Terror at Jaws
Learning big-wave safety lessons the hard way.
As I hurried towards the baggage claim at the airport in Kahului, Maui, I noticed the stillness and the very warm air with a distinct salty taste to it. Only Kona winds from the south produce these conditions. I recognized the salty taste. It was mist that is only there when the surf is huge. I knew I would be getting some good waves the following morning.
I had flown from Oregon to Maui where my brother, Victor, was to pick me up at the airport. I quickly collected my bag and headed outside to look for my brother’s car. Victor, whose wife Terry has been a stewardess for over 25 years, is a veteran of airport pickups; he was rolling up to the curb just as I came out the door. I bundled my luggage into the back of his pickup truck and jumped into the front seat so we could quickly exit the airport mess and head home.
“Howzit brudda!” I said. We greeted each other with a brief hug across the steering wheel as Victor put the car in gear and off we went.
“So how’s the surf?” I asked. This is question one, always.
“Good” he answered, “Kona winds all week.”
But I immediately sensed something was wrong. He had this faraway look in his eyes like the thousand yard stare that we became familiar with when our friends returned from their tour of duty in the Vietnam War.
“What’s up bra?” I asked.
I thought maybe it was some family or financial problem that we could talk our way through. But it was something far different.
“Oh brudda, I had the heaviest thing happen today, I almost drowned, I mean, I was right on the edge of lights out. You’re not going to believe what happened bro, listen to this,” Victor continued. “Jaws was pretty damn good today and you know how much I’ve been wanting to try towing-in, well I guess I should have started someplace a little tamer but you know how it is….” He laid out the whole story for me.
Victor had not gotten right into tow-in surfing like the small elite group of Maui surfers and windsurfers led by Laird Hamilton had. Laird had tried towing in for the first time on the North Shore of O’ahu with Buzzy Kerbox and Darrick Doerner. They used Buzzy’s Zodiac and a balsa big wave gun that Laird’s dad, Billy, had shaped. They ventured out to Himalaya’s on a big, glassy day. Sylvain Cazenave shot photos from a helicopter, and although their first attempt paled in comparison to later endeavors, they made surfing history that day.
The surfboard wasn’t right, neither was the Zodiac, but it was a first step. Laird immediately figured out that the 7’2” he used regularly at Backdoor Pipeline was a better board for what he wanted to do. He mounted windsurf foot straps, and on his first go-out, discovered that he could fly. The 7’2” was faster and more controllable than the big balsa gun even in huge waves.
The next thing that really busted down the door was when Bruce Brown called up to ask Laird and I to be in his new “Endless Summer II” movie. He wanted to have Laird and I meet the stars of the movie, Pat and Wingnut, down at the surf camp in G-land on the island of Java in Indonesia. We immediately agreed and started setting the deal up for the following summer.
I told Bruce about this crazy tow-in surfing that Laird was doing. It was winter, so I suggested that maybe they might be interested in getting some footage of it. Bruce was all for it and called Laird to talk about it. Laird told him of the problems they were having with the Zodiac and said they could probably do a better job with one of the new jet skis.
Bruce dipped into his New Line films budget, and no more than a few days later Laird was picking up a brand new Yamaha WaveRunner III from the dealer. Armed with this deadly machine, they could now take it in deep where the action was and not worry about the impact zone as much as they had to with the boat.
Meanwhile, back on Maui where we all lived at the time, there is a big, beautiful wave near Peahi Bay. It breaks in a peak, but only when the surf is huge. We call it Jaws. There is a reason.
A big swell from a northwest direction wraps on the northwest point of Maui at Kahakuloa and refracts into the entire north-facing shore. Imagine taking a wad of chewing gum and swinging it. Extending from the hand is a long skinny string of gum with a big lump at the end. The swells have a similar effect as they catch on the northwest end of Maui and swing in, the long skinny string of waves hit along Pa’ia and Ho’okipa. The big lump at the end goes right into the lineup at Peahi. Compared to the rest of the north shore, it is a big lump indeed.
