The surfer, the scientist and the big-wave beach at a breaking point

Big wave surfer Grant Washburn sits at "the Boneyard” at Mavericks beach. (Paul Kuroda for The Washington Post)
10 min

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — A big-wave surfer at Mavericks is essentially an ocean sensor. Grant Washburn can tell you the approximate depth of the seafloor beneath him, the size of a 40-foot wave and the wind speed blowing foam off the peak, all based on the crescendo in his nervous system. His senses usually match the data of wave-spotter buoys in the water. Then there is the profound sensory information of a wipeout: a sudden hissing silence under the tonnage of white water means he’s in a crevasse that will take him so far down that his ears pop. He would rather be in the shoals than that silence. Listen closely, then, to this veteran surfer when he tells you that 20 to 30 feet of the Mavericks coastline have disappeared.

To the uninitiated, Mavericks provokes a deep unease just walking its primeval shore. The waves, breaking a half-mile out, seem to grow manes of white blowing hair and come for you like ancient gods. Clambering at low tide over its shelves of exposed reef bedrock, nicknamed “the Boneyard,” is a cold-pit-in-the-stomach experience that reveals how Mavericks’ unusually heavy waves are generated: cold ocean abruptly slams into geology. Swells meet a craggy seafloor formed during the Pliocene era, and up lurches a colossal triangle of water that can chase a surfer such as Washburn down its steep face at speeds of 40 to 50 mph — fast enough that a wipeout will make a body skim like a stone in the avalanche.

Other surf spots “are Disney World,” Washburn says. “This is Jurassic.”

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There is a more disturbing sight at Mavericks, however, than the white-bearded waves or the prehistoric shoals. On the cliff above, an eight-foot portion of chain-link fence shudders in midair, fence post and wire jutting into nothing. The ground beneath it was sloughed away by erosion, hastened by El Niños, La Niñas, bomb cyclones, atmospheric rivers, “storms of the century” that now seem to come every couple of months in California, as another did this month.

When Washburn, a 54-year-old big-wave athlete and cinematographer, caught his first Mavericks wave in 1990, the spot was still somewhat secret. “It was a rumor,” he says. Only a handful of guys knew about the goat path that took you to that fence and out past it, to the point of the bluff where you could check the waves, have a picnic, throw a Frisbee. Now the fence is the rumor.

“You can argue the cause, but you can’t argue the beaches have receded,” Washburn says. “… People would say, ‘Oh, that’s a 100-year swell; you’re not going to see that again in your lifetime.’ And then like, a month later there would be another one. And it was like, huh? So either guys have the wrong name for this stuff or the scale is broken.”

One of the great big-wave amphitheaters in the world, an outcropping about 25 miles south of San Francisco, is being visibly reshaped by severe climate events, and Washburn, an unofficial elder statesman of Mavericks who has done documentary work and co-wrote a book about it, has a front-row seat. A 2007 U.S. Geological Survey report found that Mavericks is one of the fastest-eroding cliffs in the state — and it’s getting worse.

“These atmospheric rivers are problematic because it’s going to cause erosion to increase,” says Cheryl Hapke, a coastal geologist who wrote that study. One example: The 2015-16 El Niño caused winter erosion 76 percent above normal, the highest ever recorded to that point, on West Coast beaches.

According to research geologist Jonathan Warrick of the USGS, Washburn’s estimate that a foot per year has been lost over the 30 years he has surfed there is in the “right order of magnitude” with instrument measurements. Recent data from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography using lidar laser imaging computed that central California coastal erosion — realized episodically from high tides, big surf, groundwater surge, rainfall and sea-level rise — averaged 0.1 to 0.2 meters per year between 1998 and 2016. Warrick is not surprised that a surfer has a grasp of what’s happening with Mavericks’ topography. Surfers are inherent naturalists. When it comes to the felt impact of severe weather events, “They’re some of our canaries in the coal mine,” he says.

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Washburn’s desire to learn more about big waves and about what’s happening at his favorite beach has led to an interesting friendship between the surfer and a scientist, an oceanographer named Tim Janssen, and accounts for a yellow buoy in the trunk of his car. It’s a spotter buoy that belongs to Sofar Ocean, a local tech firm co-founded by Janssen to provide real-time data on atmospheric conditions at sea through vast networks of sensors, intended for the dual purposes of commercial use and climate change study.

Surfers help record and study rogue waves in “Hunting Rogue Waves” (Video: Courtesy of Grant Washburn)

The company’s Wayfinder guidance system allows captains of large ships to choose more optimal routes that will save fuel, which in turn reduces emissions. Surfer and scientist met at an extreme-ocean paddleboard event where Janssen conducted a demonstration of his sensors. “I think for Grant, he’s wanting to understand the natural world, which I think is very similar to where I come from,” Janssen says. “Really the reason we make these measurements is because we want to understand the ocean and atmosphere better and improve the predictability of that system for everything.”

