Danger always part of big surf
By David Burroughs
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Rob Varela / Star staff A traffic jam of sorts is created as a surfer rides a 15-foot wave while others paddle out last Wednesday at Rincon, near the Ventura-Santa Barbara County line.

By now every Ventura resident has heard about the huge surf we had last week. With 20-foot face waves breaking against the Seaside Park pier last Wednesday, how could you miss it?
As surfers, we had been prepared for weeks, but little did we know how dangerous a swell it would be.

Dawn patrol Wednesday morning I awoke to the noise of thunderous waves breaking on an Oxnard beach-break just down the street. I knew the swell would be too big for the beach-breaks, but I still had to see what they looked like.

Just after dawn I arrived at Port Hueneme where the swell was significantly smaller. It wasn't perfect, but two surfers were still grabbing an early session just south of the pier.

I drove on to Silver Strand and it wasn't pretty. Waves were cresting over the back jetty producing 30-foot walls of white water. Disorganized peaks were breaking everywhere and this was definitely not the place to be.

Heading north I stopped for a minute at Seaside Park, where tow-in surfers managed 200-yard rides at a point break that didn't look all that manageable.

As I got off Highway 101 at State Beaches, I could see enormous waves breaking at Ventura Overheads. Overheads was the most manageable looking thus far, but talk about a paddle to get out there. It looked like a scene from the North Shore as I drove down Pacific Coast Highway past Emma Wood and Mondos, with hundreds of cars parked and surfers and spectators all with their eyes gazing out to sea. Did anyone work?

My plan was to drive all the way to Sand Spit in Santa Barbara and look at all the spots in between. I didn't make it any farther than Mussel Shoals, aka Little Rincon.

The swell was hitting at 12 to 15 feet here and better organized, but still not perfect. I staked a spot next to some Ventura residents and photographer Kelly Combs.

"I just got back from Rincon and the swell looks cleaner here," said Combs.

There were plenty of great waves and then an occasional 18-foot rogue set would come through and clean everybody up. It is one of the reasons this swell was deceiving and deadly.

As I watched surfers and their boards getting dragged across the rocks in their botched attempts to paddle-out, I pondered the dangers of not knowing your own limitations. Not knowing your own limitations may be one of the reasons why Peter Davi did not survive this swell at Ghost Trees in Northern California.

The waves at Ghost Trees that morning were reportedly the biggest any of the locals had ever seen.

Sometime in the mid-morning, Davi, who was paddling into waves, broke his leash and began swimming in. According to one of the tow teams, they offered Davi a ride in but the surfer refused.

Another tow team offered Davi a PFD, but again Davi refused, according to Don Curry, a Ghost Tree local.

Sometime later, Santa Cruz surfers Anthony Ruffo and Osh Bartlett saw Davi's body floating in a kelp patch. They quickly got rid of their surfboards and picked the body up, according to Bartlett. Only then did they realize it was their good friend.

"By the time we got to him he was white as ghost," explained Bartlett. "It was obvious that it was too late. I'm guessing he was floating for 30 minutes or so."

Medical aid was performed, but Davi was pronounced dead at 1:28 p.m., the office reported.

Forty-five-year-old Davi was a third-generation commercial fisherman. His grandfather was a legendary captain who ran 90-foot fishing boats. Davi took on the family career full time after high school. He'd work on boats for a couple months, save a bunch of money and head to the North Shore for the winter, where he spent years attaining status in the super-tight Pipe hierarchy. Davi will definitely be missed in the small community of big-wave surfing.

Although Ventura did not have the 70-foot face waves which broke at Ghost Trees, the swell was just as dangerous. Ventura County lifeguards reported dozens of rescues on surfers who are typically strong swimmers. Strong currents and riptides put surfers right in the impact zone and clean-up sets made things interesting for everyone in the water.

Big Wednesday will be remembered by many as a day for challenging yourself, but for many others it was a hard lesson of learning your own limitation. Remember to always check the warnings and study your surf break before paddling out.

— If you have any information regarding the local surfing scene, e-mail David Burroughs at [email protected]. The Surfing Scene appears Tuesdays in The Star.