Jamie Mitchell took a few deep breaths, then composed himself before looking into the camera.
“It’s a whole other level today,” he said to more than 1,000 viewers tuning in to Surfline’s livestream on Instagram on Sunday afternoon. A few hundred feet from where Mitchell sat on his JetSki, Mavericks, with all its dark and foreboding energy, detonated onto the reef.
Mitchell, a professional surfer from Australia, had resurfaced after a serious wipeout and then was swept through the rock garden a few hundred yards away before being rescued by the water safety team. It was that kind of day for some of the world’s best big-wave surfers who descended on the Coastside break for a day they won’t soon forget.
The first week of 2021 brought remarkably consistent northwest swell to California, so surfers have been going out to Mavericks almost every day since New Year’s Eve. Sunday marked an especially significant day in many surfers’ eyes due to the swell’s significant size and clean conditions. There were reports of 50- to 60-foot faces breaking by the afternoon.
Compared to notable days last month, those present on Sunday saw bigger wipeouts, fewer people and more tow-in waves as both the swell and wind increased throughout the day. That made paddling in on a prone-board more difficult.
Light winds kept the waves relatively smooth for most of the day, but surfers said the swell’s energy was so powerful that conditions were hazardous and difficult. The National Weather Service issued a High Surf Warning through 9 p.m. on Sunday. Buoy reports indicated large west swells of 12 to 14 feet were coming in at a 21-second period.
“There was a 10- to 15-(foot) wave set that broke so far out on the fourth reef that it was literally like a hurricane surge of water moving down the coastline,” said Tim West Jr., a longtime local Mavericks surfer and water safety volunteer. “It took about an hour for the water to settle back to normal.”
West couldn’t recall a more consistent run of surf at Mavericks since December 1994, which would be known as the “Week of the Peak” in surfing circles. That is when Jay Moriarty had the famous “Iron Cross” wipeout and Mark Foo died at the break a few days later.
“That was a week and a half of perfect Mavericks, with four to five different swells,” West said. “I think this one is more consistent. And with the level of surfing now at Mavericks, it’s a Week of the Peak on steroids.”
Jason Stark, a California State Parks lifeguard and Half Moon Bay High
School Surf Team coach, said he was stunned there “wasn’t a bucket of water out of place” when he first arrived on Sunday. Stark noted that for the past two months he and many other surfers have been able to enjoy Mavericks because of the unusual consistency of swells. But he also explained that it’s been a whirlwind dealing with the swell while also
juggling work and family commitments over the holidays.
Stark, who has surfed Mavericks for more than 15 years, paddled into two waves before breaking his board. He said that even some of the most committed surfers were having second thoughts on a few of the bigger sets.
“When you have a swell that big, with a 19 to 20 second interval, it just commands respect,” Stark said. “It was one of those three-year swells, and we’ve already had two of them.”
Sunday was full of amazing moments, including rides from two-time Mavericks contest champion Grant “Twiggy” Baker; Hawaiian Kai Lenny; Justine Dupont, of France; Manny Resano, of Argentina; and El Granada’s own Luca Padua. But it was hardly the only day that stood out this month.
On Friday, Santa Cruz’s Peter Mel paddled into what many people, both in the water and on social media, labeled as “the best Mavericks wave ever.” The swell was slightly smaller than Sunday’s spectacle, and while Mel’s wave was far from the biggest ever, his immaculate positioning, timing and wave selection stunned the assembled crowd. Mel expertly maneuvered himself to the wave’s most critical position and came out clean, marking one of those rare moments when all the elements of experience and skill aligned.
Mavericks surfers will tell you it’s extremely unusual to get “barreled” there, due to the wave’s angle, size and speed. To pull into the most dangerous section of the wave is equivalent to putting oneself into the eye of a hurricane. To come out clean, and not get caught by the descending liquid guillotine, is exceedingly rare at Mavericks.
The 51-year-old Mel has been a stalwart presence at Mavericks since the 1990s and won the 2013 Mavericks surf contest. He earned
applause immediately after his ride and kudos online in the hours afterward. Colin Dwyer, of Pacifica, another
seasoned Mavericks surfer for more than a decade, praised Mel’s “wave of a lifetime” on Instagram and called the ride “surfing’s equivalent of landing on the moon.”
— August Howell