We used to call it the Atom Blaster. That was when we first started going down through the pineapple fields to watch it break back in the late 1960s. Later on, some hippie built a dome shaped house on the road down, so we began to call the place Domes. After that, watching countless waves and imagining them chewing us to bits, we just started calling it Jaws after one of the villains in the James Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me. It was a stunning and spectacular wave when viewed from the cliff top, and a few times on clean, Kona-wind days with a big northwest swell, it looked very alluring.
Several times we hiked down the steep trail with our surfboards, then descended the ropes and wires the fishermen used to get down to the beach. From sea level, it was an entirely different story. The waves looked much, much bigger. The shorebreak we needed to pass through to get into and out of the water was really what kept us from ever going out.
The shore at Jaws is what we used to refer to as a “big-sand” beach. Grains of this big sand are 1 to 3 feet in diameter. The shoreline is steep with slippery, limu (seaweed) covered rocks. It was treacherous enough in the summer when the surf was flat and we crawled over the boulders to spearfish and catch lobsters out on the reef. With a big swell, it was deadly.
We figured we could make it out okay by jumping on the last wave of the set as it washed up and ride the surge back out. However, getting out of the water was the part that looked the worst. A miss-timed exit, sliding back down the steep shoreline with the tumbling boulders would leave no escape from the next wave. It would be instant pulverization. Even knowing we were never going to surf it didn’t stop us from driving down there to watch it break. It was a stunning display of nature.
Then windsurfing came to Maui. The strong trade winds blowing from the northeast down the north-facing coastline of Maui created the perfect side/offshore wind conditions that are ideal for windsurfing in waves. Windsurfing began to get popular around 1980. At that time Hoyle Schweitzer, the owner of the patent to the modern windsurfer boom and universal joint, moved his family from California to Maui.
I’m not sure if Hoyle knew how good the windsurfing conditions were on Maui when he first came over and built a house at Kahana on the West Side. Maui is a beautiful island and has a lot of other attractions besides the trade winds. Soon Hoyle’s son Matt and Matt’s friend, Mike Waltz, started going to the main surf beach at Ho’okipa with their early windsurfers and discovered wave sailing.
With development of the harness, foot straps and boards designed to ride waves, Ho’okipa soon became the Mecca for windsurfing in waves. Windsurfers flocked to Maui from Europe, Asia and everywhere else. As the equipment evolved, so did the performance. Many of the surfers liked what they saw and decided to learn. I was one of them.
It was a slow learning curve at first with time committed to frustration and sore bodies. Still, compared to learning to surf it was quick. Before long we were getting into some healthy waves. Once I became fairly adept, I came to the conclusion that a windsurfer would be able to ride a much bigger wave than a surfer simply by virtue of the fact that he could catch that wave much easier and in a better position.
On a surfboard a surfer has to paddle their way into a big wave, which is moving much faster than a smaller wave. There is also the more difficult task of positioning in exactly the right spot to make that possible. That right spot is very inexact and fraught with the danger of being the wrong spot. The wrong spot is every surfer’s nightmare. It is the cold place of being caught inside and pounded.
On a sailboard one has the speed and mobility to stay safely outside the surf zone until the right wave arrives. Then one can catch the wave with ease, and have the means to run away from it should the tables turn and the wave try to catch the rider.
These factors allowed windsurfers to pioneer the first serious session out at Jaws. The early photos of Mark Angulo, his brother Josh, Rush Randall, Mike Waltz and some other Maui boys standing inside the Jaws tube were truly awesome. That the tube was throwing out completely over their 15-foot mast and sail was even more spectacular. Once Laird saw those pictures, he knew he had found the perfect place to do his tow-in surfing.
I thought these guys were nuts, but they came to me to build them the specialized boards they needed. At the same time it began to get interesting, and I built several boards for myself. Under Laird’s tutoring, I learned the fundamentals of driving the jet ski as well as the quick pick-up. It is a basic, but very precise technique necessary to running a jet ski in big waves. Add a surfer on the end of a ski rope, and attempt to get him into a good position on the best waves of the set, and the situation gets extremely complex.
