PETER DAVI (far left) attempts to paddle into a wave by hand while most surfers in the water at Ghost Tree.
Credit: Alamy

The wave was bigger than anything Laird Hamilton and Brett Lickle had experienced – 80, maybe 100 feet high – and though they were fleeing it flat-out on Hamilton's jet ski, it chased them down and squashed them like a steamroller. "The only conversation we had was Laird yelling  'Go go go!'" Lickle remembers. "Then it was like hitting the eject button on a jet fighter." 

Hamilton, riding on the rescue sled being towed behind the jet ski, dove off at 50 mph as Lickle took the avalanche full bore. Buried deep under the foam, Hamilton's 20-pound surfboard was driven fin-first into Lickle's calf, flaying him open from his Achilles tendon to the back of his knee. "It felt like someone crushed my leg," Lickle says. The pain of the bone-deep gash was blinding, but irrelevant. Because if Lickle couldn't somehow kick his way back to the surface, then swim a mile to shore, he knew he'd never see his wife and kids again. 

The wave that overtook the two surf veterans was one of thousands of giants that raced across the northern Pacific ahead of a historic December 2007 storm, a cyclone that formed when a dying tropical depression over the Philippines met a frigid blast tumbling down the Siberian steppe, found warm water, and went nuclear. "The moisture supercharged the storm," says Sean Collins, chief forecaster and president of Surfline.com. "It was like throwing dynamite on a fire." 

Within a couple of days, a 1,000-mile line of hurricane-force winds was rushing east across the loneliest stretches of the Pacific. Mountainous swells piled up on one another, ripping weather buoys from their moorings. "Swell data showed 50-foot waves," Collins adds. "Occasionally there was a 100-footer." Bill Sharp, director of the Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards (the Oscars for surfing's top daredevils), says, "It's the most extraordinary week I've ever seen in big-wave surfing."

In the surf world, news of phenomena like this travels faster than the waves. Before dawn on December 3, scores of Hawaiians were waxing their big-wave surfboards and tuning jet skis as forecasters predicted a swell that might flip the switch at Oahu's famed Waimea Bay. But Hamilton had a hunch the forecasts were wrong, that the best surf would be at Maui, 120 miles east. By daybreak, with Maui's North Shore under siege from unsurfable 50-foot walls of water, Hamilton revised his prediction: Storm clouds and mist obscured reefs farther out that might focus the chaotic waters into peeling waves. So Hamilton and 47-year-old partner Lickle hatched a new plan, setting out on jet skis from Spreckelsville for a reef called Outer Sprecks. 

"If anyone had any idea of the waves on the way, they would have turned on the tidal wave warning systems," Hamilton says. No small craft, much less surfers, would have been allowed on the water. In retrospect, Hamilton could have used the warning – he and Lickle would soon be battling for their lives at the mercy of the waves.