Ghost Tree ~ March 9, 2005
By Ryan Masters
(3/26/05) Monterey, CA Imagine a tiny human being, his feet strapped to a surfboard barely any longer than he is. A PWC tows him in a wide arc out in open ocean then guns the throttle in a dead reckoning toward shore. The tiny surfer clings to the taut rope. He is hunched down, absorbing the impact of the chop with his knees and thighs and back. Behind him, something is growing- a great displacement of water rising up off an unseen submarine shelf- 15 feet, 20 feet, 25 feet....
The surfer lets go of the umbilical towrope and lifts his arms out like a bird for balance. The wave continues to build- 30 feet, 35 feet, 40 feet....
The Jet Ski cuts out, disappearing over the wave's lip just as it becomes an impassable wall. He is all alone now, carving a delicate, surgeon's line at tremendous speed across the wave's great blue face- 45 feet, 50 feet, 55 feet....
Behind him, this enormous sculpture of energy and water reaches critical mass at something approaching, maybe even exceeding 60 feet and pitches headlong with a world-breaking roar, framing the surfer in a tube that could swallow three houses.
It is a surreal moment of immense beauty and power, this man in motion upon a monumental wall of lurching water. Of all moments in human history, the big wave tow surfer fully committed on a 50-60 foot wave distinguishes itself. Flipping through his personal snapshots of all the moments in human history, I imagine God stopping at one of the waves ridden March 9th off Pescadero Point in Pebble Beach, turning to his friends to say, "Oh, here's a good one. Check this out."
If you haven't heard already, there is a place just off the coast of Pebble Beach capable of generating very big waves. A rare bird, the wave they call Ghost Tree requires a complex cocktail of ocean and weather conditions to come to life.
Days in advance, when those conditions are in their nascent forms far out to sea or way up in the Aleutian islands, Don Curry, the Carmel tow surfer who named the place, is watching. The night before Ghost Tree broke, I called Curry and asked him how things looked. He calmly read me a series of double-digit numbers, hourly readings from a buoy far offshore. At first light, Curry said, we'd be looking at 17-foot waves at 20-second intervals approaching from due west. Intervals of that length are capable of tripling wave size. But those numbers and meteorological data don't always translate at Ghost Tree. More often than not the swell direction is a little wrong, there's too much wind or the waves simply aren't that big.
So when I'm standing alone at Pescadero Point on 17-Mile Drive at 7:30 A.M. the next morning and a two-wave, 40-foot set rolls through and disappears around the corner with a boom, it is cause for joy and celebration. The waves are here. Ghost Tree is awake.
Not much later, I hear the whine of engines and two jet skis arrive from the Monterey harbor. Don Curry and Ed Guzman roll up to the edge of the channel, watch a smaller set boom, then head into Stillwater Cove to anchor one of the skis and prep. Not far behind them are two out-of-town professional surfers, Adam Replogle and Alistair Craft, owners of the new Billabong store in Santa Cruz. Kelly Sorensen of On The Beach pulls up in his white truck and we confer. Apparently Rob Gilley from Surfing Magazine is already entrenched somewhere in the trees, hidden from view and ready for the show. As other people begin trickling in, I decide to take off, fully expecting the sheriff to show up and hassle those who choose to trespass on the Del Monte Forest Foundation land below. At roughly 8:30 am, Don drops the rope on his first wave and the game is on.
I'm heading towards Pebble Beach to get a look from the golf course when I pass my friend Erik Nelson. We both hit our brakes. Nelson has been in the waters off the Peninsula for decades and years. He and I share an affinity for swimming out into big water and sometimes, when the situation calls for it, he brings along a video camera in a splash housing. The first time he filmed Ghost Tree, Nelson jumped off the point and swam to the safety of the channel through the impact zone. He is the only one to ever shoot this wave while swimming.
Nelson is certain the swell is far too big to risk jumping off the point today so we drive down to the wharf in Stillwater Cove, suit up and start the long journey out to Ghost Tree. We're both wearing fins. He's on a boogie board. I'm kicking and paddling my surfboard. We both have cameras.
When we reach the edge of the Channel, I'm feeling it in my muscles. It's a long ways out here from the wharf. Nelson ties his boogie board off to a buoy. "This is our home base," he tells me, giving the buoy an assuring pat.
When the first set comes in and Guzman tows Curry into a 30-footer, the sight is breathtaking. Conditions are perfect. The waves are peeling and roaring uniformly. The sun is lighting their faces a magnificent, glacial blue. Nelson lets out a loud yell and happily rolls in the water like an otter.
As the two tow teams take turns picking off some 25-35 footers, Nelson and I swim closer to the impact zone. But the large wash rock at the outside edge of the channel is sucking and schlomping hundreds of thousands of gallons of water. Getting pulled in there would not be a happy place. I back off and stay where I am, content with my proximity to the wave's leading edge; but Nelson continues on, swimming way inside the wash rock and setting up in what looks to me like harm's way.
On cue, a large set rolls through. Curry lets go of the rope and carves across the expansive face while Guzman, leaning out over the edge on his jet ski, peeks down at him from 45 feet. Somehow this wave looks closer than previous waves. I give our marker buoy a quick glance and check that I'm still lined up with it.
When Craft and Replogle tow into one that's even slightly larger, I snap pictures with abandon, less concerned with composition than just triggering the shutter and staying on the outside shoulder of the wave. As it passes, I can't help feeling it's creeping closer. Yet according to our "home base", I should still be in the same place.
