El Porto posse: A surfer, a diver and a Realtor
“What was ‘walking on water,’ if it wasn’t Bible-talk for surfing?” ― Thomas Pynchon, “Inherent Vice.”
Ken Pagliaro, Bob Sievers and Brooke Basse know each other from living and surfing in El Porto. Their short, neighborly strip of LA County beach was annexed by Manhattan Beach in 1980, but never relinquished its rugged individualist identity. Thomas Pynchon lived in El Porto in the early ‘70s, and made it the setting for his noir novel “Inherent Vice.”
Pagliaro is an extreme-sports photographer. Basse is a commercial diver. Sievers is a Realtor.
During a big swell in early December, Pagliaro photographed Sievers surfing 25-foot waves at the island of Todo Santos, off of Baja. Upon returning from Mexico, the two planned to chase the still-building swell north to Mavericks. But Sievers had reinjured his back and damaged his jet ski on the Todos Santos trip.
During that same December swell, Basse texted Bo Bridges, another Manhattan Beach extreme-sports photographer, ribbing him for going to Mavericks and not asking her to be his boat driver. Mavericks is California’s most challenging big wave spot, for both surfers and photographers. It breaks a mile off of Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay and requires a boat to get there. When not inspecting the underwater pipes that carry oil from tankers moored off El Porto to the Chevron El Segundo refinery, Basse assists in water safety as a diver in the film industry. She is a licensed boat captain and owns a 20-foot RHIB (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat), which she uses for free dive spear fishing and film industry work.
The December swell was the first of six, back-to-back, Gulf of Alaska storms that over the past month have pounded the South Bay with 20-foot waves, and Mavericks with waves double that size.
The most powerful of the six swells was forecast to hit Mavericks last Sunday.
Basse, Sievers and Pagliaro rearranged their lives to meet up there.
Basse towed her RHIB up that Friday. Sievers towed his ski up Saturday. Pagliaro, who had a Saturday shoot in LA, flew into San Francisco Saturday night.
Pagliaro planned to photograph from Sievers’ jet ski. Basse planned to park her boat in the 100-foot deep channel that borders Mavericks so everyone would have a place to eat and rest between sessions.
Saturday morning, Basse was enlisted to drive Santa Cruz surfers Wilem Banks and Nathan Rogers out to the break. She welcomed the opportunity. She had never been to Mavericks. The waves were in the 20-foot range and neither Basse nor her surfers encountered any difficulties.
Sunday morning, Basse said, “was a different animal.”
Basse, Sievers and Pagliaro met up at the Pillar Point Harbor loading ramp, along with two dozen other surfers with their safety boats and jet skis. Sievers brought along 20-year-old Cody Purcell, and his dad Cameron. Sievers’ son Rick and Cody surfed together on the Mira Costa surf team.
Two years ago, after Cody moved to Santa Cruz, Sievers gave him his pink-railed, Stretch gun and took him out at Mavericks on a 20-foot day. Sievers prefers the heavier boards shaped locally by Joe Bark.
Because there wasn’t room for four on Sievers’ jet ski, Pagliaro moved to Basse’s boat. Basse was again driving Banks and Rogers, along with Banks’ dad Doug, who had never seen his son surf big waves, and videographer Kyle Buthman.
Basse grew up in San Francisco, surfing, diving and boating. “On, in and under the water,” is how she describes it.
But just getting out of the harbor last Sunday morning “was one of my most intense days on the water, ever,” she said.
As Basse approached the harbor mouth, a veteran captain of a 26-foot boat she had met at Mavericks the previous day, radioed he was turning around. The route between the navigation buoys was “closed out,” he warned.
The navigation buoys mark two reefs just outside the harbor mouth. Between the two reefs is a deep water passage, where there shouldn’t be swells. But there were.
“My first responsibility is to keep my passengers safe. But I didn’t want to disappoint them, either,” Basse said.
She poked her boat outside the harbor for a look. The prevalent swell was head high off her starboard bow. She waited for a 15- to 20-foot swell to pass between the buoys. Then she gunned it.
