An excerpt from The Fear Project, a new book that explores our most primal emotion
By Jaimal Yogis
Surfline’s California Surf Guide reads: MAVERICKS
Best Size: Triple-overhead to 80-foot faces.
Ability Level: Nothing short of Flea, Laird, or Neptune (Flea and Laird being two of the best big-wave surfers in the world; Neptune being a god.)
Hazards: Death by drowning, sharks, run over by a whale, run over by a PWC, a trip through the rocks, hypothermia, broken boards, ego deflation.
Why did I open that book? I knew all this. The waves at Ocean Beach outside my window look like they could take down a cruise-liner. But seeing the dangers in print changes things. I trip and fumble as I walk around the house, wiping counters that don’t need wiping. I don’t eat. I find myself feverishly tossing an apple and a loaf of bread into a paper bag and loading it into the truck with the rest of my gear: the 9-foot-8-inch Mavs gun, the 15-foot big-wave leash, the 5- millimeter wetsuit, booties, wax, sunscreen, water, towel. I check and double-check that I have everything but still feel vulnerable, exposed. Something must be missing.
Music, music will help, I’m thinking—something to calm me down. Here we go, the Felice Brothers, a favorite. But the normally soothing sounds are grating. Darwin comes to mind: “When fear reaches an extreme pitch…the mental powers fail.” I shut off the stereo, try to breathe. Fresh air. Salt air. That’s what I need.
It’s exciting on the road, views of these diabolical swells exploding against the craggy coast. There are even moments when I laugh out loud, feeling like Don Quixote chasing windmills. Oh life! But the pendulum sways back so rapidly: faith, fear. Lightness, dark.
You can’t follow the expansion and contraction, I tell myself. You’ve made a decision, a commitment, and you’re going forward: forward over Skyline Boulevard, forward through Pacifica with its perpetual gray 1950s funk, forward through the grove of eucalyptus, forward around the misty cliffs, hundreds of feet above the dark blue sea. The waves don’t look so abnormally large from up here and this is better, this view from above. “Everything looks perfect from far away,” I hum. But then comes the view of Gray Whale Cove, the massive warbled wall of water stretching across the bay. I see it as a stampede of elephants and envision myself trampled underneath by those leathery feet. Splat, splat, splat!
Forward past the Half Moon Bay airstrip, onto Princeton Drive, past the fishing boats, and into the dirt parking lot brimming with tourists and surfers’ trucks. I park next to a bearded man in a Subaru wagon with a green kayak strapped to the top. He rolls down his window. “About ten guys out at Mavs,” he says with a mischievous grin.
“You go out?” I ask.
“Nah,” the man says. “I don’t go out there. I know what can happen.” He speeds off in a cloud of dust.
A silver Tacoma rumbles into the slot next to me with two surfers, one with a mop of bleached blond hair. I recognize the blond—baggy sweatpants, a fluorescent mesh hat—as Ryan Augenstein, a pro surfer who competes in the annual Mavericks contest. “Hellman,” he is often called in the surf media. Augenstein looks casual, like he is going out to breakfast. I envy him.
“How’s it look?” he asks me.
“I haven’t seen it,” I say, “but I hear it’s supposed to bump up this afternoon.” I say this with false confidence, as if I think it is a good thing that waves are supposed to get bigger. In truth, I want them small, as small as possible for Mavericks to break at all. “That’d be good,” Augenstein says. “That’d be reeeeal nice.” An SUV full of men who look like they could be the Rolling Stones’ bodyguards—tatted up, black sunglasses, arms like lumber— pulls into the parking lot. Behind the wheel is Jeff Clark—the Jeff Clark who discovered these waves, whom I’ve only seen before in big, high-production surf movies. Clark knows Augenstein, of course. These are the gatekeepers, the Michael Jordans and Joe Montanas. They crack jokes and sip coffee, and Clark says, “The Half Moon Bay buoy’s going crazy. It just hit 18 feet at 16 seconds.” This means the wave faces may be around 40 feet.
What. In the hell. Am I doing here?
