BIg-wave surfing in SLO County

For surfing daredevils, it’s an ‘Endless Winter’

You may not know it, but a few miles off SLO County’s coastline, elite surfers are chasing giant storm-driven waves, towing into monster breaks that can be as powerful as any off California’s coast

By Brian Milne

Van Curaza of Avila Beach gets barreled at one of his favorite Central Coast reef breaks earlier this winter. Curaza first began towing into giant winter swells behind an inflatable Zodiak in the mid-1990s.

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“Get in and wrestle with the sea; wing your heels with the skill and power that reside in you; bit the sea’s breakers, master them, and ride upon their backs as a king should.”
— from Jack London’s
1907 surf essay titled “A Royal Sport”
The sun hasn’t even pierced the early morning cloud cover and the Jet Skis are already in the water.
Mike Jones and a couple of surfing buddies are gearing up the “skis” for another harrowing ride to their favorite reef break, located six stormy miles outside their launch site inside the Morro Bay harbor.
By the time these big-wave hunters reach the harbor mouth, their nerves are on full alert.
With massive swells swallowing the breakwater and a U.S. Coast Guard boat bobbing about like a rubber duck in a tub, it’s no wonder their hearts are pounding on their tonsils.
And this is just the beginning of their epic journey, which will lead to the biggest waves of the winter surf season.
“We’ve been in some life-threatening situations and it can get pretty scary,” said Jones, who owns Azhiaziam sportswear in San Luis Obispo and sponsors some of the county’s top surfers. “On days like that, you leave the harbor mouth when it’s 40 foot and the Coast Guard is like, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ They write down all your information, your name, next of kin, and that stuff doesn’t help. It can be intimidating, and sometimes you don’t want to leave the harbor, but it’s what we do.”
On this cold winter morning, the bravado pays off as Jones captures a jaw-dropping photo sequence of local surf legend Van Curaza getting towed into a two-story monster.
A 140-horsepower Jet Ski slings Curaza into an
avalanche of whitewater, generated by a barnacle-covered reef only a few feet below the surface. Curaza disappears behind the frosted white crest and finds himself deep in the belly of a barreling beast. His green board nearly escapes the collapsing tube, but the power of the wave sends him tumbling down the face like a rag doll.
Curaza is pushed below the surface for a half-minute but pops up from his underwater pummeling with a smile that’s as long as his shoulder-length locks.
“It’s an adrenaline rush,” said Curaza, 45, from Avila Beach. “When you surf a wave like that, dodging death and everything that comes with surfing big waves, it’s a pretty intense feeling. Surfing has a certain amount of joy, but on these waves there’s a spirituality and a mental reward that you just can’t find anywhere else.”
Storm surge
While spellbound beachgoers gawk at the giant storm surf from shore and the end of Cayucos Pier, the local gang of tow-in surfers finds itself in the middle of a white-knuckle waterworld, catching 20-to 25-foot-high waves that will later grace the pages of Transworld Surf and Surfer magazines.
Curaza’s first wave of the day, which photographer Chris Burkard said “spit him out so hard that I lost him,” is featured on a two-page spread in the March edition of Surfer magazine, giving the unheralded Central Coast charger more ink than surfing poster boys Kelly Slater and Rob Machado.
“No matter where you’re from, chances are there’s a distant reef, shelf or pinnacle that creates mutant formations every time the heavy water appears,” the caption notes. “Most of these beasts were attempted long ago, examined up close and personal by previous generations only to be written off as undoable — possibly unsurvivable.”
But the personal watercraft —Curaza first began towing into these winter giants on an inflatable Zodiac—has made tackling Neptune’s wrath a reality. Now surfers can be towed into waves that are too big, too fast, and just too dangerous for traditional paddle-in methods.
The gigantic swells reach the Central Coast only a handful of times each winter, so when the swell hits you can bet veteran watermen like Curaza, Chad Jackson, Gabe Gazzola and Jason Milner are on the scene. When the waves get too big for paddling, Curaza and company tow in behind Jet Skis, strapped to their boards like wakeboarders, only this isn’t a lazy summer day and this isn’t Nacimiento Lake.
“Luckily they surf far enough away that I can’t see them,” said Angie Morris, Curaza’s girlfriend. “I’ve heard stories about Van being pounded by a wave, held under long enough where he can’t breathe or see anything, but you just have to have complete confidence that he can handle it.”
Earning respect
While the number of dedicated big-wave surfers in the area has grown since Curaza and his friends first began towing into Central Coast giants in the mid-1990s, frigid waters, sharks and state-issued disaster warnings keep most surfers away from the outer reef breaks this time of year.
And the locals would like to keep it that way, refusing to disclose their favorite spots to reporters and giving outsiders — even the biggest names in the sport—a hard time if they show a lack of respect when surfing in their backyard.
