Interview with Jeff Clark
Sponsors: Quiksilver, Silver Edition, Fidra, Da Kine and LokBox Fiberglass Fin System
“Doc is telling us that we can probably get out down at the north end of the beach. Yeah sure and I can levitate a car if I think hard enough!”
Towsurfer.com – It is known throughout the surfing industry that you are one of the main pioneers of Mavericks. Who or what inspired you to start surfing this unknown spot back in 1975?
JC-Surfing big waves from Santa Cruz to San Francisco in the early 70’s, there wasn’t anything that Brian Heafy and I didn’t try to ride. Third reef Lane, Scott Creek till it closed out and Rockaway. Often times watching and trying to emulate the legendary waterman Dick Keating. Then there was Ocean Beach where you were literally on your own and Ross’s Cove was where we surfed most of the time in the winter. When it started closing out, we watched Mavericks. I would have to say that the wave was the inspiration that got me out there. A giant peak, isn’t that what we all want?
What do you remember about your first ever surf session at Mavs?
The first time we walked around the point to surf I was trying to talk Brian into going out. I pointed out how I thought we could get out on the north side of the reef, it was the shortest distance to deep water. Of course, there was risk, and success was determined by instinct and commitment. He wasn’t having it. I changed into my wetsuit waxed up and worked my way through the reef. I remember the current being so strong that at one point. I didn’t think that I was going to get through. Getting denied wasn’t in my program. I made it to deep water and started towards the peak and remember it being a long paddle.
I kept my distance until a set rolled through and set up some landmarks and compass points from Boy Scouts. The routine when you get lost in the wilderness, how to get your bearing so you know where you are. When I finally got myself right over the reef I could see a set coming, and as it got closer I realized it was going to be close. I remember managing to get just past the north side of the peak to avoid the hit because it was breaking on the bowl and very defined. As I went over the wave, the sound waves from the explosion sent shock waves through my body. I settled down and reset my landmarks. I let a couple sets go by just to really feel what was going on. Then it was time to get in the perfect place to catch one of these big peaks. As you rise up on a wave like Maverick’s, it lets you know the kind of commitment you must have to get down the face. I managed to get down all five waves that I went for. With that, I was stoked on my first session at Mavericks. There was a lot that would need to change and equipment was going to be the first upgrade.
What was it like from that point on being virtually the only one out on solid 20’ days?
Let’s get one thing straight. Do you paddle out by yourself to spot’s that have good waves that no one is surfing or ever surfed? Can you read the ocean well enough to see or feel your place in it? I like the adventure and the challenge. I was frustrated with the surfers that talked the game, didn’t believe me or just said, “you’re crazy”. It would have been a blast to surf with someone else out there. There was no one in Half Moon Bay that would even consider my invitation to surf Maverick’s, so I ended up relying on no one but myself. When you’re by yourself, there is no chatter just your senses taking in all that surrounds you. From time to time, there were a few that made the paddle out to the channel to watch. Some only got half way out before turning back. It is a challenge that you have to be up for, you have to like insurmountable odds and believe in yourself to overcome those odds.
Finally, on one special day, you were able to lure some friends out. Tell us what that day was like for you.
I drove the coast to S.F. to work the morning after the Eddie Contest in 1990. The swell was so big and the conditions were light offshore. I left the job at 9 am went to Ocean Beach and as I pulled up, Doc, Tom Powers, and Dave Schmidt were checking the surf at Sloat. The walls were endless with nowhere to get out. Easy 25-30ft faces. Doc is telling us that we could probably get out down at the north end of the beach. Yeah sure, and I can levitate a car if I think hard enough! I told them about a place that would take all the swell that we were looking at and turn it into a perfect peak and Doc wanted nothing to do with the idea. Dave, Tom and I left for Mavericks. We parked in the lot and walked to the top of the cliff on the north side of the point. Dave said, “Is that it, is that it?” pointing to different waves that were present. I said look out around the point. He stared at a 20’ wave unload on the reef and started pacing. He said, “Oh my God it’s Waimea 2.” We went back to the car to change. Does anyone surf here, he asked, “I do”.