Then the set of the morning rolls through. I glance in at Nelson. He is bobbing with his video camera so far inside it looks like the tail end of the wave might land on his head. When Curry lets go of the rope, it's clear this wave is at least 10 feet bigger than his last.
It is an image that will stay in my mind until the day I die. Curry, a tiny poised, determined man riding a small part of the pure, powerful and awesomely beautiful universe.
Wrapped in the hangar-size barrel, Don disappears out of view behind the thing's huge back as it passes for a long count of three and then pops back over the shoulder and on to edge of the channel like a cork. Guzman zips in and picks him up with the careful timing that is so crucial to the whole chaotic ballet.
Not to be outdone, Craft and Replogle follow that up with an almost identical wave. That's when I see Nelson kicking for the channel. He has barely missed getting beaten by the tail end of the last one and is swimming hard towards me. Now I notice two things: 1) How far inside the wash rock I have allowed myself to drift; and 2) The marker buoy, ripped from its mooring, deep in the impact zone with Nelson's boogie board. So much for home base. Without even glancing outside to see if any more waves are coming, I paddle like hell for the safety of the channel, spooked by the buoy's ominous departure.
Nelson and I reconvene out in the channel and check in. A Coast Guard vessel shows up and lingers a few hundred yards outside. Curry and Guzman have switched off and Curry, now driving the Jet Ski, buzzes 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."
It's an old debate and one I won't go into now, but there are many who would like to see PWC banned in the sanctuary. Yet, the way I see it, that's just all the more reason why today is special. In a few years we may look back at cowboy tow surfing in Monterey County as a bygone Western era.
The swell is showing no signs of letting up, but I'm almost out of film and I'm getting cold. Plus, unbelievably, I need to go interview two poets in Salinas at 12:30 P.M. As I begin the long paddle back in alone Nelson cheerily calls out, "And just remember, it's always harder getting back in than out."
He's right. The tide is going out, Stillwater Cove is draining and there's a lot of repercussive water moving. After 45 minutes I've reached the southern mouth of the cove, but the water's begun sucking out like mad and I'm barely making any headway. It's like paddling against a bathroom drain. A seal pops up and swims around me with a bemused expression on its face.
Out of the corner of my eye I catch a flash of color. Two guys are paddling out on longboards, taken out effortlessly by the ebbing tide. Fortunately, Curry and Guzman take pity on me on the way back from an equipment stop and give me a lift the last hundred or so yards to shore. Yet, as I run back to my car, strip off my wetsuit and drive at unsafe speeds to Salinas, the drama continues to unfold out at Ghost Tree.
The two surfers paddling out on longboards were Australians, one of which, Justen "Jughead" Allport, had just gotten off a plane from Hawaii a few hours earlier. Surf pro Kenny "Skindog" Collins's wife had picked Allport up in San Jose and rushed him down to Pebble Beach.
Collins was waiting for him. "As he paddled up I threw the tow rope at him and hit him in the head," Collins said. "I tow him into a couple 30-40 footers and he starts freaking people out."
Allport, a ringer from Shelly Beach, New South Wales, was making deep fades, bunny hopping shallow boils and generally ripping a wave that most were simply trying to survive. Collins 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 (the Maui wave made famous in Laird Hamilton's American Express commercials), that dislocated his hip, hyper-extended both his back and a 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 insisted on tearing the massive, deadly walls of water up like Zorro.
"In my mind I was thinking it wasn't as big as everyone was saying," Allport told me the next day from a hospital bed at CHOMP. "I wasn't trying to prove a point or anything. I just thought it was only 20 foot, I guess."
By bunny hopping, Allport had loosened the straps on the tow board and his feet were wiggling around too much, so he used the heel straps as well, effectively locking himself to his board. When a "Frankenstein" set came through and Allport got clipped by the mountain of whitewater, the board spun 360 degrees and broke his left leg in four places, full snap of tibia and broke the fibula in three places.
"He'd ridden the wave way past the critical point," Collins said. "He was in the end zone when the white wash caught him and spun his board."
"I had a feeling it was fully snapped," Allport told me. "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. But we were bouncing so much and my leg was flopping around back there in pieces, but Skinny couldn't stop. He was yelling, 'You don't want to know what's behind us.' I did finally manage to get my other leg under the broken one [for support]."
Collins wanted to drive right up on to the beach and rush Allport to the hospital, but Allport didn't want to get thrashed in the shorebreak without packing his leg first. Luckily, Auspet Jordan, a local surfer on hand, had a back board stretcher in his minivan and rushed up to get it. Jordan brought it out, helped bring Allport in, and then drove him to the hospital.
"A.J. [Jordan] is a great guy," Allport told me through a fog of pain and medication. "All the guys out there were so good to me. So helpful. So nice."
As Jordan drove Allport to the hospital, Collins picked up a new surfer, Hawaiian legend Noah Johnson and took him back out to catch the wave of the day, a monster that rational men are calling 60+ feet. And later in the day Russell Smith would overturn his jet ski trying to pick up his brother Tyler, who had taken a solid 50 footer on the head, and they would both be swept into the boneyard, with Tyler sustaining an injury to his shoulder.
It will be remembered as the day Ghost Tree was huge and perfect. If tow surfing is banned in the sanctuary, we will look back on it as perhaps the best day of a golden era. As for Justen "Jughead" Allport, he keeps a philosophical view regarding his thrashing.
"I had a friend who broke his leg in two-foot surf back home," he told me from his hospital bed with a crooked, tipsy smile. "You know?"
Visit the author's web site at http://www.montereybaypoetry.com .