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

It took another day for the waves to make landfall in central California, but there too surfers were jockeying to be first on the water. At the foggy crack of dawn on December 4, as half a dozen tow-in teams left Half Moon Bay for the offshore break called Mavericks, California's most famous big-wave spot, another 25 teams motored out from Monterey Harbor, 100 miles south, to a remote corner of rock-strewn shoreline known as Pescadero Point. Many surfers call it Ghost Tree.

The ominous name comes from bleached trunks of dead cypress at the end of 17 Mile Drive, the Monterey-to-Carmel road along some of the most dramatic coastline on earth. On rare winter days with the proper westerly angle, waves are focused by the deep Carmel Canyon to rear up 60 feet in deadly proximity to car-size boulders. Don Curry, a chiseled 48-year-old surfer and personal trainer, made his name here at Ghost Tree and at Mavericks. "The waves are right there," he says. "It's the only place you literally feel the waves shaking the ground. If you don't make the drop, you'll bounce off the rocks. You're dead."
In the days before jet skis, a few brave locals paddled out to challenge Ghost Tree, but the consensus was that the wave heaved in too fast and broke too close to allow anything more than scratching in at the end. Curry, for one, charged other big waves nearby, and on the biggest days he could always count on one surfer to paddle out with him: a larger-than-life contemporary named Peter Davi

Davi was a big, bearish surfer of Sicilian descent, one of the few who had paddled at Pescadero. One of six children with roots in the Monterey Peninsula generations deep, his grandfather Pietro Maiorana was a pioneering seine fisherman during the days of Steinbeck's Cannery Row. Although not above accepting an occasional tow, Davi believed surfers should have the physical prowess to earn their waves. 

On December 4 longtime friend Anthony Ruffo and Randy Reyes gave Davi a ride on their jet ski out to Ghost Tree, where photographers, resting surfers, and spectators were floating outside the big waves. Among them was Kelly Sorensen, owner of Monterey's On the Beach surf shop, who had sponsored Davi for 21 years with clothing and gear. Sorensen watched as Davi and Mavericks regular Anthony Tashnick tried to paddle in. "Tazzy" managed two short rides, but the waves were too fast and mostly rolled underneath them. Davi paddled his eight-foot-six board over and sat on the back of Sorensen's jet ski, and the two marveled at the horrifying wipeouts and barrels big enough to drive a bus through. 

Curry, a tow-in regular at Ghost Tree since 2002, rode a 60-footer on March 9, 2005. That day's poundings were also legendary. Justen "Jughead" Allport broke his leg in four places, and Tyler Smith took a 50-footer on the head, his brother's rescue attempt nearly killing them both. Several of that day's waves, including Curry's, earned surfers coveted XXL award nominations for "Ride of the Year." So Curry wasn't surprised to see 25 teams vying for waves, some of the overamped newcomers clearly not waiting their turn.

"The biggest weaslers I've ever seen," says Ken "Skindog" Collins, who claims that events like the Tow-In World Cup and the XXL (which he won in 2006) have spawned a legion of gasoline-powered aggronauts who are so determined to drop in, they neglect the unwritten ethos of crowded surf breaks. The backlash against towing in has caught the attention of regulators overseeing the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which contains both Mavericks and Ghost Tree (small jet skis were banned in 1992, but a loophole still allows three-seaters and larger). Barring a late deal, this is the last year towing will be legal in central California's heaviest arena. 

"When we started towing Mavericks in '98, there were plenty of waves and not enough people," Collins says. "By the next year everyone who deserved to tow-surf, because they could paddle, had a ski. But then everyone else had one too, showing up when it's 10 to 15 feet, cutting across paddle surfers and taking waves from guys who are worthy. Some of these guys were just trying to get the next Body Glove ad or win the XXL. From now on, if you win the XXL and you weaseled a wave, I'm going to throw a rock at you."

Up at Mavericks, Peter Mel had surfed two amazing waves and was up on his third when it hit an undersea ledge, throwing him off-balance and burying him. With no time to avoid a six-story wall of water, Mel simply ducked, covered, and prayed. "It was like I was run over by Niagara Falls," he says. "I thought it was going to tear the limbs off my body." His partner Ryan Augenstein rushed in, but his jet ski stopped dead; the ocean was so churned, the impeller couldn't get a grip in the foam, like a car spinning its wheels in snow. As another wave bore down, the ski suddenly caught, Mel grabbed the sled, and the two shot to safety. "It was one of the most amazing saves I've ever seen," Mel says. At 12:30 a rescue team motored out; a crab boat named Good Guys had gone down, its two fishermen lost to the waves.

Down at Ghost Tree, Ruffo had tow-surfed into four scary bombs. Davi was determined to tow into at least one wave on his traditional paddleboard. "I'm 45 years old and I want one of the fucking waves," he said from the back of Sorensen's jet ski. "Those were the last words I heard him say," Sorensen says.