I push forward, walking past the lagoon, the reddened cliff, past the couple holding hands and asking—“This is where the Maverick happens?”—past sailboats in the harbor. I’m on the sand now and looking west and I can see the rock garden, “the boneyard,” as it’s called, the black teeth I’ve watched men pinned to by walls of white water in surf movies, battered like rag dolls. The foam explodes against these stones. The sea is angry.
Unlike Ocean Beach, the paddle out won’t be hard. The simultaneous beauty and deception of Mavericks is that there is a deep-water channel running south of the reef, allowing surfers to literally paddle out on peaceful flat ocean, then approach the takeoff zone between set waves from the side, often still with dry hair. I recently learned the safest paddle-out route from my friend Danny Hess, a longtime Mavericks surfer who also designed my board: south through the lagoon toward mushroom rock—“the one that looks like a mushroom”—then a right turn between the mushroom and the most southerly rock outcropping, and finally a half-mile beeline west until you run into the patch of other surfers waiting for waves. (Mavericks has become a pilgrimage site for any serious big-wave surfer so there is almost always a competitive crew.) Following these directions, though simple, gives me a sense of being prepared, not to mention occupying my modern brain so it doesn’t run ahead with its usual disaster scenarios.
A blue October sky above, with each stroke toward Mavericks, I feel lighter. Dr. Lardon’s technique of a “positive anchoring thought” comes to mind too, and I start chanting in my head as I paddle: “I do this every day. I do this every day” to keep the confidence flowing. Much as a little caffeine before a running race can increase performance—but too much can be detrimental—Lardon told me that a light fear response can give energy and increase focus and reaction time, but the longer fear endures and the larger fear grows, the more it stifles athletic flow.
The anchoring thoughts, the smooth ocean, the movement: They all seem to be working to put me in a reasonable balance of faith and fear. But when I finally make it out far enough to see the pack, my stomach knots. There are maybe 15 of them, floating near a patch of kelp, practically shoulder to shoulder. People had told me that the takeoff zone was small at Mavericks, but I had no idea I’d be practically holding hands with them.
This may not sound like a big deal, but it is. Surfers are not always the laid-back dudes they’re often cast as in the movies, and the more coveted a wave is, the more difficult it is to make inroads with the local protectors. I’ve witnessed far too many fights in the surfing world to think newcomers are welcome anywhere. I suppose you could compare the feeling of approaching a new elite break to being a fresh walk-on in a heated pickup basketball game. But missing your shots on even the toughest court is just embarrassing. Lose control of your sharp 20-pound board in the wrong place at Mavericks and you could seriously injure someone, or worse.
I know a handful of Mavericks surfers from my neighborhood, but as I get closer, I realize none of the guys out today have any clue who I am. For all they know, I’m one of the annual neophytes who turns up after a few years of surfing with something to prove and ends up leaving via jet-ski rescue or a medevac. And the way my gut is tying itself in knots, I feel like I might be.
I paddle to the south of the pack, safely in the channel, deciding to watch for a while and avoiding eye contact so as to hide my nausea. It’s deceptively flat out here between sets, almost calm. The sun is shining. Harbor seals poke their mischievous whiskers up. But when a wave finally comes, the tone changes.
When the first green wall—tall as a four-story building— marches off the horizon and pushes onto the reef, the base of the wave—the cauldron, as it’s called—drops below sea level, sucking in its gut. It would be one thing if Mavericks were just an exceedingly tall wave that rolled in and crumbled onto sand. It doesn’t. The deep-ocean surge collides so suddenly with the jutting stone reef that the wave becomes as thick as it is tall, driving forward like some angered aqueous rhino.
There is the hook as the swell boosts to full height, and then that weightless, eerie quiet as the lip falls toward the sea. When the lip connects, forming a vapid core as big as the Holland Tunnel, the explosion of white blows higher than the wave itself, 40 feet up, and the sound, Jesus—an explosion.