“My RHIB is like a mini Navy SEAL boat. It’s made for rough water,” she said.
Mavericks, as described by Sievers, is two breaks.
The main break is a 25-foot slab called The Bowl
“It’s the hollowest, scariest and picture perfect,” Sievers said. “Fall there and you risk being dragged into what’s called the Cauldrons, a series of big boulders. You don’t want to go there. It’s where Mark Foo died.” The Hawaiian big wave rider drowned at Mavericks after falling on a moderate size wave, in 1994.
The Outer Bowl, or Third Reef is 400 yards further out and 35 feet deep. Waves need to be 35-feet-plus to break there because waves are half underwater and break when they hit bottom.
Basse and her passengers parked in the safety of the channel. Sievers and a dozen other surfers were sitting on their skis and in boats, studying The Bowl.
Banks jumped in and quickly caught a 25-foot wave.
Then South African Grant “Twiggy” Baker, a two-time winner of the Body Glove Mavericks Invitational, with a reputation for never falling, air dropped down a 40-foot face.
Pagliaro’s photos show Baker with his arms out like he thinks he can fly. His board flutters away. He drops like a rock, on his head.
After Baker’s fall, Banks paddled back to Basse’s boat.
Sievers, who witnessed the fall from his jet ski, said later, “Twiggy came up in time to get half a breath. Then he took another 40-footer on the head. He told me he tweaked his back and arm. But he was back out Monday.”
Sievers gave the morning session a pass, as did Cody, who secured his slot at Mavericks this winter by charging it throughout the six swells.
“There were about 15 guys in the line up and we’re all looking at each other. A few got waves, but when we saw Twiggy eat it we started thinking, ‘Does anyone want this?’ The swell was moving too fast.”
A 6.5-foot high tide was rapidly dropping to a negative one-foot low tide in the early afternoon.
Over the marine radio, Basse heard, “Channel chaser coming.” The message came from the safety crew, watching through binoculars from the cliff.
“You could feel the energy in the water,” Basse said. “The set broke on Third Reef. Then it reformed when it funneled through the channel. But it was still steep. Boats, skis, paddlers, we all took off for deeper water, in the direction of 11 o’clock. It was chaos. But coordinated chaos.”
“That whole day it felt like my head was on a swivel. You’re turning to watch your surfer, the other surfers, the skis, the boats and the waves. If a surfer’s ski gets called to make a rescue, a boat has to pick him up. And you’re constantly jockeying with the other boats to put your photographer in position while wrestling massive amounts of moving water.”
Pagliaro shot from the bow, braced against the center console to steady his 200- to 500mm Nikon lens.
“Even though I wasn’t shooting from the water, the adrenaline was unreal. The noise and the sets rolling in are unnerving. It looks like you’re going to get walloped,” Pagliaro said.
Shortly after Baker fell, Sievers saw Mavericks’ acknowledged master Peter Mel get towed into a third reef bomb. That Friday, Mel paddled into a barrel that Surfline and others called the “Wave of the Decade.”
Tow-ins at Mavericks are only permitted when someone of Mel’s stature says they are. The signal only comes when Third Reef is breaking.
Sievers has towed in on big days at Jaws in Hawaii and at Tavarua in Fiji. He had never towed in at Mavericks, but he had a tow-in board strapped to his jet ski.
Sievers is 58. He has an artificial hip and fused, cervical vertebrae, which makes it difficult to lift his neck prone paddling. Aging big wave riders, among them Laird Hamilton and Buzzy Kerbox, when unable to paddle into big waves, turn to tow-ins. Jeff Clark, the first person ever to surf Mavericks was towing in during the recent swells.
Sievers drove his jet ski over to Basse’s boat and suggested to Rogers that they trade off tow-ins. Sievers would get the first wave.
Rogers drives a jet ski for work. He’s a Santa Cruz lifeguard. But he had never driven a tow-in. On their first try, he accelerated too fast and yanked the rope from Sievers’ hands.
On the second try, Rogers went too fast, again. Sievers held on, but his 5-foot-11 tow board was speed chattering when he let go.
