The Surfing Mavericks
He was sitting alone on his board in the perfectly glassy water, triangulating his position in the 20-foot swell with the help of a distant tree line and a tower on a hill. Waiting, calculating, then recalculating. He spent 40 minutes feeling the power of the water as it moved beneath him. Then the peak formed and the wave thundered down to the shore about a quarter-mile from Mavericks Beach.
Clark’s history runs deep here. Not too far away, his little league coach used to take the team surfing, and he hasn’t stopped since. By the time he was 18 in 1975, living in a one-cop town in Northern California, Clark was a less-than-dedicated high school student with a surfing addiction.
Back then, he would cut class with his friend Brian and hit the spots just north of Mavericks Beach. That’s when he first saw the peak of the wave and couldn’t imagine what might lie on the other side. So he began to study it: what it looked like when the waves came in from the west, when the wind whipped in or the tide was out. He studied in order to understand what was going on below by reading the clues on the surface.
After all that research, the young Clark was ready. He narrowed his takeoff point to a patch in the water about five yards across and waited again for the wave to pass underneath him, listening again for the crash. Then, in his thick neoprene wetsuit, he laid down on his 7’3” surfboard and began to paddle.
Today, at 59, Clark has a lot of Ray Liotta about him. Even with the burst blood vessels—from saltwater and sun—on skin pulled taut over a chiseled face, his baby-blue eyes still stand out under a scrub of black and gray hair.
“Who’s Ray Liotta?” he asks.
Around these parts, it’s Clark who’s the local celebrity. The wave here is what put the town of Half Moon Bay on the map, much more so than its family farms and fall pumpkin festivals. Mavericks now beckons the world’s top big-wave riders every year, when the conditions are right.
If the swell hits this winter— typically around February—it will mark the 11th time a competition has been held at Mavericks since it all began in 1999. The winners have been both well known in the big-wave scene and obscure, local upstarts. That’s because the difficulty and size of the wave levels the playing field almost every time. The contest itself has undergone a number of reincarnations due to different sponsors and infighting between partners behind closed doors. But the ambition of those looking to make money off of Mavericks pales compared to those wanting to surf it.
“It is still one of the most amazing waves you will ever see,” says Clark. “When it’s breaking, I don’t think there’s a greater or more pure paddle- in wave on the planet.”
In 2007, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a study on Mavericks revealing the underwater source of its shocking size: A sloping ramp, made of rock sediment dating back to a time when lumbering mastodons roamed the rolling West Coast, that tails off in a northward direction.
Santa Cruz surfers Tom Powers and David Schmidt finally tried Mavericks in January of 1990. Locals from down the coast began trickling up, and once the story came out in Surfer magazine in ’92, Mavericks was a secret no longer. Clark couldn’t have been happier.
After suffering some serious wipeouts while he was surfing by his lonesome, Clark began tinkering on his equipment. As a union carpenter, he shaped boards that were long, skinny and quicker to catch the steep waves. Soon he started shaping for others as well.
“If you’ve got the mindset and the skills to do it, then you need the right tools to accomplish the goal,” he says.
As more surfers joined, the danger factor grew. Between the shore and where Mavericks breaks a half-mile out, there are rocks both exposed and underwater that can trap boards and knock out surfers.
During a particularly massive week just before Christmas in 1994, Hawaiian legend Mark Foo got caught underneath after a wipeout. He wasn’t discovered missing until it was too late. So Clark and a few others set up the Mavericks Water Patrol dedicated to the safety and rescue of surfers on the biggest days. In 2011, Mavericks claimed respected surfer Sion Milosky.
Those deaths, and the several near- misses over the years, continue to weigh on Clark. He himself has had close calls, like in 1992, when he felt his arms and legs go numb after being stranded on the rocks as set after brutal set came crashing in. He’s blown out both knees and fused his back in his early 20s. “I don’t think I’ve been pain- free since 1978,” he says. He finally opted for lumbar-spine fusion to combat the degeneration of his discs in 2000 and has developed a handy way of keeping himself in check: “I always try to ride waves where the ‘pay attention’ point exceeds the pain point.”
And he keeps going out there every time it goes big. If there is an age limit to surfing big waves, Clark has yet to feel he’s hit it. Of course his body isn’t what it once was, but his encyclopedic knowledge of the wave will always put him in the right place at the right time.
“I think, for me, fear is mitigated by knowledge of the elements that create the fear. And I understand that fear, in the most humble way,” he says. “I know there are powers and forces much greater than I am. And I respect them and believe in them. We all have that spiritual power of knowing what our capabilities are, truly knowing that we’re all given talents. And we can refine those talents, and refine them and refine them. And I’m still working on that. I will be until the day I die.”
His contribution to Mavericks’ legacy will live on long after he’s gone. In the meantime, the wave continues to beckon surfers both capable and less capable. Wetsuits with inflatable bladders built into them have emboldened a new generation of surfers looking to charge before they’re ready. The past few seasons have seen some of the ugliest days Clark has witnessed, with surfers going all out for the photo that might give them a career boost.
“Guys are just throwing themselves over the edge—over and over—and just getting beat, and it’s like, why would you take off on a wave there? You’re not going to make it,” he says. “You could break something, you could lose your life. That’s not why I’m in it. I surf big waves because I am motivated and excited to dance with that power and make it back successfully to the channel.”
But more than that, Clark believes that surfing Mavericks provides a service of sorts. If the drive that led him to paddle into the wave that first glassy morning 41 years ago was relentless ambition, the feeling that pushes him now is entirely different.
“You know, if I can inspire people to do what they thought they could never do, I mean, that’s what it’s all about,” he says. “Getting people to just be stoked, to believe in themselves, never take no for an answer, and—if they can—live their dream.”