High Wave Surfing Off Pebble Beach

Don Curry, watched by other surfers, made the finals of a big-wave contest for his efforts at Ghost Trees, a reef just off the 18th hole at Pebble Beach where waves can exceed 60 feet.

April 3, 2005
For Daring, Ghost Trees Is Ultimate Thrill Ride

On March 9, sleeping giants awoke off the shores of Carmel, Calif.

Pushed in by a massive late-season ocean storm, huge waves marched across a boulder-strewn reef nicknamed Ghost Trees, just off the 18th hole of the Pebble Beach golf course.

These frigid waves, some measuring greater than 60 feet, proved irresistible to a few surfers who knew that such an opportunity presented itself only a few times a year.

On Friday, two of those surfers learned that they had become finalists in the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave awards – the Oscars of the surfing world. The winner is paid $1,000 a foot for riding the year’s biggest wave.

"In high school, we would just go out there on big days and be in total awe," said Don Curry, 45, one of the five finalists. "It was one of the only places where you could stand on the beach and literally feel the waves shaking the ground."

Standing on the breezy bluff above Ghost Trees, Curry, now a personal fitness trainer, pointed to the giant rock outcroppings that await surfers who crash. He recalled his spectacular ride in March.

"If you don’t make the drop," he said, "you basically are dead. On that wave, I was just going, ‘Survive, survive, survive,’ then I looked up and knew I was going to get obliterated. All the sudden, I just came out of it."

If Curry’s wave wins the competition – the winner will be announced April 22 – he and his surfing partner, Ed Guzman, could make more than $60,000.

The stocky Curry said he spent the past decade paddling into the monster waves at Mavericks, a notorious shark-infested spot about 100 miles to the north in Half Moon Bay. Then three winters ago, a crew from Santa Cruz, Calif., using personal watercraft, first towed into huge Ghost Trees waves.

At Ghost Trees, the waves move so fast that paddling to catch them is essentially impossible.

"I was jealous," Curry said, "and champing at the bit. I finally looked at my wife and said, ‘If I don’t get into this sport, I’m going to be the worst crank on the planet.’ She said O.K. Now when she watches me, she’s scared to death."

Ken Collins, a 37-year-old professional surfer from Santa Cruz, was one of the targets of Curry’s jealousy, having been a Ghost Trees pioneer.

On March 9, as he surfed with Curry and his friends Tyler Smith and Noah Johnson, he said he was astonished at the power of the waves, which broke the leg of one surfer, Justin Allport, in four places and tore Smith’s rotator cuff that day. Each injury required a harrowing rescue by fellow surfers.

Ghost Trees, Collins said, rivaled anything at Mavericks or Jaws, a crowded, dangerous tow-surfing spot he had ridden two days earlier on Maui’s north coast in Hawaii.

"These were big waves," he said of Ghost Trees. "Rogue waves. Some of the biggest I’ve ever surfed. It could be one of the biggest waves in the world at this point."

Big or not, the future of surfing in the shadow of Pebble Beach’s storied links and at Mavericks to the north is in question. In the late 1990’s, as the use of personal watercraft began to proliferate in surfing, incidents between paddle and tow-in surfers at Mitchell’s Cove in Santa Cruz and Mavericks raised the ire of paddle surfers.

Environmentalists also argued that the noisy machines, which at that time were largely powered by polluting two-stroke engines, harmed wildlife. Many argued that the machines should be banned from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which stretches from Cambria, Calif., north to San Francisco.

Although two-seat and stand-up personal watercraft had been banned from the sanctuary, larger three-seat models were not. This is the loophole that tow-surfers use to this day.

But Dan Haifley, a Monterey Bay Sanctuary Advisory Council member, said that loophole was unlikely to remain as new regulations were adopted.

Haifley said that the Sanctuary Advisory Council recognized that Mavericks was a unique spot for surfing and that some exceptions were likely to be made for tow-surfing there. Ghost Trees, he said, was such a newly recognized spot that it was unlikely to be included so late in the rules-making process.

Surfers like Collins and Curry said that their new four-stroke personal watercraft were clean-burning and that tow surfers had learned to police themselves. They added that marine mammals and other wildlife were nowhere to be seen in huge waves.

Regardless of rule changes, they said, towing will most likely continue, even if it’s with craft like inflatable motorboats or jet boats, whose usefulness in dangerous situations is less certain.

"You know what these rules would do? Make it more dangerous to tow surf," he said. "The reason I’m risking my life out here is for three letters, F-U-N. It’s an adrenaline sport. And in any adrenaline sport, you’re going to find a junkie."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | RSS | Help | Back to Top


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