William Morgan prepares to surf the same enormous waves that killed his father
The usual morning fog is persistent today. The long jetty near Pillar Point is swallowed by the soupy grey, seemingly disappearing into the abyss. Through the panoramic view of my bedroom window, I see Half Moon Bay coming to life in the early morning. A man is taking a jog down the steep beach with his stumpy bulldog. A couple of early commuters’ headlights are slicing through the fog and heading into the overshadowing mountains. The occasional surf shop is lighting up and un-shuttering its windows. The ocean is roaring today, and an excitement bubbles up inside me as I remember that today is Mavericks.
I hear the hissing of bacon hitting the frying pan and the hum of the espresso machine. My mouth waters as I stumble down the stairs. Mom is plating up my breakfast. A pink box is set in the center of the table. Wait, a pink box? I settle into my chair.
“Donuts, Mom?” I ask, shocked. I open them up . . . My favorite—maple bars. “C’mon. An athlete doesn’t eat donuts on a day like this. My stomach will weigh me down more than the waves themselves!”
Mom gives me one of those mom looks. “Now, last time I checked, donuts don’t weigh hundreds of thousands of pounds. And I spent good money on these, so eat. Mom’s orders.”
I groan, then my wall caves in. If William Morgan has one weakness, it’s maple bar donuts. I dig in, cover the donuts with that greasy bacon, and feel that amazing feeling of a future heart attack. I swear, if this is what they eat in Vermont, I’m gonna move there someday.
* * *
The forecasters on the minivan’s raspy weather radio are warning that the Mavericks waves are larger this year than ever before. As I stand on the beach, I can see where they are coming from. Beyond the small ripples lining the shore, I see the world-renowned monsters. I’d seen them many times before, but not at this volume or this dramatic angle. It seems Mother Nature is having a temper tantrum. Do giant, lethal waves scare off William Morgan, a three-time Mavericks champion?
But not today!
I can hear the engine of Mom’s ancient minivan kicking up dust in the parking lot behind me. It’s only a faint noise, drowned out by the sound of water pounding water. I know the usual question is coming: “You sure, Will?”
I understand her concern. She doesn’t want to lose me in the giants like she lost Dad. I remember the day she came home holding pieces of Dad’s famous orange-and-pink surfboard, but no Dad.
I manage a tiny nod. “Yep,” I mutter. “Yep, sure as ever.”
But she doesn’t leave. She jumps out of the van, embraces me in a tight hug, then gets back in. As she pulls away, she calls, “I expect to see you at home at seven tonight. Promise me I’ll see you at seven. Mom’s orders.”
I look down at my watch. I can’t stay down here much longer. Sandy’s waiting for me on the jetty.
“You will,” I promise. Then she takes off, turning onto the main drag. I watch her go. I watch her go every time, hoping it won’t be the last.
* * *
I meet up with my friend Sandy at the jetty. The iconic foghorn is blaring in our ears. My skull seems to rattle every time it bellows loudly. Everybody calls him Sandy because of his trademark surfer-dude hair and yellow surfboard.
From here, we have a clear view of the waves in all their glory. They are even scarier from this vantage point than from the beach.
“The waves are wicked this year,” Sandy says excitedly. “I’ll be tearing it up out there. You just wait and see. Beating my records from last year.”
I know those records will be hard to beat. Last year, Sandy scored a ten on his first wave, then doubled his score on the second one. On the third and final wave, he blew it but still got pretty high up on the podium. Top ten well within reach, at least.
As we stare down the giants in front of us, I feel impending doom. The sun, which had been just a half-circle when I first arrived, is now high in the sky and frying us alive. All the fog I saw this morning has vanished. It doesn’t usually top 60 degrees in Half Moon Bay, but today it feels well above 80. My phone buzzes in my board shorts—an email from the guy I met yesterday, a Mavericks Competition commentator:
get your butts down here quick. all these tourists are coming in by the tons.
I take a nervous breath and tell Sandy, “Game time.”
* * *
The waves are even louder than the foghorn. Sandy and I push our way through the crowds until we find the restricted area by the public restrooms. We duck under the caution tape and find the guy, Mitch, leaning against a rather large rock. He totally fits the part of commentator at a surfing competition— he’s been in 20 model magazines, 60 issues of surfing magazines, and is a three-time Mavericks champion. So, yeah. Definitely a good dude in the public eye. But in real life, he’s a piece of work. His finger pushes down on something—a stopwatch—and he grins mischievously.
The pressure underwater makes me feel like I’m about to be crushed.
“Only two minutes from the edge of that jetty to the beachfront,” he tells us. “Not bad for some punk teens, huh?”
“Punk teens that also happen to be Mavericks champions,” Sandy points out. “Not too shabby for some punk teens . . . huh?”
We suit up in the bathroom, but we can’t have our own stalls because there are so many competitors. I end up right out in the open, next to a dude from . . . Minnesota? Last time I checked, the only waves in Minnesota are in a lake. He’ll get pummeled by the waves, for sure.
A taller dude from South Africa is up first. He swims out on a surfboard so giant it would be a longboard to anybody else. Only a couple of others trail behind him at first—after all, you don’t want to be the first to go down. We watch in uncomfortable silence as the monster surges forward, pushing him with it. He manages to get up into a standing position. The drop is perfect, but when the wave crashes, it takes him with it.