Laird, Dave Kalama, Darrick Doerner and Buzzy Kerbox were maestros. They had it dialed in and zipped those skis around like they were on a dance floor instead of a dangerous surf zone. Before long I felt somewhat comfortable. I was able to utilize the advantages that a specially designed tow-in board and a good driver can provide in big surf. I had a few good sessions out at Jaws that were terrifying, but pretty smooth.
I kept telling Victor that this was the way to go in big waves. My brother and I, along with a few other friends, had pioneered several of the big wave spots on the outer reefs of Maui, campaigning them every time the big surf broke. We had been caught inside together by huge waves at Outer Sprecklesville, Pier One, Paukukalo Big Lefts, Submarines at outside Honolua, and Ho’okipa as big as it gets. We survived to laugh about it afterwards.
Victor loves surfing. He owned a surfboard several years before I did back in the 1950s. He loves big wave surfing most of all. He was a prime candidate for tow-in surfing. During the summer I had him out at Mud Flats on the south shore learning the ropes of getting up behind the jet ski, but he got frustrated and a sore back from trying too hard and too long.
Still, watching the guys ride in those early days at Jaws – before it became crowded in the lineup and up on the cliff – got under his skin. He saw them make it look easy, and at the spot we had been watching for over 20 years. He wanted to be out there too. So Victor got himself a WaveRunner and started to work with Buzzy Kerbox, who was without a steady partner. Tow-in surfing is a team sport first and foremost; it’s not done alone.
That day when I was boarding the plane to come to Maui, Victor and Buzzy and the rest of the Jaws crew, Laird, Kalama, Rush, Angulo, Pete Cabrinha, Brett Lickle and Mike Waltz were motoring out to Peahi to ride some monsters.
Victor drove for Buzzy at first, pulling him into quite a few big, and beautiful waves. It was nice Jaws: some big sets, but also long lulls in between where everyone would shut down the skis outside and talk about their last rides. When a set approached, they would fire up the skis and whip into another one. Done right, there is no easier way to ride big waves than towing into them. With a good driver, a surfer might catch a half dozen of the biggest waves of his life in 30 minutes and never even get his hair wet.
Buzzy finally got tired and wanted to take a break, so they pulled off in the channel and watched the others ride. Driving and watching all the action had its effect on Victor. Finally Victor said he wanted to go.
Buzzy got him lined-up and the last thing Victor told him was, “I want a small one to start with.”
Buzzy towed him out, spun around for a nice, small looking wave and whipped him in. Victor let go of the rope and started down the swell that still had a ways to go before it got into where it would start to stand up and break. The sensation was unbelievable, he was gliding at top speed and the wave was still only a hump.
Victor looked in and saw the shore, the cliff, the pineapple field and all the way up to the top of Haleakala. The view was so sensational it took his breath away. A feeling started down in his feet and rose up through his whole body like helium, lighter than air, and when it got to his mouth, it turned it up into a big smile.
So this was what it was like, yeah, this is the greatest he thought to himself. He was on top of the world, gliding along on the swell that was only just starting to get steeper as it moved in over the reef. He glanced behind him and what he saw made him feel like he was suddenly standing under an ice-cold waterfall.
A set was stacked up behind him that was more than twice the size of the wave he was riding. The wave behind was already feathering, about to break, and it was too late to pull off the wave he was on. He could tell at a glance that the set was flanking him, so no matter how far he rode toward the channel, he would still be right in the impact zone. Buzzy had miscalculated and towed Victor into the first wave of a set, a mistake that might be paid for with some punishment at any other place. Here at Jaws, it could cost the unlucky surfer his life.
Victor was in a panic as he watched the set swing out to where he was heading. He didn’t know what to do. He knew he didn’t have the quick pick-up dialed yet. If he fumbled the rope in those few seconds when Buzzy swept in after his wave ended, he would take the whole set right on the head and in the inside bowl, the heaviest, hollowest part of the wave.
Victor’s inexperience compounded Buzzy’s initial mistake. Not knowing what else to do, and thinking he was taking himself away from the worst part of the set, Victor cut back and went left. It was the worst decision he could have made. Not only does the left close out and wash right into the rocks, but Victor also took himself further away from the jet ski, his only hope of safety.
