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.
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
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.
"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.
"That wave," he says, "was totally worth four weeks out of the water."
This article appeared in print as "Swell Guys: Big waves are big business in the surfing industry. But for one group of OC surfers, it’s still all about the ride."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.