Big Wednesday: Malibu’s Most Epic Surf Day

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Axelle / Bauer-Griffin / Getty Images

This time around, the waves weren’t just going to be big, they were going to be massive and overwhelming, beyond anything seen in decades, if ever. They were going to be record setting. This was the word making the rounds in Malibu late last August, as Hurricane Marie made her way north from Baja, about to unload in a major way. The Surfline report had been predicting it, TV and radio could not stop jabbering about it, and the surfers could not have been more excited about it. Mexico was already getting hammered. Malibu, their Malibu, one of the most famous surfing beaches in the world, was next.

Still though, Laird Hamilton, a Men’s Journal contributor and one of the most famous and experienced big-wave surfers who ever lived, wasn’t convinced. He’d seen monster-surf hype before and he wasn’t about to get suckered in by the overheated buzz. “When you’ve been at this as long as I have,” he said, “you realize it’s best to have no expectations.” So on Tuesday, August 26, he spent the day surfing closer to home, at a spot seven miles north of the main Malibu break, Surfrider Beach. The waves were small but fun, and around 5 pm he got in his flat-black Hummer to go home, when somebody texted him a picture of what was happening at Surfrider. The waves there were huge, twice as big as where he was up the coast. He took one look and shouted, “What?!” And next thing you know, he aimed his Hummer south on the Pacific Coast Highway and roared off.

By Tuesday, the swell was already big and heading toward massive, and pretty much the only surfers on it were the locals. Malibu top-dog Allen Sarlo, for one, was ready — he’d already stripped the old wax off his board and applied a fresh coat, rearranged his work schedule, and made sure he was squared away with his wife and two kids. “I got in at first light,” he said, “and even then you could feel the energy of the swell and the power, and then it really started cranking.”

Local ace Andy Lyon was in the water, too, and could not believe his eyes.

(Laird Hamilton paddles out during huge swells generated by hurricane Marie Reach on August 27 – Jason Merritt / Getty Images)

“I saw this one rogue set of 10 arrive like a tsunami,” he said. “I’d just ridden a wave and was walking back up the beach, eating a Fig Newton to keep me going, and this set came in dark and deep and starting like 200 yards past everybody in the lineup and it just slowed down and stood up. It was like the whole ocean came in with it. It was like the water was pushing up from the bottom and the set had no place to go, so the waves all smushed together and jacked up, and then they all started unloading, and the whole beach was going fucking crazy. I mean, it was bizarre.”

By late afternoon, traffic on the PCH, which overlooks the break, slowed to a standstill, with more and more surfers showing up and cars pulled over everywhere. “Just trying to find a space to park put you on the verge of a panic attack,” said Mitch Taylor, manager of Becker Surf & Sport. “It sent you into a kind of tailspin before you even got in the water.” The double-overhead waves were already breaking with enough power to snap boards in half, leaving the jagged hunks of foam and fiberglass to carom shoreward through the frenzied surfers paddling out. Then the TV crews started to arrive and jockey for position, while drones hauling GoPros zipped by overhead, documenting the unfolding chaos on land and the epic rides in the surf. This would go on for the better part of three days, with waves eventually reaching sizes not seen since the Reagan era. By the time it was over, Malibu’s crew of seven lifeguards had kept tabs on 90,000 visitors, made 65 rescues, engaged in 1,755 “preventions” (i.e., telling hodads from the Valley not to go in the water or they’ll drown), and pulled one body onto shore. It was Malibu madness at its finest and, at times, its ugliest, highlighting all of the legendary break’s promise and problems during the most Malibu of Malibu days ever in the history of the whole blessed place.

For many people, Malibu will forever remain a memory of what it was in the late Fifties and early Sixties. It’s home to a spunky teenage surfer girl named Gidget and her band of fellow surfers with names like Moondoggie and the great Kahoona. Around the same time came Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon in the goofy Malibu-set Beach Party flicks, with the Beach Boys providing a soundtrack for the entire bushy-bushy-blonde scene, all of which allowed the Saturday Evening Post to rightly state in 1967 that surfing is “the most successful California export since the orange.” Shortly thereafter, Madison Avenue hijacked what a single California beach had made so popular and took it to middle America, eventually warping surf culture into the $6-billion-a-year industry that it is today. The real Jeff Spicolis come and go, but the Chevy Malibu is forever.

