"There are exactly two ways to die in big surf," says Matt Warshaw, author of 'The Encyclopedia of Surfing.' "You get knocked out by your board and drown, or you get held down too long." Gerard Butler got a scary taste of that lethal big-wave power during production for his upcoming movie, 'Chasing Mavericks,' about the life and death of the big-wave charger Jay Moriarity.
Last December, Butler, who plays Moriarity's mentor Rick "Frosty" Hesson, and two veterans were paddling away from the beach near Mavericks – the legendarily violent break near San Francisco, which has claimed the lives of several pros, and in 1994 sent a 16-year-old Moriarity into a 30-foot free-fall wipeout – when a giant wave started racing toward them.
"I'm with the best surfers in the world, and they're just going, 'Paddle, Gerry! Paddle!'" Butler said days later. "Then this wave came and just blocked out the sky. It was about 30 feet high." The impact snapped the cord connecting Butler to his board and drove him deep underwater. He was still under when a second wave passed overhead, holding him down for an estimated 40 seconds – a desperate situation for any surfer, much less a relative novice.
"Butler can surf," says Mavericks regular Mark Renneker, who notes that waves in the area drive "right to the bottom of the ocean." Butler's companions that day included Peter Mel and Greg Long, big-wave heroes who "also got their asses kicked. It was not Gerard being inexperienced, and to his credit, he wanted to go right back out."
Butler was pulled from the water and taken to the hospital. Shaken but uninjured, he was released later that day. While the incident made headlines, the film's true star may yet be Mavericks, an unpredictable freak of nature worthy of the big screen.