Victor found out in a hurry that he had made the wrong choice when he tried to straighten off as the wave closed out. A small tow-in board with foot straps on the deck is not made for going straight off in the whitewater, let alone lying down on to prone out. Almost immediately he was washed off his board and down in the water. At the mercy of the oncoming set, deep in the pit, Victor’s only option at this point was to hyperventilate to get some air in his lungs before the next wave got to him. With one last breath, he dove as deep as his leash would allow, hung on and said some prayers.
The wave hit Victor like a train wreck. The whitewater was the most powerful he had ever felt. It tumbled him like a leaf, pushing him deeper and twirling him until he lost his sense of direction to the surface. A good trick in big surf is to grab the leash and try to climb up it towards the surface. This time the turmoil was just too much: It felt like his board was underwater deeper than he was. Victor tried to relax and let his natural buoyancy take him up, but the whitewater wouldn’t let go. He just kept spinning and spinning.
Victor could tell by the pressure on his ears that he was pretty deep, but the wave’s grip did not relax, and he was powerless to swim against it. He felt the panic rising in him and forced it back down. He made himself relax as much as he could while being pummeled and beat on from all sides.
Sensing more than knowing which way was up; he clawed his way in that direction. Finally his head broke the surface and he sucked in some much needed air. The leash was still pulling him down and he had to fight to stay on top of the boiling water.
Looking outside, his heart sank as he saw another much bigger wall of whitewater coming at him. Knowing what he had to do didn’t make it any easier: He gulped as much air as possible then dove under before it hit. This wave was even stronger and it ripped him around like he was tissue paper. There were holes in the whitewater that he could feel himself falling into and dropping down deeper, only to be slammed again by another jolt that would spin him around like a top.
Victor thought about that glimpse he had of the set, and remembered that it looked like it had a lot of waves. He briefly considered giving up, but quickly remembered his family and knew he had to keep fighting. Victor was stronger than most – as strong as a bull – but he now felt as weak as a kitten. He didn’t know if he could make it, but he told himself he would never give up.
He felt a bolt of whitewater hit him from below and somehow used it to push him closer to the surface and finally struggled up into the blessed air. He had to fight as hard as he could just to stay on top: The water was in a froth and would barely support his weight. He tried to breathe in deep, but he was tired and weak. He looked out and saw an even bigger wave than the last one closing in on him. His vision was starting to tunnel out and he knew he was near the end of his rope.
Taking his last breath, he hardly had the strength to dive under this avalanche of foaming, boiling whitewater. He wondered if he could make it through this again. He felt defeat creeping up on his mind and body. His defenses were beginning to crumble. But he dove under anyway; he had no other choice.
Buzzy had watched Victor ride off the rope as he pulled over the swell. This was Victor’s first wave at Jaws so Buzzy stayed close behind the wave and kept his eye on him. The big set behind was as much of a shock to Buzzy as it was to Victor. This could be critical, Buzzy thought, as he stayed in position, expecting Victor to pull out on the shoulder at any moment. As soon as Victor appeared, Buzzy would have to dash in for a quick pick-up to escape the waves behind.
Buzzy followed the wave until it petered out and Victor wasn’t there. Thoughts raced through Buzzy’s mind: Where did he go? Did he wipeout? What happened? Victor was missing and the next wave was rushing in; there was nothing to do except gas it for the channel and safety. The set was big, 20 feet at least, the biggest set of the day so far. Victor was somewhere inside of it. A bad spot no doubt, but there wasn’t anything Buzzy could do at this point, so he sat in the channel to wait out the set.
Mark Angulo and Mike Waltz were sitting in the channel too. They were on Mark’s brand new WaveRunner on its maiden voyage at Jaws. From their vantage point, they had seen Victor cut back and go left. They both yelled at Buzzy to go in and get him. In the channel at Jaws there is safety from the waves that come charging in, sucking out in the bowl, 20-feet high and end right where the ski waits. It is an awe-inspiring sight, amazing and terrifying at the same time.
“Go get him, what the hell are you doing?” Both Mark and Mike were screaming at Buzzy.
