HALF MOON BAY, Calif. » The cold water and stories-high waves at the treacherous surf break called Mavericks in Northern California have made it a Mt. Everest-like conquest for some surfers.
And like Everest, Mavericks has claimed its share of lives: whether it be a legendary big wave waterman or less experienced surfers seeking to make a name for themselves. Yet more wave riders keep coming.
Mavericks almost claimed another life Saturday, when a surfer nearly drowned after being pummeled and washed through rocks by a big wave. That surfer, 30-year-old Jacob Trette, was in fair condition three days after he nearly drowned.
Trette was rescued by an Australian firefighter, Russell Ord, who was on a personal watercraft taking photographs of the surfers when a large "freak set" caught a pack of them too close to shore. Trette, from San Clemente, had reportedly surfed Mavericks once before.
"Mavericks is one of those places that people make a pilgrimage to surf," said Jeff Clark, the first documented person to ride those waves, which he did alone in 1975.
Clark surfed it by himself until 1990, he said, and since then more big-wave afficianados have been joining him. In recent years, many surfers who were not ready for Mavericks’ heavy surf have been showing up, he said.
"You’re definitely seeing a lot of people who maybe have caught a couple of waves at other big wave spots, but Mavericks is a different animal," Clark said.
The waves Saturday were large — if not huge by Mavericks standards — maybe a 15-18 foot surf, Ord said. The size brought out more surfers with little experience handling the break, Ord said.
"I’m not talking about Jacob specifically, but even on the smaller ones I was watching some guys, a lot of guys, who shouldn’t have been out there," Ord said.
Clark said the rogue set that took out Trette and others was a solid 30-foot or higher and especially powerful because the swell came unimpeded from the west.
"You could see that first wave coming, all of the surfers started paddling toward it," Ord told The Associated Press.
A group of about five surfers did not make it over the encroaching wave before it broke.
"I saw all the broken boards and people waving for help," he said.
Waves that break at Maverick’s often begin in the North Pacific, when a storm bulldozes across the ocean’s surface generating a chain of moving swells like the ripples created by a stone tossed into a pond.
Those swells travel for days toward the coast, then hit a small section of Mavericks reef that juts out like a finger into the deep water. The sudden change in depth forces the moving mass of water to heave upward as it rolls over the reef.
Each winter, wave forecasters and professional big-wave surfers chart the swells carefully and, if the wind and size are just right, the top riders in the world gather for a one-day contest at the site. The window for this years contest began Dec. 1 and ends Feb. 28.
Even the world’s best surfers have been humbled by Mavericks, which has claimed its share of broken boards and bloodied surfers.
In 1994, Mark Foo, a seasoned big-wave surfer from Hawaii, died while surfing Mavericks. Ten-time surfing world champion Kelly Slater has also talked about how dangerous the wave is after getting held down after a wipeout there in 2000.
If the first rogue wave on Saturday were the only one to break over the pack of surfers, they would have been able to get rescued quickly by Ord — but 20 seconds later, another large wave crashed on the surfers who had been hit by the first.
In addition to taking pictures at the time, Ord was serving as a rescuer who would swoop in and grab surfers who wiped out or lost their boards.
After the whitewater calmed a bit, Ord said he drove his watercraft to a rocky area near where the waves break, and saw Trette’s body floating past the rocks.
"He looked gone to me," said Ord, who is used to rescue situations as a firefighter in Margaret River, Australia.
Ord helped rush Trette to the shore. "He was making a minor choking or a coughing sound every 20 seconds or so," Ord said. "We dragged him up onto the beach and found a strong pulse. I was pretty surprised."
Trette was hospitalized in critical condition and placed in a medically induced coma. Hospital officials said he is conscious now, his vital signs are stable and "indicators are favorable."
Clark said the accident should highlight how difficult a task it is to successfully surf giant waves.
"Most successful, confident big-wave riders are very analytical about it," Clark said, adding that it was important for young surfers to take time to learn the break from veterans and locals.
"There are a lot of complicated variables in big wave surfing … and sometimes people need to slow down a little bit," he said.