The Four Do’s and Don’ts of Taking Your Boat to Mavericks (Part I)
Mavericks needs no introduction. It’s a big, scary wave that requires full attention and respect from both the people who surf it and those who take boats out to it. Thanks to my friend Zach Wormhoudt I had the amazing opportunity of taking my old boat, Maria May a 21 ft Parker wheelhouse, out to Mavericks for a few occasions. First in 2011 for a zero-visibility surf strike, second in 2012 as support boat for filming of the Chasing Mavericks movie, and third in 2013 for the Mavericks Surf Contest as board caddy for a few legends.
How many days total have I been out at Mavericks on my boat? Four. Does that qualify me to give advice to other would-be boaters at this scary surf break? I’ll let you debate that answer after you read the rest of this article. If nothing else, four days of boating at Mavericks is very much trial by fire and more than enough for me to learn a few very key do’s and don’ts. Three sets of key do’s and don’ts in fact 🙂
Do #1: Go around the buoy
Pull up a map showing the Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay and you’ll see that it’s a straight shot from the harbor mouth out to Mavericks. Looks like a no-brainer to run straight out from the harbor, right? Now pull up a map with bathymetry (ocean depth) and you’ll see a different story. It’s shallow. Very shallow. A reef, rightfully named Blackhand Reef, extends from the harbor entrance out toward the surf break. Guess what washes over this shallow reef when the swell is pumping 18 feet at 15 seconds? Very big waves with very big whitewash. On their way out to the 2011 Mavericks contest a couple of friends on a Boston Whaler just barely turned around in front of a detonating 10-footer on Blackhand Reef escaping catastrophe.
So you do not cut across the reef unless you are on a ski and can easily run to the shoulder to avoid serious harm. The alternative is to head south down coast for ~1 mile to the can buoy. This marks the safe channel and your best friend; deep water. Big waves struggle to break or reform in deep water so it’s your safety zone. Once you round the buoy you take a diagonal path out to Mavericks 1 mile+ out, staying in deep water and watching the chaotic scene unfold on Blackhand Reef from afar. Deep is safe (remember that).
Don’t do #1: Don’t go in the fog
This lesson is best told in a story that would take way too long to tell properly in this blog article (I’m hoping to actually do a podcast on it one day). The cliff notes go something like this: Myself and 5 friends (including Zach) took my boat out to Mavericks one early morning where the swell was 12 ft at 14 seconds with fog so thick we had to navigate through the Pillar Point Harbor by GPS (basically zero visibility). We somehow found the wave (heard it before seeing it), rode a few waves while my buddy hovered the boat like a ghost somewhere in the channel, got all of 4 of us back on the boat, and made it back into the harbor safely. All with <25 feet of visibility in the fog and before a big clean-up set blew out the other few surfers, scattering them onto the rocks (which we heard about later in the parking lot).
So needless to say, don’t do this. Don’t take a boat out to Mavericks in the thick fog. Pretty simple. Looking back, we were a bit younger and definitely more stupid than today but more than anything, extremely lucky. Mavericks is sketchy enough surfing or boating on a calm, clear day let alone with almost zero visibility.
Do #2: Watch your depth sounder, not your surroundings
Deep is safe. Remember that? This is exactly the case while hovering your boat on the shoulder of the wave while your crew is surfing or the photographer on board is doing their business. You can pilot your boat while shifting your focus between the horizon and landmarks, like the famous radar dish, to stay in a seemingly safe zone but just a couple minutes of distraction can be costly. A change in wind speed or direction can quickly put you in the last place on earth you want to be with your boat — in the bowl. No boat that I know of is meant to take a draining 15-footer on the bow. So while you think you’re safe one minute, the next you may look up to see that your a touch inside with a set swinging wide causing a very sick feeling in your stomach (pray your motor doesn’t hesitate).
So while lineups and watching the horizon are key, what’s most important at Mavericks is depth. Mavericks breaks so suddenly and violently because the water is really deep then suddenly jacks up onto a plateau-like reef taking all that deep-water swell and unleashing Niagara Falls. The safe zone for your boat is 50-60 feet of water (just outside of the reef) with the danger zone being anything under 40 IMHO. If you remember the scene in Chasing Mavericks when the boat almost rolled over from a big set wave (main picture above), I was there about 20 yards outside of that guy and was just able to get around the shoulder of that wave, still in about 45 feet of water.
Chew on this for now and we’ll look at the rest of the do’s and don’ts in Part 2.