Janssen’s start-up office was in a harbor just outside Mavericks, and he deployed the company’s first test buoys in the waters around the surf break. He became friendly with Washburn, who was intrigued by the gadgets. “We could provide data he was craving,” Janssen says. Surfers always want forecasts, but wave forecasts from weather services such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are notoriously sketchy. Instead, Washburn and his fellow surfers tended to rely on “famously witch doctory stuff,” Washburn says, such as watching clouds. But with a Sofar spotter deployed just outside the surf break, he could get minute-by-minute figures on swell size, interval, wind, sea surface temperature, acoustics. Janssen offered data to Washburn, and in return Washburn offered his own reflections to the scientist, who found the surfer had insights that data didn’t cover.

“Surfers I think are unique in that they're tying the science back to the physical experience of humans,” Janssen says of their exchanges.

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One surprising insight Washburn offered was an exact swell dynamic that makes for the best wave at Mavericks. It comes from around the Farallon Islands. At first that didn’t make much sense to Janssen. The Farallons are not very big, and they’re nowhere near Mavericks. “They’re considerably removed, enough to where you think, ‘Well, should you really be able to notice it?’ ” Janssen says. But what Washburn intuitively felt in the water was the impact “refraction” has on Mavericks. A wave bends just like a ray of light. A swell that angles off the Farallons and radiates toward Mavericks creates a wave that “convexes into a wedge and piles in just like a magnifying glass,” according to Washburn. When Janssen studied it, he saw the Farallons indeed funneled waves to a specific spot of underwater topography at Mavericks that concentrated more wave energy.

“He can describe it in great detail, which is something I didn’t expect, and it was really interesting,” Janssen says.

Washburn in turn is fascinated by the stream of info from buoys, which help him understand conditions that will make for a ridable surf day — or a dangerous one. Anticipation is key to a safe experience. One day, unforeseen rogue sets from an Asian typhoon caught the best big-wavers in the world off guard, causing horrendous wipeouts that “look like someone blew up a garage next to me, with pieces of boards and all this flotsam in the water,” Washburn says, necessitating rescues. Washburn was able to capture it by syncing the Sofar buoy readings with time-stamped videos from GoPros attached to surfers’ boards.

But neither the buoys nor Washburn’s senses can predict exactly how Mavericks will be affected if the recent extreme weather patterns continue. The violence of the weather patterns made Mavericks unridable for much of this winter. It’s just “too angry,” in the words of one surfer.

Normally big storms mean big waves. But the surfability of Mavericks depends not only on the direction of swells but on some orderliness to them — which is destroyed by swirling seas or shifting winds. “It’s kind of a weird setup where you want a storm but not right on you,” Washburn says. Mavericks has seen “some of the biggest waves that I think we ever recorded,” Washburn observes. “But we couldn’t surf them.”

Rising sea levels can also have a flattening, wave-killing effect on the surf break. Mavericks forms so far out that coastal erosion doesn’t directly affect it — the 5 million-year-old paleo seabed “won’t break apart within our species lifetime, let alone my lifetime,” Washburn says. But when atmospheric rivers coincide with King tides and higher sea levels, it makes Mavericks’ reef deeper. “And, basically, you’ll have a different dynamic,” Janssen says.

A Mavericks wave is very much a function of bathymetry: Its jagged shoals get rapidly more shallow, going from a depth of 100 feet to 20 feet, which is what makes that thick, sneering lip jack up. But if the water gets too deep, the swell can’t “feel” the bottom of the seabed and there simply won’t be a wave. “Good surf is there because its rocky outcrops are at a certain depth,” geologist Hapke says.

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Add in floods, which have poured shattered timber and toxic garbage into those rising tides, making turbidity an issue. The floods are exacerbated by runoff from heavy snow in the Sierras, giving Washburn flashbacks to the nor’easters of New England in his youth; he fled to California to get away from them. “When the toilets ice over, I’m out of here,” he observes wryly.

Surfers habitually look ahead and behind the weather, trying to see what’s coming. What Washburn knows without a sensor is that this has been a “terrible” Mavericks season, he says, maybe the worst in his memory.

Still, in between the storms there have been a handful of ridable days. On one of them, Washburn takes a younger man along with him, KC Deane, an actor-model and veteran extreme athlete who had always wanted to experience Mavericks. On this day, Deane catches his first wave at the legendary break. “It’s like always seeing pictures of the Statue of Liberty,” Deane says, “and then standing next to it.”

For hours, the waves rear up with white flying manes. The surfers look impossibly small as they skitter down the faces of ­20-foot collapsing walls of water. After a while, as the sun begins to sink, they come slowly paddling back in to shore, and you realize they aren’t small after all. Mavericks requires a strong build — Washburn is 6-foot-5 with a barrel chest blown wide from fighting all that heavy water.

The water wins, as it always does. Emerging from it, Washburn looks happy but also utterly exhausted, as though his entire life force has been drained. He walks slowly along the Jurassic cliff; behind him, the deep water gods continue their epochal pounding.