"The Surfer, The Scientist And The Big-Wave Beach At A Breaking Point"

"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.”

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."

Columnist Sally Jenkins reports for the Washington Post March 22, 2023.

Source: Washington Post, 03/24/2023