“I take it pretty seriously,” said Gazzola, a 35-year-old Cayucos native. “I’m a native of this place, and it’s really a sacred and special place that we don’t want to be overrun. The big swells only come a few times a year, so we don’t want a bunch of outsiders coming in. I’ve seen what can happen to other big-name spots that have been ruined, and we don’t want our waves to get overcrowded, polluted and all of that.”
Despite a territorial crowd and the quest to keep their favorite spots out of the limelight, the word is getting out about the county’s waves. Photos of the county’s best spots pop up in magazines every winter with names such as “Mysto Reef” in the captions, but the state’s best surfers know exactly where those breaks are located.
San Clemente’s Greg Long, who won the prestigious Mavericks Surf Contest last month, says one of California’s best breaks is off the Montaña de Oro coast.
“I’ve surfed out there plenty of times,” Long said. “Those (local) guys would kill me if I say where, but there’s some good waves down there.”
Santa Cruz’s Kenny Collins, who won the Billabong XXL award in 2007 for the best bigwave ride of the year, says he’s partial to an outer reef break in Cayucos.
“A lot of people don’t know it, but San Luis Obispo has some great surf spots,” Collins said. “I’ve got secret spots down there, but I’m not giving them away.”
The big break
The area’s best big-wave riders also are making a name for themselves outside the Central Coast.
Curaza and Jackson finished seventh in last month’s Nelscott Reef Tow-in Classic in Lincoln City, Ore., towing into waves with 30-to 40-foot faces, on a day when a massive great white shark was spotted in between heats.
Jackson was recently featured in the local surf documentary “Lost in the Middle,” and is on the cover of the current edition of Deep magazine.
Templeton’s Nate Tyler, the county’s best-known professional surfer, grew up riding big waves on the Central Coast and has surfed everywhere from Pipeline to Chile.
In 1999, Pismo Beach native Sarah Gerhardt, a Cal Poly graduate who now lives in Santa Cruz, became the first woman to paddle into the infamous Maverick’s break in Half Moon Bay, where renowned Hawaiian surfer Mark Foo died five years earlier.
Gerhardt’s story is the focus of a new surf documentary titled “One Winter Story.”
“I learned to surf in the beach break in Pismo Beach,” Gerhardt said. “Even though the breaks around the Central Coast aren’t as big or perfect as often as Hawaii or Northern California, I found plenty of opportunities to hone my big-wave skills. I just had to look diligently for them.”
The search continues
Searching for big waves is half the fun on the Central Coast, which is probably best known for its shapeless beach breaks that close out and become unsurfable during larger swells.
When the giant swells arrive (21-to 23-foot swells are expected today), that’s when the diehards head for the reef breaks off the North Coast or the infamous breaks in Northern California.
And whether they’re seeking tow-in waves off the Cayucos coast or paddling in at Maverick’s, the big-wave pursuit is the same, says bigwave pioneer Jeff Clark.
“That’s what these guys do, they follow the storms around the planet — it’s like ‘The Endless Summer,’ Bruce Brown’s first movie when they follow the surf season,” said Clark, who discovered and surfed Maverick’s alone for the first 15 years. “Today, things have changed, and now the surf season for the big-wave guys is following the winter storms, and it’s become ‘The Endless Winter.’ ”
Next to Maverick’s, Northern California’s next-most notorious break is Ghost Tree, located off Pescadero Point in Pebble Beach—about 85 miles north of San Luis Obispo County.
Jones was in the water photographing at Ghost Tree on Dec. 4 when legendary Monterey surfer Peter Davi drowned while surfing some of the biggest waves ever along that coast.
“That was just an eerie day with all of the kelp churned up and the rocks out there,” Jones said. “I don’t know what (Davi) did. I got one shot of him trying to catch a 30-footer and then I didn’t really see him the rest of the day. ... When we got the news that he had died, it was just surreal.”
News of Davi’s death steamrolled the surf community like a cleanup set, but it did little to prevent the bigwave surfers from chasing the next swell.
Jones, Curaza and Jackson, for example, were back surfing a hairy North Coast reef before sunrise the following day.
“It takes a certain type of person to want to go out and attack that kind of stuff,” said Curaza, who spent the first half of February surfing in Hawaii. “I enjoy the rush. No matter what you do, accidents are going to happen. We always do our best to be cautious and prevent things like that from happening, but you never know when you’re dealing with Mother Nature. At the same time, you can’t live in fear. You have to trust your ability and have faith.”
Gerhardt, 33, and her husband, Mike, who met while surfing Oahu’s North Shore, have two children, but still surf Maverick’s occasionally and hope to travel the globe in search of giant waves in the future.
For the Gerhardts, like many big-wave surfers, the thrill will always be worth the risk.
“We both know the risks involved in surfing big waves are heavy, and that we could possibly lose our lives, but we are calculated risk-takers — not just throwing caution to the wind,” Sarah Gerhardt said. “We also believe that God has our days in his hands. We all die, and if we are to die in a car accident on the way to work, or out at Mavs, there is no difference. When our time is up, it’s up, so we choose to live each day to the fullest with full awareness that this may be our last day here.”