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

In a hospital bed a week later, Lickle has had time to reflect on the most intense experience of his life. "With these high-­performance aluminum fins, we've always said if anyone gets hit, it could be nasty," he says. "It was a lot nastier than anyone expected." 

Is there a lesson in all this? "Yeah, I'm getting too old for this shit," Lickle says. "This was the big one. The near-drowning taught me that I can make it. But do I want to go through that again? Is it worth not being able to hold my wife and kids again? No." 

Hamilton might wish he could make that decision, but he can't. "A lot of it, truthfully, is out of my hands," he says. "When I see giant surf, it's not like, Should I go? It's automatic."

Exactly one month after Davi's death, an even stronger storm hit California, bursting levees and dumping 10 feet of snow on the Sierras. Another group of surfers – Brad Gerlach, Mike Parsons, Grant Baker, and Greg Long – found it impossible to resist the pull of the big waves, and on January 4 headed out to a legendary spot called Cortes Bank, an underwater mountain range 100 miles off the California coast, and plunged down 80-foot faces in the middle of the ocean. One speeding wave caught Gerlach and Parsons' jet ski, burying them underwater. But their flotation vests brought them back to the surface. 

"I've never had a more adventurous day," says Parsons, 42. "I'm way more calculating now than when I was 24 and would drop in on anything. I know my days are numbered, but days like this are so special, you don't ever want them to end."