The new film Chasing Mavericks—starring Gerard Butler—is based on the true story of Frosty Hesson, a grizzled surfer who turns protégé Jay Moriarity into a world-class wave rider. Now, only on Zola, comes Hesson’s companion memoir Making Mavericks, a gripping account of friendship and adventure.
From a photographer’s perspective, it’s a one in ten million shot. The wave itself, the offshore winds, the lighting, the angle the photographer was at in relationship to the board—and sixteen-year-old Jay Moriarity’s arms sticking out with a Christ-like effect as he plunges face-first from the crest of a fifty-foot monster. That’s the photo that made the cover of Surfer magazine and was in The New York Times. It’s an incredible statement.
It’s also an incredible testament to a monumentally jackass move on Jay’s part.
It was late December 1994, and everyone who surfed Mavericks had been studying weather patterns for days. By then, Mavericks—a break twenty-five miles south of San Francisco and a half-mile off the coast—was becoming recognized as a legitimate, world-class wave. Some of the Waimea surfers had vouched for it, and they’d started showing up to surf it whenever a great swell was predicted. But it was still largely unknown outside the big wave surfing community.
A notable series of storm systems that produced large waves for an unusually long, consistent period of time seemed to be coming our way. I was going to miss out on it because my back injury was acting up again, but Jay could surf Mavericks on his own now, so I knew there was no way he’d skip any part of it.
I made sure to give Jay my last-minute advice before the system hit. I spoke with him the night before and the morning of, telling him the same thing both times: Hit the beach early to gather all the information that keeps you from being tempted to go out in conditions that are very difficult to deal with.
I call it the agreement: Make your agreements before you become emotionally involved, because you don’t make good decisions when you’re emotionally involved.
With Mavericks, the agreement means you won’t be paddling out when the offshore winds are too strong, delaying your kickoff time in the morning.
I was driving back from work that afternoon when a friend flagged me down on a back road and told me that Jay had nearly been killed at Mavericks. At first, all he said was, “Did you hear about Jay?”
That could’ve meant anything, but I still caught my breath. Then I said slowly, “No. What about Jay?”
“He’s okay,” my friend said. “But he wiped out at Mavs. It was horrific.”
Since I knew that Bob Barbour had been at Mavericks shooting for Surfer, I drove out to his place and waited for him to develop the pictures so I could see for myself what had happened. As soon as I saw the shots, I knew Jay had ignored my advice. In the sequence of photos, you can see from the way the wave ledged up that the offshore winds had been much too strong to surf in. Jay did everything almost right—except the main thing, which was not to surf until the wind died down.
Sure, I was pissed because he didn’t follow the agreement, but I wasn’t about to indulge my emotions because then I would become unthinking, and that wasn’t going to help Jay succeed. Even if I did love him like a son, it wasn’t my place as a coach to let my feelings affect his training.
He’d be out surfing until late, I knew, so I just waited for him to call me that night and we’d talk through what had happened.
“I had a great day” was the first thing he said. “Did you hear?”
“I heard,” I said. “But it wasn’t all great. What happened?”
He told me he’d gone out in Bob’s boat just before sunrise to save himself the time and energy of paddling out. The fierce offshore winds should have told Jay that it wasn’t the right time, but he jumped in the water anyway and joined some guys who were already out.
I had told him what would happen if he went out before those offshores settled down, which was that the wind gets underneath the board and causes a kiting effect, and that the stronger that wind is the harder it is to keep the nose down and penetrate through the wave.
But this fifty-footer presented itself and Jay just went for it. He was all full of enthusiasm. “I came here to slay dragons, and here’s a dragon, and I’m gonna go.”
He said, “Frost, I had to go. It was there. I started paddling, felt the wind get under the board and start to kite but I was already in—there was nothing else I could do. I stood up and right there I knew I was screwed. Then I just dropped and freefell a really long way. I knew what was coming, the rest of the wave was going to follow me down. Frost, the leash snapped! I went all the way to the bottom!”
Going all the way to the bottom—the pictures hadn’t shown me that.
“I grabbed a good breath,” Jay went on, “rolled up in a ball and suddenly I was on the bottom and I was just thinking, ‘I don’t recall hearing about anyone being on the bottom before. That’s new.’ I’m doing all the things we had talked about. It was like you said. I just waited. At some point, though, I’d been waiting a really long time.”
“I had to go up,” Jay told me. “But I knew I couldn’t force it, so I had to be cool and just tell myself, ‘This is it. Whatever happens, happens.’ When the wave finally passed, I still had enough air left to swim up to the surface because I hadn’t freaked out.”
I could hear in his voice that he was proud of himself. His first move had been a poor judgment call, but after that the training kicked in—the biking while holding his breath, the countless essays, the endless evaluations and, especially, the mental and emotional work. It took a special kind of person to survive that hold-down.
“I swam over to the boat,” he said, “took off my leash and asked Bob to toss me another board. Bob looked at me like, ‘Are you nuts?’ Then he just said, ‘Yeah, sure,’ and passed it over. I took my place in the lineup and everyone just looked and they were like, ‘Dude, wow.’ Another wave came and I stroked into it. The wind had died down and it was game on. I was good to go for hours.”
That same set, a truly well-known and established big wave surfer had taken a fall and came up bleeding from a punctured eardrum. That guy was done for the day. And here was Jay having a stellar day after an even uglier crash. He was just putting on a tremendous performance while everyone was asking, “Who is this kid?”