We got to the end of the trail and checked again, mavericks was going off in a big way. I told them I was paddling out the north side. They wanted nothing to do with that so they paddled around the south. I had never done that, so I said: “I will see you guys at the peak”. Once in the deep water, you could feel the power of this swell and the conditions were plate glass with an ebbing tide. We congregated just inside the bowl in the channel to watch a few sets. These were the biggest waves they had ever seen in California and it was getting bigger by the set. We all caught a couple of waves, Dave got this one all the way to Mushroom rock, and both Tom and Dave were blown away by the size and shape of the waves. I was bummed because I left my booties at home, and on one wave I went over the double up and just about did the splits.
I ended up loosing my board on that wave and I had to swim to the rocks looking up on the reef to see if my board had been washed up there. I didn’t see it, so I went swimming south in the current and finally found it floating down the reef towards the harbor entrance. I paddled back to the beach, tied it back together and paddled back out. I went back out the north side again, stayed well away from the peak and still got caught by this big set that swung wide on me. Luckily, I was in deep water and the wave wasn’t top to bottom. It was still a giant avalanche and all l I hoped for was that my leash would hold. It stretched pretty thin but it didn’t break. Earlier, I had gone left but at this point the swell had gotten to about 25’ by the old standard. The bowl was off limits, completely impossible to make the drop or the wave with the tide at a minus. We all survived to surf another day. I was stoked to be able to share this place with a couple of guys that could surf big waves. Tom and Dave went back to Santa Cruz with tales of this giant wave. Then everything changed!
The day that Mark Foo died at Mavs, really opened a lot of minds and eyes to how much greater the stakes had become to survival and death at Mavs?
I think the surfer’s that challenge themselves to push the limits of the ocean, realize the danger. What we didn’t do is watch out for each other like we do now. Where the real danger lies is in the inexperienced charger.
Did this tragedy change anything about your approach to surfing big waves?
How do you change your approach to riding big waves?
You’re either committed or you’re not! Preparation is important. When you are surfing giant waves you don’t always get the benefit of the doubt, so eliminate the doubt and go!!!
How has all the media and hype changed this spot and the surfers that surf it?
On one hand, some of the best big wave riders are coming to surf Mavericks and on a level that has never been higher. On the other hand, there have been a few suspects in the line-up that maybe shouldn’t be. Last winter I got a call from the East Coast and this guy and his dad end up coming out to pick up their new Maverick’s gun. The kid paddles out and sits inside of the crew at the peak . Dad is in the channel with camera in hand. The kid is ready, helmet and life jacket. Grant looks inside to see the kid caught with his pants down, gets drilled by the set, breaks his board and gets pushed through the rocks.
He didn’t even get a wave on his brand new board. Then he comes to the shop and picks out another Rhino Chaser cause the swell is holding. Will learn something, now he is staying off to the side to get a little more education. He didn’t get the ten waves that the magazine article claimed he got, that story was published. So what is this telling the mass’s, get a big wave gun and go out at Maverick’s and you will get in the mags..It was too much like the movie North Shore. Please don’t come to Maverick’s to LEARN how to surf BIG waves. Mavericks is one of the most difficult big waves to surf, it is best to surf something more forgiving then we don’t have to go looking for you and your board in the rocks!!!
Is there one situation that really sticks in your mind today where you were really concerned for your life?
It is kind a funny how we all react to pressure situations, some people freeze, some don’t have the mind for doing the impossible. We are given physic’s to work with and understanding the elements is the key to survival. I would have to say that I have been closer to dying than I know, but the difference is that my mind will never give up. Chuck Patterson and I were towing on a reef near Mavericks on November 20, 02. I was really deep in the barrel and the wave buckled down the line in front of me. I held my line right into the base of the wave where the foam and the lip meet.
