When you think of Mavericks, you likely picture guys like Pete Mel and Grant ‘Twiggy’ Baker tackling oversized, dark, terror-inducing righthanders. But if you paid any attention to the last massive run of Mavs swell, you surely raised eyebrows at the cavernously-hollow lefts being tackled by intrepid youngsters like Lucas Chumbo or Nic Von Rupp (pictured above).
Guys have surfed the Mavs left in the past, of course–remember the Chris Malloy SURFER cover from 1997?–but most people have their reasons for staying the hell away from that side of the peak. The left at Mavs requires a much more critical drop–not an easy endeavor while riding an over 9-foot gun–and if you don’t make the wave, you’re liable to be caught inside and mowed down by all kinds of walls of doom. But over the years, several lunatics have eyed that dangerous left, trying to push the boundaries of what is possible at Mavs and reinventing what a typical “good” wave might look like at the famed big-wave spot.
After seeing the most recent moments of heroism and carnage from the back-to-back swells in December, we asked perennial Mavs maestro Pete Mel about the mystifying Mavericks left, why guys tend to stay away from it and how this new crop of progressive big-wave surfers just might change the game at Half Moon Bay for good.
The surfy masses primarily think of Mavs as a right, and besides a handful over the years, it’s hard to think of many memorable lefts ridden. Can you tell us a bit about the history of the Mavs left?
Jeff Clark was the original surfer out there when he was a youngster, and as a goofyfoot he went out and rode the left first. So the first waves ridden there were actually lefts. He started surfing it more and realized that when it got bigger, it was harder to go on the left. So he ended up going right and he realized he needed to go frontside, so he switched stance, and now he can go both directions.
That’s crazy. But when you guys started surfing it in the ’90s, you more or less always saw it as a right, correct?
Absolutely. Obviously we'd look at the left, but what happens is it gets to a certain size and then the left becomes something unapproachable because it gets so steep, it's so hard to make the drop. You have to commit to the other side of the peak in order to even make the wave and that's a very brave statement. As soon as it gets a real 20 feet, that left becomes something that's very, very hard to make as a wave and the repercussions of it if you fall are much worse.
I assume you get put in a worse spot falling inside the left than the right.
If you don't make it, you're in the impact zone of the wave and you won't be able to escape around the left. You usually get pushed into the right, and you're going to take more waves on the head and you're more apt to go on the rocks. But guys are going to realize what the best angle is to go left at a smaller size and then will just start doing it when it’s bigger and bigger. I'm sure this new group is going to the one able to do it when it gets above 20 feet.
The fact that these younger guys are even looking at the lefts on bigger days is crazy, considering how they basically have to backdoor it on takeoff, right?
Yeah, the takeoff zone is pretty similar to any big A-frame. Everyone is sitting in the same spot which makes traffic at the peak a little bit different now with the left becoming more of an option, and with 20, 25 of the best big-wave riders in the world looking at every wave. We're going to have to start treating it like Lowers [laughs]. The only really inroad to the left when it gets 20 feet is to be on the other side of the peak. So you're going to see people looking at the same wave sitting in the same spot, whether you're going left or right. Makes for a challenging lineup.
What do you think it will take to see more of that progression with guys pushing it further on the left?
Well if you look at this last swell specifically—Monday, nobody went left, maybe there was one little attempt on the big day, but in reality, everyone was looking at the right. When it’s 20, 25 feet, people are still mostly focusing directly on the right and it's very difficult to go left. But on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, it was like 15 to 18 foot and was a very good swell size for guys to go left, and that's why you saw more of it. If it were a 20-foot day all 4 days, I'd say you only would have had a handful of lefts ridden, but because it was kind of that approachable size, there was a lot and guys were trying to figure it out. But it's a start, and that's how progression works. Guys start figuring out the lines that need to be drawn and then you can go bigger from there. Especially after they got the taste of it—now they're licking their chops [laugh]. So I expect on the bigger days, even when the event runs, guys are going to be looking at those lefts as more of an option. And the guys that are already doing it are at a huge advantage, at least for the contest part of it. I mean, Lucas and Nic are the ones that are focusing on it and even the backhanders like Torrey [Meister] were looking at it.
Do you think with guys eyeing the left more, that’ll open up more days and opportunities to surf Mavs–whereas in the past guys were looking primarily at conditions and swell angles that are best for the right?
I could see maybe more of the guys making an effort to go and show up on days that maybe aren't as big or they know the tide is going to be low enough that the left will be breaking. But the angle of swell is something that plays a role. A more northerly angle swell, the lefts seem to be a bit hollower. So if guys know all these things, I think that's when progression will happen.
You always hear big-wave surfers saying that progression happens in smaller waves so much faster because you can surf small waves all the time and try new things, but in big-wave surfing, guys only have a handful of days to try new things–or go left at Mavericks, for example.
Exactly. Progression is going to be slow because you're surfing big waves 10 times a year. Back in ’92—the year that Jay Moriarty had his crazy wipeout—Mavericks broke five day straight. That whole week, everybody surfed every single day and that was one of the more progressive times in big-wave surfing in my eyes because we were able to surf Mavericks a lot. With this last swell, we got four days straight so people got more and more comfortable. Every time you go out there it feels like your first time and you just have to get used to it and warm up. But if you're able to surf it every day you're able to surf new boards and that stuff helps progression in a huge way.
So the Mavericks event will be back on this year. It obviously depends on the conditions, but I assume competitors will be trying to go left—how do you think the right and the left will be scored differently?
That's something that has to be discussed with the judging panel. It's a different type of wave and you'll still have the same criteria whether they go left or right, but ultimately biggest wave is part of the criteria and since you'll be sacrificing size going left, that's where you start thinking about the degree of difficulty for that wave. It's a question mark for me.
It'll be interesting to see how the judges compare the ride of someone who gets a huge right and just goes down the face of the wave with someone else who nails a really technical drop or tube on a smaller left.
Yeah, if it’s over 20 feet, you'll see that there will be distinct differences. Because in order to get the lefts, the waves are going to have to be a little bit smaller, but they might be very critical waves. So where will the judges stand if a surfer got this nice beautiful, fairly-easy drop on a 25-foot wave compared to a very critical drop on an 18-foot wave? And those are questions that have to be answered pre-event. Maybe I'll raise my hand and ask that question [laughs].