The Waves at Mavericks This Year Are Mindbogglingly Huge

Article by Kevin Stark KQED


image © Frank Quiarte


Every fall, Brian Garcia briefs officials across the Bay Area counties on the winter weather outlook, what he calls “my traveling road show.”

In San Mateo County, people always ask Garcia, a National Weather Service meteorologist, if the thundering, big-wave surf spot near Half Moon Bay known as Mavericks will break. (The famous Mavericks surf competition has been cancelled indefinitely).

Most years, he can only guess. This year, his answer was unequivocal: Yes.

And then some.





“Break to the degree that it has?” he said. “God, I never would have been able to predict this at all.”

Northern California surf spots are firing like crazy this winter, with beaches and reefs serving up a seemingly endless supply of pristine waves, from Big Sur to Santa Cruz, and along the Sonoma Coast and beyond.

Anyone in Northern California who has been near the Pacific Ocean in the last month knows that the surf is pumping from swell-after-swell-after-swell.

“It's been a long time since I've seen glassy, perfect big swells like this with no wind,” said Shawn Rhodes, a longtime Northern California surfer and owner of Nor Cal Surf Shop in Pacifica. “You never get it.”

At Mavericks, the waves rise as tall as apartment buildings and break so violently they can snap a surfboard like a toothpick. The break is only surfable under the right conditions; some years the right combination of swell, wind, and weather never materialize.

This year it did. Bianca Valenti, a San Francisco-based big wave surfer, says she paddled out to Mavericks nearly a dozen times in December and almost every single day of 2020 to date.

“It's been an epic run,” she said. “Mind-blowing. This is the best winter that I can remember, ever.”




The conditions were so good at Mavericks on Dec. 8 — big waves, sunshine, no wind — that Surfline dubbed it the “day of days.” Grant Washburn, who’s kept a daily journal of conditions at the spot for nearly three decades, told the surf-forecasting and news website it was the “best dawn-to-dusk paddle day ever at Mav's, ever.”

Valenti says the waves have been huge and perfect and the conditions drew dozens of surfers and a gallery of photographers.




“Whenever you would kick out of a wave, the whole group erupted,” she said. “The closest thing to a contest or a party since the pandemic began. Everyone was thrilled, it felt so good.”

On Jan. 10, the swell was even larger, the waves faster, cresting higher than 50 feet.

“Every time a wave broke, it was like hearing a nuclear weapon explode,” Valenti said. At other times, a monster wave would roll in and “the whole horizon would just go black — you start paddling as fast as you can towards the boats and pray you don’t get caught.”


She said a lot of people stayed off the waves that day "out of respect for the power. It being a local spot and knowing the reef paid off for me, and I actually caught five waves.”




Big wave surfer Kai Lenny, affixed a camera to his surfboard, and the footage is wild.

Santa Cruz local Peter Mel has been lighting up surf websites with highlight videos from Mavericks all winter; at 51, his performance on waves this big is all the more amazing.

A longtime big-wave charger and owner of the Freeline Surf Shop in Capitola, Mel surfed a wave just about perfectly on the day-of-days. A month later, he fell after being towed into a wave on a jet ski and took a pounding from several 25-foot waves. He described his pummeling to Surfline as “the most intense rag-dolling you could ever imagine … it’s pretty much the ocean just trying to rip you to pieces.”

A few days later, on Jan. 10, Mel paddled into another bomb, a wave he described as his best of all time, and which some dubbed the “wave of the decade.


“I’ve been seeing those types of waves my whole life, but I was never brave enough to do it,” he explained to Surfline afterwards. “I’m actually depressed right now … It’s like, ‘Oh my God. I’m 50 years old, did I just do that?’ But it’s like, ‘Now what? What do I look forward to now?’”

An employee at Mel’s shop said he wasn’t available for an interview. The reason?

“He’s back out at Mav’s again,” she said.

La Niña Brings the Swell

Surfers can in part thank La Niña, cold water on the surface of the Equatorial Pacific that affects weather across the globe, for the big waves, according to Garcia, the meteorologist.

This year’s La Niña has held a ridge of high pressure over California that has deflected storms that might normally have soaked the Bay Area to the north, pelting the Pacific Northwest with rain and snow instead.

Wind from the storms is driving swells south, like the wake behind a boat expanding outward and aiming the waves directly at the Northern California coast, Garcia said.

La Niña can worsen dry conditions and drought in the West, and that also seems to be the case in California this year. The Bay Area has received about a third of its average annual precipitation to date, while rain is dumped across places like Portland, Oregon.