Everybody holds their breath as we count the seconds ticking by . . . 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 . . . 20 . . . 30 . . .
We all cheer as he bursts out of the water. He climbs onto the jet ski, awaiting his score. It’s time for the second heat to go in. I take one last look at Mitch. He smirks . . . and I rocket down the sand, into the hungry waters . . .
* * *
Cold seeps through my thermal wetsuit. My exposed hands and feet instantly freeze on contact. I forgot just how difficult it is to reach the deemed “death zone,” where the real monsters live. I would’ve taken the boat out, but as per tradition, Sandy and I paddle out together. It’s what my dad always did with Sandy.
“God, this water’s freezing,” he acknowledges. Before I can respond, a wave comes our way and I need to duck. When I come back up, Sandy’s hawking up a boatload of salt water. “Don’t know why I got in with my mouth open.”
Then the water goes still. It’s not choppy, or even moving for that matter. Both of us know it’s coming. The first wave. I grip the edge of my surfboard as I wait in suspense for that giant swell, dwarfing us in its shadow. I can feel those maple bars coming back up.
“Crud,” Sandy mutters. We watch as the water builds up in front of us, wanting to wait until the last minute to duck. You don’t want to hold your breath any longer than you need to. I can see the wave right in front of my face and hesitantly duck. The weight of the wave shoves me down further and further and further. The pressure underwater makes me feel like I’m about to be crushed.
I open my eyes and try to ignore the sting of the salt water. I look for Sandy, but it’s almost pitch black, and I can’t see a foot in front of my face. The only reason I burst back through the surface is that I know the clock is counting down. I need another wave like that.
Sandy is about a yard ahead of me, and I know he’ll most likely get the next wave before I do. I can’t go in too late, but in his position, he can’t go in too early. “Hey!” I call. “How’re you feeling?”
He doesn’t respond, which means he’s probably in game mode. I paddle out just a little farther, hoping to get into the best position possible. The water begins to build up. I scramble to my feet and drop down a breathless 20 feet. As always, my life flashes before my eyes. I remember my dad and his kind smile, my mom and her hugs, and the maple bars covered with bacon.
I see the water below—a choppy vortex of pitch black. The sun can barely make a dent in it. I feel the spray of water hitting my back like freezing cold needles. It’s about to break. I take into account all the balancing and breath-holding practices I’ve had over the years. If I go down, chances are I’d be down there for up to a minute. Maybe more if a lot of waves followed in its wake.
I hear Sandy’s yell as he’s taken down. But I don’t have time to worry about him. His antique surfboard flies over my head and is swallowed up by the monster. His mom is gonna kill him if they don’t retrieve it.
Then the break is gone. Once again, the water is calm.
I made the wave! I clamber onto the boat, anxiously awaiting my score. I can hear the roar of the crowd, and I offer a friendly wave, which makes them roar even louder than before.
Then I remember Sandy.
Where is he?
He should be up by now.
I can tell that the crowd is realizing the same thing because their roar stops. Mitch’s booming voice isn’t to be heard. We wait. And wait.
And wait even more.
But then the horrifying reality covers us like a blanket . . . he’s not coming up.
* * *
“No,” I mutter. Another wave comes, crashes then disappears. But I don’t hear it, and I don’t feel the harsh spray of salt water against my face. “No! No! No!”
It’s all I can say, like it’s the only word I know. I stumble forward at first, then I balance myself and run toward the water. The last thing I hear before the water engulfs me completely is the shocked gasp of the crowd.
I hope I can keep mom’s promise.
* * *
I peel my eyes open. The freezing salt water stabs at my skin. All I can see are bubbles from previous waves. I kick and kick and kick down further, finding it much easier now that I’m not holding my surfboard.
A small ray of sunshine punches through. I see his hair waving in the water below for a second, then it’s gone. The ocean is enclosed in darkness once again. I kick blindly down, my lungs feeling as if they’re about to melt.
“So you, like, saved my life?” Sandy says through gritted teeth.
After a couple of seconds of searching, I find Sandy’s vest. I press the button, and he rockets to the surface. I press my own and join him at the top.
This time, the crowd is practically beside themselves. I almost feel like the water is vibrating at my neck. The rescue boat slowly treads over to us. The crew lugs Sandy onto the boat. I collapse onto the deck, panting. My eyes are stinging from all that salt water, and my vision is a little blurry as we head back to shore.
I stagger onto the shore, look up at the board, and think I’m hallucinating when I see the name in first place: William Morgan!
As the heats go by, my name stays at the top. The next days fly by . . . semifinals, finals . . . and by the end of this year’s Mavericks competition, my name is still at the top.
* * *
I climb onto the podium. Mitch raises my hand in the air and offers his best celebrity grin to the crowd. All the pesky teenage girls swoon at the gesture. Sandy places lower than last year because of his major wipeout, but I still drag him up with me and hold his hand up.
In the dense crowd, I spot my mom near the front. She is practically screaming her head off and doesn’t bother wiping her tears away.
“So you, like, saved my life?” Sandy says through gritted teeth.
“Oh,” he says. “Well . . . thanks.”
I make a small eye roll. “A little bit of an understatement, wouldn’t you think?”
Sandy laughs, says, “I guess. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, soul, and mind for your brave exploit.”
* * *
A month after I win, it’s Dad’s birthday. Mom and I visit his grave, and I bury my Heroes of Mavericks trophy next to him.