“On most waves, at Tavarua and Jaws, after you let the rope go you just race down the line,” Sievers said. “At Mavericks, you need to fade back toward the bowl. But I was going too fast to put the board on its rail. So I straightened out toward the channel. I threw away my shot,” he said. Disappointment was evident in his voice.
Pagliaro’s photo of Sievers, half way down the monster face, would go on the brag wall of just about any other surfer. But for Sievers, that photo is a reminder of the chance he missed to get pitted on what would have been the biggest wave of his life.
Midafternoon, when the sun came out and the water glassed off, Banks jumped back in the water for a second session.
The waves were 40 to 60 feet. All but a few of the surfers still in the water were towing in.
According to Basse’s log, Banks entered the water at 3:15 p.m. and paddled into his first wave of the afternoon at 3:39 p.m.
“The guys on our boat were hooting. It was the biggest wave Wilem had ever caught,” Basse said.
At 4:30 p.m., as the light was beginning to fade, Banks caught his second wave of the afternoon.
In 2017 and again in 2019, Banks was a nominee for Surfer Magazine’s Worst Wipeout of the Year. Both waves were at Mavericks.
This year, Banks’ nomination will be for Best Paddle in Wave of the Year. Pagliaro’s photo shows Banks fading back into the bowl, under a lip that is 40 to 50 feet overhead, then executing a drop knee turn, like Dewey Weber hotdogging at 22nd Street in the famous Leroy Grannis photo.
That evening on Surfline, 2016 Titans of Mavericks runner-up Travis Payne wrote, “I’m giving Wilem MVP of the day.” Colin Dwyer, a second generation Mavericks surfer, wrote, “My vote goes to Wilem for performer of the day.” Peter Mel wrote simply, “Wilem Banks killed it today.” In comparing Sunday’s waves to two days earlier when he caught his “Wave of the Decade,” Mel said, “Totally different deal. Way more scary because of the angle. It was eating itself all day. It was epic.”
Sievers found redemption the following morning when he and Cody Purcell surfed with Twiggy Baker and just a half dozen other surfers in waves that were still 25 feet. Pagliaro and Basse had headed home. But a record of the day, as revealing of Mavericks’ power as any of Pagliaro’s photos, was saved on Sievers’ dive watch.
“I had caught a couple lefts. Then I missed one and took the one behind it on the head,” Sievers said.
Sievers has surfed Mavericks over two dozen times and the highest number he has ever counted to during a hold down there is 15 seconds.
“I never worry about drowning. I know I can hold my breath. You just have to relax, while you’re cartwheeling,” he said.
His record for a “static” breath hold is 6 minutes, 6 seconds, which he equates to a minute or less during a heart pumping, underwater pounding.
“The one thing that does freak me out,” he admitted, “is getting driven down. If you blow out your ear drums, you can’t tell which way is up.”
After 10 feet, ears need to be cleared every two to three feet to prevent rupturing, a difficult thing to remember while cartwheeling.
During Sunday’s hold down, Sievers said, his ears felt like screwdrivers had been driven into them, but they didn’t rupture. He counted to 10, then pulled the cord on his inflatable vest and climbed his leash to the surface.
His dive watch recorded his maximum depth at 21 feet and his time under water at 14 seconds.
He said he felt the bottom’s presence.
Monday evening Sievers emptied the storage locker he keeps at Mavericks.
“This may have been my last Mavericks paddle-in session,’ he said. “The whole thing at Mavericks is the drop. It’s usually a double drop. You almost always get air. I’m not quick enough getting to my feet, anymore. That’s why old guys move to tow-in.”
“I’m happy that Cody’s taken the torch. I’m loving seeing him and other young guys from Southern California, like Beck Adler, of Venice, break into Mavericks’ tight group of young guns. If you charge they’ll give you your due.”
“It’s all about controlling fear. When you understand you can do it, you can do it.”
Giving up paddling in at Mavericks, doesn’t mean giving up dropping in at Mavericks.
“I was stoked Sunday to get my first tow-in shot. Now, I need another swell big enough for the Outer Bowl.” he said. ER
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