YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Dangerous quest to surf a hole in the sea

Ogreish waves known as 'slabs' open a new frontier in a sport that is increasingly driven by a desire to confront nature.

February 21, 2009|Joe Mozingo

THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST — The hunt is on. Garrett McNamara hurtles 60 mph down an icy river in the Great Northwest, throttling a 255-horsepower Sea Doo jet ski loaded with surfboards. His 11-year-old son Titus clings to his back, and a reporter clings to Titus' back.

McNamara punches it up to 65 to cross the mud flats of a coastal inlet. The engine screams like it's shredding sheet metal. Eyes tear up in the cold. The water is just inches deep. Tiny shells glint in the slipstream. McNamara does not worry about hitting a rock or submerged log. He is not a man given to thoughts of mortality.

McNamara, 41, has surfed some of the biggest, heaviest, ugliest waves on earth -- notably the debris-strewn tsunamis generated by crashing glaciers in Alaska. He has broken his back and three ribs, popped both his knees, scraped most of the skin off his thigh, suffered countless sprains and deep-tissue cuts, and shattered his foot several times.

On this January morning, he is here to surf the local "slab" -- not so much a normal ocean wave as a sudden, violent tear in the fabric of the ocean.

Veteran surfers grimace at the very sight of its disfigured shape. When it rolls out of the deep, it does not rise, but sucks all the water up in its path. The result is not a wall with a front and back, but a hole. The great volume of the North Pacific masses up behind the sub-sea ledge -- and then slams shut.

McNamara rode this one once, a month before. When the ledge came down, he was still in the hole. The wave pile-drove him into the rock reef. He flew back home to Hawaii with 12 stitches near his right eye. The doctor had pulled a sea urchin spine from the wound.

Such ogreish waves have opened a new frontier in a sport instilled like few others with the mystique of exploration and, increasingly, battle.

The great hunt for the unknown beast is taking elite surfers to remote coasts around the world -- Chile, Iceland, Tasmania, Scotland, Canada, Ireland, Alaska, even Antarctica -- and closer to home: at rock islands off Baja California, isolated reefs from Point Conception to Eureka, and the Channel Islands.

The quarry is hard to catch, a combination of wind and swell, interacting with the complex bathymetry of the sea floor, that is never the same twice.

Modern forecasting enables the athletes to pinpoint the target. Corporate sponsorship delivers them fully equipped to the destinations. Jet skis tow them onto giants moving too fast to catch by paddling. Life vests and helmets help them survive beatings previously viewed as lethal.

"Surfing always has these periods of dormancy, and periods of quantum change," said Steve Pezman, publisher of Surfer's Journal. "Slabs have opened a whole new realm of waves. That's driven a really, drug-like, addictive exploration."

The famed waterman Laird Hamilton ushered in the era of the slab in August 2000 at Teahupoo in Tahiti, when he was towed by jet ski into a wave with a 10-foot-thick lip of water pitching over him like Thor's Hammer. The headline in Surfer magazine: "oh my god."

Since then, magazines and websites have presented a stream of images that at once horrify and inspire regular surfers.

In the wilds of southern Tasmania, locals discovered a yawning, gurgling slab called Shipstern's Bluff. The wave face splits wide open with a veritable sinkhole as it rolls over juts and crags on the sea floor. The lip lunges out as thick and horizontal as a bridge girder. The resulting tube is a cavern, with hard angles, big enough for a truck to drive through.

"I couldn't believe something existed like this in Tasmania -- just the sheer amount of water in the lip," said Marti Paradisis, 25, who has ridden it since 2004.

In the past, the spot would have been un-ridable on big days. Now, towing gets surfers down the face faster, and foot straps keep the boards attached as the riders go airborne over the bumps and holes on the surface.

That flirting with catastrophe in extremely shallow water produces "a massive adrenaline rush," Paradisis said. The rush, mixed with the ethereal sensation surfers get inside these giant chambers of water, becomes an addiction.

The late nature writer T.H. Watkins hit on the allure when he described bodysurfing near Dana Point as a boy in the late 1940s.

Los Angeles Times Articles