Nobody catches this wave, and I feel glad about this. Nobody should be getting near that whole situation. And I should definitely go back before anyone sees my ghostly frightened face. But behind this monster there’s another monster, and a surfer is going. I recognize his paddle and his wetsuit. It’s Alex Martins, one of the Mavericks competitors who occasionally fixes my boards at his San Francisco shop. I feel simultaneous relief that I know someone in the lineup (maybe I’m not a total outsider) and worry. I feel like calling out to Alex—don’t do it! The wave looks like it will simply consume him or slingshot him to the moon. But Alex pops to his feet quickly, up early, before the wave goes vertical, composed even as he rides down, down, down, an ant against the green swell.
Oh dear God that looks awful. But something also just shifted in my brain, something deep in that social structure part. I know Alex. Alex is human. I am human. I have dreamed of doing this from the age of 12. People do this. I can do this.
I paddle closer to the pack, nodding and trying to look manly and confident. Nobody acknowledges me. The other faces are familiar only through surf media: Flea, Grant Washburn, Tyler Smith, Skindog. I wish Doc was here. These are all my comic book superheroes! Flipping hell, how did I end up in a surfing movie?
My strategy, if I’m really going to do this (and I’m still not sure I am) is to move slowly. Sit here on the shoulder of the pack and watch. Learn exactly what to do. More importantly—what not to do. I’m not going to try to be a hero. I tell this to my ego firmly. Know your place.
And so the minutes pass, the minutes turning to strange, trancelike hours of watching, hours of gradually moving deeper into the path of the beast, hours of hedging, second-guessing. I try to cheat inside and paddle for the smaller sets—small, meaning, oh, just a few giraffes high—but at the top, I’m looking over the edge of a cliff as it crumbles. Everything in me wants out and back and away. All I can think is that this is where fear makes sense. Mark Foo died on day just like this, his body floating in a lagoon after catching an edge on an 18 footer. Mark Foo, who never came back—never.
But I’ve trained for this. The statistics are on my side, I tell myself: thousands of waves ridden by humans just like me, without incident. You must push past instinct. This is the greatest of human feats. This is philosophy, science. This is—
Oh, mother f—
A rampart of green almost twice as big as anything that has yet come, far outside, has eclipsed the sky. It’s a freak set, a rogue. And so the mayhem begins, the herd mentality. Everyone scraping for the horizon. The wall is coming closer, a dreadful malice in its wedge. It grows and grows, high high above us, and I feel it so clearly, more clearly than ever: that will to live that isn’t even part of consciousness. It’s something in your bones. I’ve never paddled so hard. The men ahead of me look like minnows leaping up the falls, just barely scooting over the crest. Most make it over, but it’s too late for me. I’m in the dragon’s shadow now.
Automatically, I fling my board forward and dive down into the pocket, trying to get under. Diving deep, deep, into the murk, hoping, praying and—what’s this? I’m somehow suddenly through. I breathe air, but just when I think I’m safe, I feel the tug, the slurping at my toes. My board is caught in the vortex and the leash, Velcroed to my ankle, is yanking me down. One last gulp of air, and—
I’m under, pulled deep, deeper than I’ve ever been before. The green murk turns to black, and for the first time I can understand why Mavericks surfers have always said that you don’t know which way is up when you get pushed this far to the bottom. I take a guess and swim: one stroke, two, three four. The light must be around here somewhere. Please, please, lighter, lighter, and—inhale. Yes.
On the horizon, the next wave, equally ugly, impossibly high, is plunging down. An avalanche of foam mows me down and I’m back into blackness: punched, kicked, splayed, held under again. I completely forget to relax and there is simply no way I would. I’m gagging for air, again with no sense of direction. Where the hell is the surface?
I’m not sure how long I’m down, but eventually the water seems to push me up. I seem to have no say in the matter. The ocean just decided. I start flailing for the safety of the channel, thanking God and wondering, once again, what I’m doing out here. A couple of men lost their boards on that wave and they’re swimming in. It’s as if the enemy just tossed a grenade into our fortress. Now the recovery, the cleanup.
Catching my breath in the channel, I contemplate going in. That was not cool. Not cool at all. But once I see that everyone miraculously survived (including myself), another shift occurs. I have genuine information now. The horrible unknown—What will it be like to get smashed by a four-story wave?—is now demystified.
