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You gotta catch a break

October 28, 2003

As winter approaches, storms start spinning to life in the north Pacific. The storms create fetches -- wind blowing in one direction across a long stretch of water -- and those generate swells. These often target Northern California, particularly the surf spot 25 miles south of San Francisco that big-wave pioneer Jeff Clark dubbed Maverick's in the '70s. Its underwater topography (or bathymetry) magnifies and sculpts swells into 60-foot-plus peaks.

Maverick's usually starts breaking in September, is most consistent in December and January, then usually goes flat by March or April. Distant surfers track the swells (www.surflink.com and www.surfline.com) using online forecasts and buoy data and, when the numbers gel, jet in with their 9- to 10-foot boards and 4-millimeter wetsuits from as far away as South Africa, Brazil, Hawaii. The surf rigs of Highway 1 regulars abut TV news vans and rental cars in the dirt parking lot near Pillar Point.

Waves this big elevate surfing to spectator sport. Gawkers of all ages walk or bike the half-mile trail to the point and scramble up a steep bluff, binoculars swinging in the stiff wind, to spy personal watercraft towing surfers -- specks to the naked eye -- into monsters. When someone takes a pummeling, a sympathetic groan sweeps the crowd. "You've got to be kidding," exclaimed a Michigan tourist as she watched wipeouts in 15-footers one day this month. "This is nothing," a helpful local replied. "This is a wussy wave day." Information: www.mavsurfer.com.

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