March 9th, 2005. It will be remembered as the day Ghost Tree, the mysto deep-water break off Pebble Beach, California, went huge, perfect and nearly homicidal. And if personal watercraft (PWCs) are eventually banned in the Monterey Bay Sanctuary, tow-surfers may look back on March 9th as the most memorable day of a short-lived golden era.
At first light, Ghost Tree saw a 17-foot swell approaching from due west at 20-second intervals. Roughly two hours later, Don Curry, the man who named the wave, and his partner Ed Guzman rolled up on the channel just in time to watch a pair of 30-foot wave faces boom over the spot's infamous boneyard and into Stillwater Cove. Not far behind them were Adam Replogle and Alistair Craft.
After trading off on some mid-size sets with Craft, Curry caught a solid one with a face estimated at 45 feet, and Craft followed with one that was slightly larger. Then the set of the morning rolled through and Curry let go of the rope on a wave that was clearly 10 feet bigger than his last. Wrapped in the hangar-sized "barrel of a lifetime," photographers on hand captured images that placed Curry firmly in the running for the Billabong XXL Award.
Shortly thereafter, when a Coast Guard vessel showed up and lingered a few hundred yards outside, Curry and Guzman buzzed out to speak with them.
"They told us we were towing illegally. I explained to them that our craft were legal three-seat machines. He took a look and agreed," Curry said later. "He told me they had to come out and check because there'd been so many calls complaining about Jet Skis in the sanctuary."
But the real drama was just beginning to unfold. Around 11:30 a.m., a few more teams arrived from around Pescadero Point, including Kenny "Skindog" Collins and the Brothers Smith—Tyler and Russell. In addition, Kelly Sorensen of Monterey's On The Beach surf shop showed up to provide much-needed water patrol support. A half-hour later, when Justen "Jughead" Allport and photographer Tony Harrington paddled out on longboards from Stillwater Cove, the entire cast was assembled. Allport had just gotten off a plane from Hawaii a few hours earlier, and Collins' wife Annouschka had picked him up in San Jose and rushed him down to Pebble Beach.
When Allport finally reached the channel, Collins hit the ringer from Shelly Beach, New South Wales, in the head with the tow-rope and dragged him out to catch a few. Yet on a wave that others had spent the morning simply trying to survive, Allport began executing deep fades into the bowl and ballsy bunny hops over the shallow boils.
Collins, however, felt Allport was trifling with the place and repeatedly warned him not to underestimate the danger.
"I had to tell him to stop it," Collins said. "I told him, 'Don't fade, go to the shoulder.' Instead he fades all the way into the bowl."
Collins was speaking from experience. He was not yet 100% recovered from a traumatic mauling last December at Jaws that dislocated his hip, hyper-extended both his back and knee, stretched his ACL like a rubber band, and gave him such a bad concussion that he couldn't see out of one eye for half an hour.
But Allport's undoing was not his aggressive surfing, it was his decision to use the tow-board's heel straps, something he had done only once before. On his final wave, Allport was through the critical section when he got clipped by the edge of the whitewater. His board spun 360 degrees and shattered his left leg, snapping the tibia and breaking the fibula in three places.
"I had a feeling it was fully snapped," Allport said from a hospital bed at the Community Hospital of Monterey County the next day. "Skinny [Collins] came in and got me and hauled me up on the rescue sled and took off. There was another huge wave bearing down on us. We were bouncing so much and my leg was flopping around back there in pieces, but Skinny couldn't stop."