In the decades since, big wave riding has evolved tremendously with superior surfboards, better-conditioned athletes and personal watercraft that started towing surfers into mountainous waves. Holding a towrope and already foot-strapped and standing, surfers were being whipped by jet skis into waves once thought too big to paddle into. The last decade saw a quantum leap in monster-size waves being ridden at places like Cortes Bank, (an underwater mountain peak 100 miles out to sea off Point Loma that can easily handle 75-foot waves) and Mavericks near Half Moon Bay.
Lessons learned from a few years of tow-ins on these giant waves started motivating a select group of surfers to pursue a more purist form of surfing, using only their paddling strength to launch into these behemoth swells. Emboldened surfers have, of late, been successfully catching and riding monster waves, which, five years ago, were accessed strictly by tow-ins.
Derek Dunfee is one of these big wave-riding purists. The 30-year-old professional surfer grew up at Windansea Beach and still lives there today. He developed a taste for thick, powerful waves riding the reefs of La Jolla and then tackling the giant surf off the Isla de Todos Santos near Ensenada. He first surfed at Half Moon Bay’s Mavericks in November 2004.
A winter break off Pillar Point near the village of Princeton-by-the-Sea, Mavericks was named in 1961 after a surfer’s German shepherd that routinely followed his master into the break. A quarter-mile offshore, the wave doesn’t even begin to break unless the swells are solidly over 10 feet and the location can easily hold waves with 40-foot-plus faces.
The water is cold, and the wave rises up and pitches out with incredible power delivering major punishment to the surfer who doesn’t successfully make the elevator drop-in. Brutal underwater hold-downs are guaranteed after a wipe out and giant rocks await if one is swept inside. Two world-class big wave riders — Mark Foo and Sion Milosky — have died after wiping out and drowning at Mavericks.
“I thought Mavericks was the scariest wave I had ever seen,” recalls Dunfee about his first time paddling out. He paid some heavy dues there and in other big-wave locations culminating in a Billabong XXL Monster Paddle Award in 2009 for a beast of a wave he caught and rode at Mavericks.
On Jan. 20, the Mavericks Invitational big wave-riding competition was held for the first time since 2010, during which a rogue wave unexpectedly rolled far onshore, knocking down and injuring dozens of spectators who were swept along the steep cliff beach by a flood of water.
Dunfee was selected as an alternate to compete in this year’s event. It’s a prestigious honor to be invited, and though a spot didn’t open up for him during the contest, he was on hand to tackle the waves before and after the event.
“I rode a 10-foot Stu Kenson-shaped board and the conditions were perfect, although very inconsistent,” he said.
The waves were in the 12- to 15-foot range, with sunny skies and a light wind. The beach was closed for spectators after the wave carnage of 2010, but a nearby festival was held in Princeton with a live, big-screen feed being aired for the thousands who showed up to watch the spectacle, and to watch 43-year-old Mavericks veteran Peter Mel win this year’s event.
“Peter Mel is one of the best Mavericks surfers ever,” Dunfee said afterward. “He still catches huge waves every swell and he deserved the win.”
Dunfee is now waiting for the last few big swells of the winter at home in La Jolla, and he hopes to score some size at Isla de Todos Santos, as well. He is an alternate at Waimea Bay’s annual The Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau big-wave competition on Oahu’s North Shore. Known as “The Eddie,” the prestigious event is held only when the waves are consistently in the 20- to 25-foot range.
In the meantime, Dunfee watches the weather charts, studies the swell forecasts and takes out a Pat Curren-shaped big wave board for some rides at the local La Jolla reefs when the surf gets big enough. Curren — father of surfing icon Tom Curren and a big wave-riding pioneer in the 1950s — cut his teeth on the punchy waves off La Jolla, much like Dunfee, who is proud to be part of the new generation of committed big wave surfers, pushing the edge of skill to new limits and loving every minute of it.