Teamwork was the foundation of their whole approach to riding Jaws. Although they were all good surfers and had been doing it all their lives, none of the others were of the caliber of Laird, or even Buzzy, who both had enjoyed careers as professional surfers, paid to go surfing. But by perfecting their technique and their teamwork, they were able to put themselves in situations where under normal paddle surfing conditions they would have been out of their league.
They watched out for each other and made every effort to not let one of their own get in harm’s way. At worst, someone might have to take one wave on the head, but the jet ski would be there to pick them up as soon as they surfaced. This was their creed and it had worked brilliantly. No one had been injured, or even scared real bad, because of their collective carefulness.
The second big wave washed though, and still Buzzy sat there. It was a toss up whether there was anything he could do anyway. Brian Keaulana, the world’s top water safety officer once said, “Think and plan before jumping into a bad situation, one guy is already in trouble, by jumping in heedlessly, then there are two guys in trouble.” It was sound advice.
Mark said to Mike that he was going to jump off the ski and sit there in the channel. “You go get him, Waltzie.”
Watching the third wave roll in, Mark bailed off and Mike got ready to blast into the impact zone to look for Victor. Riding in alongside the channel, Mike could look in and try to spot Victor before he dashed in to him. This was critical because he would only have the interval between the wave in front and the one in back to make his play. He had to have Victor on the ski and be rolling out of there quick, or the next wave would eat them both up.
When Victor came up after the second wave, Mike spotted him and planned his approach. Waiting for the third wave, he blasted in right behind it towards the spot he had last seen Victor. It was a rough ride over the boiling foam, tossing Mike and the ski all over place. He held on tight and kept his eyes open, he didn’t want to miss Victor. He knew he only had one chance before he would have to go back out to the safety of channel to try again. This resulting delay could be critical as Victor had already been under three waves.
Victor meanwhile was all but finished. The first two waves were each successively the worst hold-downs he had ever experienced in his 40 years of surfing. This third one had the other hold-downs beat by a long shot. By some good fortune, he managed to pop to the surface before sucking in any water, but he was completely and utterly done. He had nothing left and didn’t believe he could go through another one.
Suddenly as if he were dreaming he looked up and saw Mike on a shiny new WaveRunner right next to him, smiling and telling him in a calm voice to get on. Hope is such a powerful thing, it surged through Victor like a bolt of lightning as he jumped up on the sled and Mike hit the throttle.
A jet ski’s propulsion is based on the pump system sucking in water through the intake and blasting it out under great force. It needs water to propel itself and in whitewater that has a lot of air in it, the system doesn’t work as efficiently. Mike had the throttle pegged and they were starting to move, but slowly at first until the intake could get some water moving through it. Finally it started to bite and the ski dug in. But Victor still had his leash on and his board began to tombstone, virtually anchoring them in place. The next wave was bearing down on them and Victor from his position on the rescue sled could see what was happening, and what was about to happen unless he acted.
Since they both knew what the problem was, Victor just said to Mike: “Go save the ski and come back to get me on the next lap.”
Victor took a deep breath and jumped off the back. As much as he didn’t want to leave the ski, he knew it would be all over if he didn’t bail. Sitting on the sled for those few moments had revived him enough to hang on for another hold down. As the wave hit him, his leash broke and he was instantly free from the anchor that had almost been his doom. He was now able to swim down under the whitewater and away from its power. He knew he would make it this time.
Mike felt Victor go off the back of the sled and the jet ski leaped away. He pegged the throttle hard and hung on tight. Suddenly he sensed darkness as the wave loomed over him, blocking the sun and putting him in its shadow. Then it hit him like a bus from behind, then above, and finally all around, as the wave enveloped him. It bounced him up in air and the next thing he knew, he shot out ahead of it still going full throttle.
The thought that he might just make it crossed his mind, and then the shadow was over him again. Once more the whitewater engulfed him and again it shot him up in the air and out ahead of the wave. Only this time instead of going straight, he was slightly skewed and landed a little sideways. The throttle locked on, he accelerated as soon as he hit and the ski straightened itself out as it zoomed ahead of the wave.
