Rider on the Storm
Surfer-photographer Don Curry rides the big waves—the really big waves.
Thursday, March 4, 2004
When the offshore buoys begin chirping double-digit wave heights, Don Curry starts packing the truck: life vests, wet suits, tow board, tow rope, rescue sled, Jet Ski, first aid kit.
By the time the swell has advanced to the Peninsula’s granite reefs and begun arching up out of the sea like an army of Krakens, displaying 20, 30, 40, even 50-foot faces that pitch forward and detonate like hydrogen bombs, Curry is on the road.
Meanwhile, the National Weather Service issues public bulletins warning of extreme danger and high sea conditions. The police block coastal roads off to traffic. News crews set up a safe distance from the shore and film waves breaking onto the streets.
It’s a chaotic scene, and in the midst of it, Curry calmly drives the coast with a cell phone to his ear, monitoring wind direction, tide and buoy readings.
Don Curry is 44 years old. He stands 5’9” and is built like a bull. Not your typical surfer’s build, but then he’s not after your typical surf. He has been surfing the reef breaks off the Monterey Peninsula for more than 30 years. As a boy, he grew up watching big waves break from the bedroom window of his Carmel Highlands home. The roar and spindrift is in his blood.
Curry is not a professional surfer, but he rides like one. He is considered one of the early Mavericks “hell-men,” and was invited to compete in Quicksilver’s legendary 1999 Men Who Ride Mountains contest.
Since then, he has dedicated himself to tow surfing local big wave spots. Tow surfing refers to the process of getting whipped onto previously unimaginable-sized waves behind a Jet Ski or Personal Water Craft (PWC).
With Mavericks, the popular Half Moon Bay big wave spot, getting overcrowded, Curry has focused on catching oversized waves at rarely ridden local spots like Pebble Beach’s Pescadero Point, Pacific Grove’s “Cats” and “Ullu’s,” and even Curry’s personal mysto spot, the as-yet un-ridden monster break “Spindrift” that lurks off the cliffs of Curry’s childhood home.
There’s a sense of urgency to Curry’s mission. This may be the last year PWCs are allowed in the Monterey Bay Sanctuary outside of Mavericks. That development, while environmentally motivated, would dash his dream of riding “Spindrift,” which needs an 18-to-20-foot swell just to start breaking.
Unfortunately, the ‘03-‘04 big wave season may be remembered as the year of the over-hyped swell more than anything else. Big wave surfing has become big business, and the promotional juggernaut responsible for attracting big dollar sponsorships flash red lights and bleat air horns every time the surf forecasters blink.
Yet even on these “over-hyped” days, the business of tow surfing the Peninsula is immensely dangerous. During an early December swell, Curry totaled his PWC on the rocks at Ullu’s, the break just inside Point Piños. Despite suffering severe hematoma, deep bruising from hip to thigh, he was out at Mavericks ten days later trying to surf injured.
Then last Thursday, Feb. 26, the NWS predicted “the biggest swell in ten years.” Again, they overstated its magnitude, but this time they were in the ballpark. On Wednesday night, the buoys were showing at a solid 35 feet.
The next afternoon, at roughly 2:30pm, the swell peaked and 40-to-50-ft. wave faces were peeling off Pescadero Point. Curry teamed with Santa Cruz’s Dougal Hutchinson and Ed Guzman to ride some of the biggest waves of his life. A landmark session, the feat has generated a lot of buzz in the surfing community.
To understand the nerve it takes to ride waves this big, you must be a surfer. Committing to a ten-foot wave face powered by pure Aleutian groundswell can be a terrifying experience. Getting towed into something five times that size is almost beyond comprehension.
Curry’s world is not constructed solely around adrenaline, however. He has his contemplative side. Over the past ten years he’s created a series of haunting photographic images called “moonscapes.” Capturing photographs of full moons over coastal landscapes is Curry’s response to the spirit of earth and sea that has embodied his worldview from childhood.
“My photos highlight the natural influence in a surfer’s life,” he explains. “Our surf spots are influenced by the tide which is in turn influenced by the moon.”
The photos are also about an issue close to Curry’s heart: ocean access. “They’re, in a way, protest art. They’re about allowing people to access the ocean. Many of the landscapes are recognizable as places privately owned by rich people.”
The idea of ownership of land is unnatural to a guy who has spent most of his life in the ownerless ocean. He believes coastal access should be free. Consequently, he considers the trespassing he does to capture his moonscapes an act of civil disobedience.
The future holds big things for Curry. He’s looking for a new tow partner willing to head to Cortez Bank, a reef 100 miles off the California coast where open ocean swell breaks at unimaginable sizes, and to Todos Santos, the legendary Baja California surf spot.
He and his wife Marcy, who is also a strong surfer, recently sold their personal training business to provide Don with more flexibility to go after big waves, but also so he can focus on their number one priority, two-year old daughter Scout. He continues to work as a personal trainer at Garden Health and Fitness in Monterey, but also sees clients in the garage he’s converted into a gym.
Meanwhile, he will continue to check the buoy reports with the dedication of a stockholder watching the market while planning his next act of lunar disobedience.