standing up straight and beginning to fold over itself. It's close to 15 feet on the face—hardly epic by this group's standards. But the sound is still startling, the risks still real.

After a few minutes of watching, Clay is the first in the water, followed soon after by Steelman. This far off the coast, the water is always a few degrees colder. And cleaner. The ocean floor is a patchwork of boulders. With all the seals swimming around, it would seem a good place for their predators, but there have been no shark sightings in all their years here, according to the men assembled. Barré did once see a killer whale pull a seal off the rocks. He believes the orcas are the reason for the break's name.

The fog continues to gobble up the island. By the time Catteeuw joins the teenagers in the lineup, the lighthouse overlooking Killers is gone from view. The fog slowly erases the entire landscape; eventually, only the rocks and the wave are visible. Clay paddles for and backs off from a few waves; Catteeuw is the first to commit to one. Riding a board that looks a bit small for his hulking frame, the South African with curly blond hair has trouble getting up to speed to keep pace with the wave. Just as he looks to have missed it, he hops to his feet, thinking he has it caught. But there's too much water rushing too quickly up the face, preventing him from starting his descent. He's pitched forward, "one with the lip," as one observer would describe it later.

Once the back of the wave turns from turquoise to white and washes through the bay, the board Catteeuw was riding pops to the surface. The nose is pointing to the sky and is rocking like a buoy from side to side; called "tombstoning," it can be almost as grim as it sounds. It means Catteeuw is being held deep below the surface, connected to the board by his leash, creating the tension to keep the board upright. Fortunately, it's not long before he appears at the surface. While paddling back out, he explains his mistake to the group on the boat. "I was half-asleep when I took off on that one," he says. "I'm not anymore."

On the biggest of days, while getting tossed around beneath the water, Staats says, he hears the boulders chime as they collide.

"Because of the rock jetty, there's an underwater river, and there are just hurricanes of turbulence," says Barré, explaining the hold-downs from firsthand experience. "It will pull you for hundreds of yards in this deep current; it just holds you under forever."

Later in the morning, a wave emerges from the fog that is clearly bigger than anything else out there. Clay is the first to turn around and begin to paddle. He first surfed Killers in the fifth grade; he's 18 now. All these years later, he has more experience at Todos Santos and in big waves than guys twice his age, and it shows. The wave is all of 20 feet, maybe a bit more. As the peak of the wave begins to peel over, creating the almond barrel just feet away, Clay is quick to his feet. Having surfed smaller waves throughout the morning, he underestimates the speed of this one, and by the time he's up, the wave is already in the process of breaking. For a brief moment, all 9 feet of the orange board are airborne, just inches above the face of the wave. Maintaining his composure, Clay regains contact with the water, and aside from a few spins of his arms to maintain balance, he continues to slide down the face of the wave gracefully. He rides the wave into the bay, beyond where the face is still visible to the boat. Only the seagulls can see his work now. He rides up and over the wave just yards from the rocks. He exhales before he smiles. It's a long paddle back out.

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