The shadow came a third time, and this time when he got blasted out he was completely sideways. He hit and immediately flipped. Mike went down hard and the jet ski was right behind him, both tumbling in the powerful whitewater. He had on a windbreaker jacket that was now filling up with water and dragging him down as he fought to swim up.
Over and over he rolled, trying to find the zipper and get out of his jacket. At last he got his fingers on the zipper and yanked as hard as he could. The jacket opened and he quickly wiggled out of it. He felt the jet ski touch him, but only that, no smashing blow, just a light touch and he was away from it again. He swam to the surface and saw how close the cliff and the shore were. Then Laird was there on another ski, Victor sitting behind him with a hand out to pull Mike onto the sled and to the safety of the channel.
In the channel, Laird pulled on a pair of fins and said, “Get me in close; I’ll see if I can save the ski.”
Victor dropped him in near shore and he bodysurfed on the back of a wave right up on the rocky beach. From the channel, Mike and Victor watched him scamper up the rocks to the broken ski. Laird then stood up and they could see him shake his head. He walked back down to water, grabbing Buzzy’s board that Victor had been using and jumped in, swimming it back out to the waiting ski.
“Handlebars are completely broke off and the whole front end is crushed,” Laird reported, “that ski isn’t going anywhere. Let’s go,”
They headed back out to the others waiting in the channel. Laird said: “I’m going to find Don (his friend, the helicopter pilot) and see if we can get what’s left; you guys go down to the beach and try to pull it up away from the waves.”
With that, he jumped on his own ski and jetted away towards Maliko Gulch where the trailers and cars were. The rest of the guys got their stuff together and loaded up to ride back. The near loss of Victor and the loss of the ski had put a damper on the surfing for the day.
Back at Maliko, they found Laird and his jet ski already gone. So they loaded up and drove back up toward Peahi. That Laird had loaded up his own jet ski in the back of his pickup truck by himself was just another example of his extraordinary abilities.
Up on the cliff, they could see the jet ski washing up and down the rocks as the waves surged in and out. They all climbed down the steep trail and got the ski pulled up away from the waves. It was a mess, the hull was smashed beyond any hope of repair, but the engine was intact and there were lots of parts that could be salvaged.
Raising it up the cliff trail was the next problem. As they were discussing that subject, they heard a roar and all looked up. A red helicopter dropped over the edge of the cliff, dove straight down and did a huge sweeping bottom turn practically on the water. It pulled up from that maneuver to hover directly over them as it lowered a cable down.
Laird leaned out of the chopper grinning like a maniac and yelled down, “Hook it up.”
So they wrapped the cables around the ski and watched as the helicopter lifted it up. Scrambling up the steep trail, they reached the top to find the chopper long gone, but the wrecked ski was sitting perfectly placed in the back of Mark’s pickup.
As Victor related this whole story to me, I felt chilled to the bone. It was as near a brush with death as someone can come and still walk away. I hadn’t even noticed that he had pulled over just outside the airport and parked on the shoulder of the road to tell me the story.
I reached over and hugged him as hard as I could, “Don’t scare me like that anymore.”
They learned a lot of lessons from that experience. From then on, no one ever wore a surfboard leash at Jaws; it was just too much of a liability. They also started using wakeboarding life vests to stay afloat in the boiling whitewater. Even if one of them gulped water and lost consciousness, the vest would bring his body to the surface. There the others could rescue and resuscitate him. After Victor’s brush with death, when one of their own went down, all the skis would quit riding and go in for the save: A few missed waves were a cheap price to pay to pull someone out of the fire. With several skis operating in the rescue, if the first one missed, the guy down would have to go under one more wave, but there would be another ski right there when he came up. And even if a ski was lost in the rescue, it was always cheaper to buy a new ski than to buy back an old friend.
Teamwork is the key. Usually in surfing, the surfer is on his own, but in tow-in surfing it’s all about teamwork. Not only the teamwork of rider and driver, but the teamwork of the whole group.
Always surf to surf again tomorrow. Never surf like there’s no tomorrow, because there always is as soon as the sun comes up again. Keep surfing.
For more stories from Gerry, check out his book Surf Is Where You Find It.