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

"I like it, but I don't like it," Clay says of his big-wave surfing pursuits. "It scares the hell out of me, but I guess I like to be scared."

After watching the guys paddle into a few waves, Staats starts up the Jet Ski, and Clay's dad slips his feet into the straps of one of the surfboards. Forty yards behind the Jet Ski, he holds the tow-rope, which is identical to a waterskiing line, though a bit thicker. Staats races the Jet Ski toward the lineup, where the guys are sitting on their big boards. Two hundred yards beyond where the wave will begin to break, Crandal releases the line, cruising across the water on a board that measures 5 feet, 8 inches. He's riding toward the breaking section of the wave. Just feet from what would be a punishing wipeout, he leans into a critical turn, redirecting along the wave face, using the g-forces to maintain speed. After sliding up to the lip of the wave, he carves back down the face, creating an "S" in his wake.

"When I first towed, it was like being a kid again," Staats says. "I was able to go places on a wave where I had been looking for 20 years but couldn't touch. Usually, we're doing turns off the top where a paddle guy is trying to get in."

Paddle enthusiasts believe the use of the Jet Ski takes the purity out of big-wave surfing. Crandal and Staats respect that opinion, but they don't endorse it. Their rationale is simple: They get to catch more waves and can keep riding big waves once their shoulders lack the strength to paddle.

The Todos regulars have come to a mutual understanding about how the two parties can coexist. Tow teams usually surf through the morning and again in the late afternoon. Paddlers take the time in between. And when the surf gets too big for the paddlers, the tow teams get the place to themselves. There have been instances when groups have come out who aren't familiar with the crowd and its informal treaty. That's when you get fights, threats and cut anchor lines.

After four hours of surfing, the tide gets too high, and the crew retires to the limited space on the boat. Twenty feet isn't much with eight men. Some nap, while others talk.

They hope that after the tide drops, the swell will fill in, and there will be some more big, fun waves before dark.

*     *     *

While the exhausted group heads back to the marina, less than a mile from the islands, the fog finally fades away. Sunset has just passed, but some of the color remains. No one speaks during the ride back to shore. It's dark by the time the boat is tied off at the dock. One by one, the Jet Skis are removed from the water. With the swell showing signs of fading, there's no reason to make the trip back to Killers the following day. Barré has 18 cans of Modelo to ease any frustrations.

The group would later learn that the swell they chased that day also hit at a spot called Maverick's, 25 miles south of San Francisco. Jacob Trette, a 30-year-old surfer from San Clemente, was in the lineup that day. Along with most of the other surfers out there, he was taken off-guard by a 25-foot wave, which was substantially bigger than anything else that had been coming through. As Trette tried to paddle over the top of the wave, he was caught in the lip and thrown backward—"over the falls," it's called. Minutes later, after two more waves passed through, Trette was discovered floating face-down in the bay. He was rushed to shore by a photographer on the back of his Jet Ski before being airlifted to a nearby hospital. Miraculously, after five days recovering at Stanford Medical Center, he was released, having escaped permanent injury. The episode was a stark reminder, though, of what those enormous waves can do to a human being.

But at Todos, Crandal and friends had no such close calls. That night, they unload the boards, unfasten the rescue sleds and rinse each of the boats. There isn't much disappointment. Only one other boat showed up, so everyone caught waves. They could have been bigger, but that's always the case. No amount of preparation or forecasting can dictate what each swell will bring. And passing on a swell that shows promise is never wise.

"I can't afford to miss swells when they're here. Once they're gone, they're like a precious resource—that's it; it's gone forever," Crandal says, days after the trip. "At my age, with only about 10 to 15 big swells per year, and I'm only getting older, I can almost put actual numbers to how many more times I can do this."

Of course, the swell holds through Sunday. Days later, a photo slideshow on Surfline has an image of Gary Linden on a wave well taller than 20 feet at Todos, with the sunny skies illuminating the vibrancy of the aquamarine color.

On that day, Crandal and crew had opted to tow into waves at a beach break nearer to Rosarito. The waves were smaller than what they had at Killers, but with big, deep barrels available to whomever would have them. A few current and former professional surfers were out, including Mike Parsons and Taylor Knox, both of whom have won the coveted Billabong XXL checks. Crandal got one of the longest barrels of the day, though Clay got the barrel of the day. A week later, while watching the video footage the guys had been taking from shore, Crandal rewinds the section with his wave at least four times. He's smiling and laughing, critiquing what he could have done better. He has a walking boot on his right foot; he broke two bones the wave after his long barrel. It doesn't seem to bother him in the least.

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