I’m tired and hungry. I’ve been out at Mavericks for 4 or 5 hours since those dramatic rogue sets rolled through and I haven’t caught a wave. Though nobody has said anything, and Alex is nice enough to chat with me, I’m quite sure most of the world-class lineup thinks I’m in the way. Part of me would like to just go in and head home. I survived being crushed by a massive wave at Mavericks. Isn’t that enough for one day? But the truth is, I have physical energy left. My real fatigue goes deeper. What I’m really tired of is hedging, doubting, feeling like I don’t belong,
This whole time, I’ve been waiting for that perfect fearless state to come first, a point where it miraculously feels right to paddle down a skyscraper of saltwater. Like avoiding pain, I’ve been shifting this way and that way around fear, never turning toward it, never embracing it. I’ve been seeing fear as a harbinger of all things bad: a reason I’m not worthy of being here (look how calm the other guys are), a reason I won’t perform well, a reason I shouldn’t trust my training. But the fact is the fear is not going to leave, not before I know in every fiber of my being that I can do this. And despite the fact that these other Mavericks surfers seem like superheroes, 99 percent of them felt just like I do now the first time they were out here.
I’m not in any peaceful, meditative state. In fact, after hours of botching opportunities, I’m incredibly agitated. But bobbing in the light onshore breeze, I take a few deep breaths and feel a renewed vigor in this realization. Just let the fear be there, I tell myself. Don’t run from it. Don’t identify with it. Don’t fight it.
I’m a little hesitant to call what happens next a surrender or letting go. It’s not the usual relax and just be kind of surrender that I’ve felt on retreat either. It’s a more primal surrender to whatever outcome—even, yes, death—and a simultaneous sharpening of the senses, a readiness to fight. Instead of feeling weaker by embracing fear, I’m flooded with a surge of power.
I let a few sets go by, breathing fully and deeply, collecting my energy, focusing. All day, I’ve felt like I couldn’t get into position. I always seemed to be just a little too far to the left or right or outside. But as soon as this mental shift comes, I’m finally, almost magically, in position. The wave is coming right to me, too fast it seems, but I don’t care. Let it take me down if it must.
I turn my board toward land and paddle. Suddenly I’m on my feet looking over the mountain’s precipice, and when it boosts to full height, the whole ocean hiccups. The streams of foam pass underfoot while I scream down this wall so high above me it’s perfectly surreal. I look over my left shoulder at the houses of whitewater and they are just there, just houses of whitewater. Everything is big and beautiful and fast. I ride a football field of water, thinking nothing at all, the avalanche on my heels. The wave flattens, then reforms into a second frothy bowl. I drop down this ledge, half the size of the original and still far above me. It slingshots me forward with another burst of speed, and then, seeing the wave is going to close, I pull off the back, skimming and skimming and skimming across the flat sea.
Lying down on my board, there’s a moment before I snap out of my trance and realize what has just happened. There are a handful of peak moments of success I’ve had in my life—winning an award or a big game—memories I fall back on in times of insecurity. But pulling off the back of that first Mavericks wave, still standing, trumps them all. It’s as if that unhinged adolescent yearning to be part of the most elite pack, to explore the edges of my potential, has been building for 18 years, so often repressed because my critical, rational side saw it as shallow or juvenile. But the primal part of me couldn’t let go of it, and now all that pent up desire is releasing in a single burst of euphoria. I don’t know it yet, but for weeks, months, even years to come, the memory of this one wave, the raw joy, will permeate my life and alter it.
I paddle back to the lineup, an uncontrollable smile plastered to my face, everything around me seeming to pulse with ripeness and life. The sky, the clouds, the sea, they all have a heartbeat. The fear has dissolved. It will be back, of course, but for now, there is this moment when only faith remains. And I belong here. I belong here
Adapted from The Fear Project: What Our Most Primal Emotion Taught Me About Survival, Success, Surfing … and Love by Rodale © 2013 by Jaimal Yogis.
Jaimal Yogis is an author, journalist, and outdoorsman. Jaimal is currently working on a novel and another non-fiction book. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, Amy, and his son, Kai. See more of his work at JaimalYogis.com and www.fearproject.net