I never wanted to be a professional surfer. Although, saying that makes it sound like a career in surfing was a legitimate option. Like, I woulda been an astronaut, I just didn’t feel like it. But I was 10 years old and just getting into surfing when El Niño ransacked the California coast in 1994. Peter Mel got barreled. Jay Moriarty had his Iron Cross wipeout. Maverick’s was coming into the spotlight and it looked like the most exciting thing a person could do. It was just an hour north of me, I was told.
Surfing big waves was on my mind every day. At 14 I bought a 6’8” and surfed Sewers as big as it got (which was not that big). I’d jump rope on my back patio and stare up at the redwood tree in my neighbor’s yard and, pretending it was a wave about to break on me, I’d hold my breath. At 15 and 16 I rode a 7’6” at big Steamer Lane and a few waves north of Santa Cruz. I swam laps under water, did yoga and studied and studied Maverick’s: High Noon at Low Tide. I’d never actually seen the wave, but in my mind it was a rocky, foggy and foreboding place ridden by a handful of intense, brave men. My mom said I could surf it when I turned 18, but when I ordered a 9’8” early my senior year, there wasn’t much she could do. She asked that I please call her when I got out of the water.
I first surfed Maverick’s on February 17, 2002. It was sunny and glassy. Twelve feet with the occasional 15-footer. Almost inviting. Paddling around Mushroom Rock for the first time and seeing a set wave unload in slow motion, the thunderclap of the lip and the explosion of the whitewater, seemed fake it was so stunning. I couldn’t stop smiling. The other surfers in the lineup smiled, too. They weren’t the stoic, focused crowd I’d expected. They chatted and laughed and introduced themselves, and over the next decade we would become good friends. I only caught one wave that day, but getting to the bottom and looking up at the giant wall ahead of me was even better than I’d hoped. The whole experience, the whole scene, was better. Even when I kicked out and saw the next one shifting wide and about to detonate on my face, it was better. The wave was only about a quarter of the size of my neighbor’s redwood.
Stepping back on land felt like returning to the earth from a trip to outer space. Sunday strollers threw balls for their dogs, oblivious to the waves a half-mile away. I’d just become privy to an amazing secret, and I felt a euphoric balance between the pride of surfing a big wave and the humility demanded from taking one on the head. I felt alive, grateful and high, and to this day I don’t think I’m ever as good of a person as I am after surfing big waves. I got to my car, changed and drove to the gas station across Highway 1 and called my mom. I told her I was safe, and more sound than ever before. —Taylor Paul
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