You have to stay just inside the lip and some times in smaller surf you can get out the back. Not today, I went up and over the falls and the turbulence was intense, but my mind was just sitting back and watching what was happening to my body. It had been a while and your internal sense starts to tell you that the next wave is close. All I could think was that this life jacket that I had on was defective. On my second stroke to the surface. I heard the next wave detonate so I went back to the place of survival. I knew that I was going to come up after this one. It still took awhile, the scary thing I guess is that I felt like I had plenty of air. It was like waking up really groggy from a dream. I remember taking my first breath of air and filling my lungs and how good it felt, then there was the brightness. Close your eyes for 30 seconds on a bright sunny day, when you open them it takes time for them to adjust. Chuck was on me in a second. I said to Chuck, “Now would be a good time to switch.”
How did you get started in towing?
I got started watching the strapped crew, Laird, Derrick, Rush, Kalama, Waltze, and Lopez. I have been lucky enough to be able to see something done and do it in a short time if not immediately. Once we got a Waverunner, it came really quick. The most important thing that we did was go through life-saving courses with the boats and sleds.
How did you prepare and train for your first tow experience?
Spend time on the water practicing, getting stronger. Surfing, combined with a mountain bike is one of the best workouts that you can do.
What was your first tow experience like at Mavs?
The first really big day that I towed at mavericks was with Grant Washburn, October 28th. I was on a 22lb board with four fins that worked OK, but it was too heavy for the cold water. I wish I would have taken it to Maui for the contest at Peahi in January. The board that I rode worked well but it was to light in spite of all the lead that I stuck to the deck. This coming season will be a whole lot different. It was the first time that I towed in warm water.
Tell us about your current tow boards and how each design is different for Jaws and Mavs and why?
I only have 30 min. of experience towing at Peahi. My boards for next year will be heavier and pintails. The boards that I ride at mavericks don’t have to be as heavy or narrow. The water is usually smoother here. I have a proven shape that I ride . The rocker, template, foil are key.The fin’s that I use are double foiled side fins of different percentages on a Tri-fin setup. The fins are set in Lockbox adjustable fin box’s. The best system for getting any template and foil you want. Fiberglass or G-10 is the only way to go for fins.
I will always miss the kid, his total commitment to charging was second to none. We broke new ground at a place that we call T-2. I will never forget his laugh as he was free falling down the face at Mav’s landing the drop and pulling the turn. He was the one that had refined his surfing to a point that a mistake was a rare thing.
How has being a shaper helped you to understand your needs as a paddle and tow surfer?
Shapers have been forever taking in information and trying to determine what their riders want. I have been fortunate to have one of the best testing grounds in the world and there is no better way to tell if something works than to personally test it yourself.
Tell us about your new tow partner Chuck Patterson.
Chuck and I have quite a few days under our belt. The week of Nov.20th was really the five days or so that solidified our trust and expectations of each other.
What was the infamous November 20-21, 2001 swell like at Mavericks for you personally?
This week was one of the best weeks for us towing. The waves were so consistent and on the 21st Chuck Patterson, Kevin Vanderpool and I towed together at the other reef till it got too big, then we went up to Maverick’s. When we got there, the south wind had picked up so strong that it was pretty dangerous. The only ones left out, were Carlos and Eraldo, Skinny and Loya. I caught two waves in the bump and I towed Chuck into a couple. One ended up in the mag’s, the big barrel. It was getting really windy and bumpy, sideway chop going right into your bottom.We watched Carlos catch his XXL wave. He made it a long way before the bumps finally took him out on that giant wave. We finally went in and met up with Grant, and drove into the base just in time to witness a set that broke 2mi. to the north of the point. This right rolled all the way to us. Grant got it on video and it looked every bit of 100’. I had never seen waves standing and pealing in that part of the ocean. With the footage, we have the record to go and check the depth where these waves were breaking. That will give you some idea of how big these waves really are. The 21st was the biggest day that I had ever witnessed on this coast.
