Early on the morning of Nov. 26, the monster called Jaws rose from its slumber and snarled and hissed as it rarely has before. It was a display of nature both ominous and magnificent, amid which was a display of courage and athleticism to rival that in any other sporting arena.
"The day was off the charts," said Laird Hamilton, a Kauai resident and the preeminent tamer of Maui's wildest and most notorious beast. "I would say I rode maybe 100 waves, but for sure 50 or 60. That's enough to last most people a winter."
Jaws, for those unaware, is a remote surf break off northern Maui, which produces some of the largest and most powerful waves on earth, waves so big and fast that the only way to catch them is to get towed onto them, by a jet-powered personal watercraft, before they start breaking.
Those who ride Jaws -- who actually carve hard turns on its sheer and towering faces and bravely pull into its cavernous, grinding tubes -- are an elite group of tow-surfing veterans who have mastered their art, and the fickle nuances of the wickedly hollow break, through countless hours of trial and error.
The elite among this daredevil crowd -- Hamilton, Darrick Doerner and Dave Kalama, to name a few -- are the ones who stood out on "Big Tuesday," when wave faces exceeded 50 feet. They were the ones who always seemed to be in the prime position, whether on boards specially fitted with foot straps, or on jet-skis, which serve as both tow and rescue vessels.
They were the ones who made surfing Jaws look easy, which of course it isn't. As some found out the hard way.
Jaws chewed up and spat out three or four jet-skis, leaving them in splinters on the rocky beach. One surfer suffered a broken leg, another ruptured an eardrum. More than a few "touched bottom," as Hamilton said, receiving various cuts and bruises.
"There was more carnage than I've seen on any other day out there," Hamilton added.
In the middle to upper echelon were Mike Parsons and Brad Gerlach, of San Clemente and Cardiff by the Sea, respectively. Though experienced on big waves, and proven tow-surfing stars elsewhere, they were relatively new to Jaws and it showed.
"It was really challenging because we both had wipeouts and spent a lot of time looking for our boards on the rocks," Gerlach said, adding that they struggled in part because their boards were too long and not quite maneuverable enough.
Gerlach had never experienced a water bomb quite like the one that exploded at his heels, burying him beneath a mountain of whitewater, ripping his feet from his straps and sending him shoreward in a horizontal avalanche that seemed to have no end.
"You can't get out of it until it's basically done with you," he said. "My first thought was that I'm not going to worry about it until I feel I can't breathe anymore. So I kept my eyes shut and kept twirling around underwater ... and twirling and twirling. I don't know how long it was but time stood still for a while."
He eventually surfaced, only to have another wall of water sweep over him. Then another. Finally, he was picked up and whisked away by "some guy" on a jet-ski.
Australian pro Cheyne Horan took a horrific tumble during which, "I was hit so many times I thought to myself, 'I'm going to die here,' " he said during an interview in the Gold Coast Bulletin. "My body went numb and limp. I was seeing stars and felt as though I was on the other side, like I had died."
That nobody died is perhaps the most surprising thing. Jaws, fronted by a sheer and towering cliff, is not a public beach and has no lifeguard presence. The nearest launching point is three miles away and it's up to the surfers and their jet-ski partners to take care of themselves.
With so many newcomers this year -- there were about 20 teams in all on Big Tuesday -- veterans such as Hamilton fear there will be deaths sooner or later, and that the government will respond by trying to restrict or even ban the activity.
"If somebody gets killed, I suppose they could make it illegal and start arresting people," Hamilton said. "But to arrest people, they'd need enforcement officers who are willing to go out there and actually arrest people. I'd hate to see it come to that."
Bill Sharp, director of the Billabong Odyssey and Billabong XXL Big-Wave Awards -- the former an ongoing adventure and the latter a seasonal contest rewarding the surfer who negotiates the biggest wave anywhere -- said Jaws had produced the early front-runners.
The problem for the judges, however, will be determining who at Jaws rode the biggest wave.
"During most great surf sessions, there are one or two giant waves that everyone remembers," Sharp said. "At Jaws, there were probably 150 waves at 50 feet-plus. It'll be like a Miss America pageant where we have 50 beautiful contenders. The debate will go on all winter."