Tell us about your experience at Jaws for the first ever Tow-IN World Cup Event?
I wish I could have surfed more than 30 minutes. I was stoked to surf there but it was just a teaser. That wave is radical and I really liked the inside bowl and the speed. My equipment would have been different had I surfed there just once before. The contest was the first time that I surfed there in real waves.
How do you train for tow surfing?
Training for tow surfing is just putting in the time on the machines with your partner. Staying in great shape with cardio and a strength workout, and riding the ole mountain bike.
People are asking why the Quiksilver Men Who Ride Mountains has not seen an event in 2 years?
The condition’s this year were never good enough for a day of competitive surfing. The mag’s show some insane shot’s. That is only a split second of a day. To run the event we need the whole day. I am confident that we will hold the Quiksilver/Mavericks Men Who Ride Mountains this coming winter. Last year every person with a weather report was calling the contest. I told so many that called that it was going to blow 30 knots. They didn’t believe me and flew over from Hawaii and surfed in 30 knots of wind. Later, I saw some of the film crews at the coffee shop on my way to work.
Tell us briefly your opinion on the current attempt to ban PWC use in the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary which would greatly effect the Mavericks water safety and tow surfing efforts.
I had a marine biologist in my shop tell me that the use of Waverunners, Sea Doo’s and PWC’s for our application does nothing that is even detectable. What is detectable is the MTBE additive in the gas. The organization’s such as Surfrider, Sierra Club, Save Our Shore’s and all the rest need to unite and go after the fuel companies. I would be a member if I thought they were fighting the right battles. Emotional battles should be left alone, go after the ones that will make a difference.
Putting tow surfing a side, how important is the use of a PWC for rescuing a surfer caught inside on a big day at Mavs?
PWC’s are the only craft that can go into the surf zone to perform a rescue safely with minimal risk to the lifeguard. Any one that is caught up in the fight against PWC’s, I ask you to go down to any launch ramp and check out the sport fishing boats that go out every day of the summer. Do you think all those boats are clean running? WE are out at Maverick’s so few days that it is not even a comparison. And contrary to uneducated opinion I really care about the ocean that I have grown up in.
Have you personally seen or found any spots along the coast that compare to Mavs?
Where do you see the evolution of tow-in surfing headed?
Bigger waves and better equipment.
What are your goals and plans for the near future in tow-in surfing?
Continue to refine my equipment and experiment with new designs. I don’t want to miss a single day in the water when there is swell.
How is your back treating you?
My back is feeling great. After bone graft and a 3+4 fusion of my spine July 10, last summer I was able to get back to 100% by Thanksgiving week.
Are you still doing a few Celebrity Golf Tournaments?
I do a lot of charity events for the boys and girls club of America. We just had the Ronald McDonald House and the Kris Kringle tournaments. Eric Wright and The Joe Montana fundraiser’s are coming soon. The SIMA golf tournament and auction is coming next month.
Who or What Inspires Jeff Clark?
Jay Moriarity inspired me to always push myself to the next level. Whether it was surfing or just being kind to someone that you had never met. My children inspire me, Katrina 20, Kevin 18 and Kaila 7. Watching them grow into adults and being so proud of them.
You have truly given so much to big wave surfing over the past decade and it’s very obvious that you are one of the main reasons for this huge big wave explosion along the California coast. You have inspired so many surfers to be the best big wave athletes that they can be and have had the opportunity to witness many great rides and experiences that your friends have encountered as well as the tragedies that come with this sport. With all the experiences that you have had and witnessed, what advise do you have for those thinking about paddle surfing or tow surfing large waves for the first time?
My advise to anyone who wants to surf big waves is to work your way up to it. Study the best guys in the line-up. Ask yourself why? for every move you see them make. Are they seeing something that you don’t? Be patient but not passive. If you got it, you will soon know it and won’t be able to live without it.
© 2002 copyright – Towsurfer.com / Eric Akiskalian