(The scene in Malibu as the Gidget-era teens hit the beach in the summer of 1961 – Photo by AP)

One thing that everyone here likes to say is that Malibu sure isn’t what it once was. Then again, in certain ways, it has remained oddly resistant to change and almost seems to exist in a kind of sealed, saltwater bubble. When the surf is up, it’s no more crowded now than it was back in the 1960s, when 100 to 150 guys (and a few girls) could be seen flailing around in the lineup. The competition for waves is certainly dogfight fierce today, but no more so than it was back then, when if you dropped in on Malibu superstar Miki Dora, he’d knock your ass off your board. And the reason for all this is the wave. It’s the draw. It’s why a good number of the city’s 13,000 residents live here. As Matt Warshaw says in The History of Surfing, “No surf break, then or now, has ever presented itself so well.” Or as Laird Hamilton, who splits his time between Malibu and Kauai, likes to say, “It’s an absolutely perfect wave, and it’s right here, in my backyard.”

Surfrider Beach is one of five named beaches along Malibu’s 21-mile stretch of shoreline. There are three prime takeoff spots: First Point is the one closest to the 780-foot-long Malibu pier, is favored by longboarders, and is the wave most people associate with the ‘Bu, as it’s also known. Second Point and Third Point are farther north and deliver faster, punchier waves best suited to shortboarders. All three points were formed centuries ago, by an alluvial fan of silt, sand, and cobblestones pushed out of the Malibu Lagoon by the subsurface force of Malibu Creek. It used to be that you could ride through from one point to the next, but the lagoon was dredged in the mid-1980s, and ever since, the points have stopped connecting. What’s more, apparently due to the same dredging issues, the Second and Third Point waves have declined in quality to the extent that many surfers, both longboarders and short, ride only First Point, turning it into a nearly constant traffic-jam nightmare where only the big dogs can ever hope to get a wave to themselves.

And there are always big dogs at Malibu. Right now the two biggest are Allen Sarlo, 56, and Andy Lyon, 51. Sarlo is a hulking beast of a man — not as big as Hamilton, say, but close, and far darker, with deep sunken eyes and possessed of certain strange and unsettling simian aspects — where Lyon is short, wiry, and catlike. The way Sarlo rides, he hacks waves apart with sharply vertical, acute-angle turns, hence his nickname, Wave Killer, where Lyon opens up his turns more, allowing him to be more graceful and unpredictable. Like Lyon, Sarlo is an enforcer of the pecking order in the lineup, but where he can often do it with a glare and a growl, the less overtly intimidating Lyon has to rely on what he calls “Tourette blackouts, where I’m just screaming a lot of, you know, fucks.” His nickname is Angry Andy, and here’s the way it sometimes goes when he gets ticked off, at the top of his lungs: “Fuck, fuck, shit, fucking idiot, fucking get the stupid, fuck, doing out here, you fucking idiot, get the fuck out of here!” The whole point is to make sure everyone follows the rule that only one surfer rides a wave at a time, with priority given to the surfer who takes off closest to the curl. In practice, it mainly means that you better not take off on Sarlo or Lyon no matter what, priority be damned. Any wave they want, they get, and in August, thanks to Hurricane Marie, they had more wants than usual.

(Allen Sarlo (left) and third-generation Malibuan Andy Lyon (right), a.k.a Angry Andyshot – Portrait by Anais & Dax)

The storm got its start on August 10, as a tropical storm system off the Atlantic coast of Africa, then drifted lazily west into the Caribbean, eased past Panama, and chugged into the Pacific, where it eventually became a Category 5 hurricane. On August 25, emailed a rare public safety alert: “Significant SE/SSE swell from Hurricane Marie to generate large and consistent surf, strong currents and dangerous conditions for southern California.” Furthermore: “Rip and long shore currents will be extremely strong and treacherous . . . Jetties, piers and other coastal objects may also pose additional dangers.”

When it arrived early on that Tuesday, it got so big that for the first time in decades, Second and Third Points started joining up to First, with lines so long it looked as if you could ride for a third of a mile or more, with potential at the end to not only finish close to the pier but also maybe on the other side of it, by shooting through its myriad thick crosspieces and pilings, a risky but alluring proposition. How big the waves were, though, is hard to say. Estimates range from 15-foot faces to 25-foot faces, with a strong lateral drift right toward the pier. So they were both big and dangerous, and the lifeguards spent much of their time trying to make sure those who didn’t belong in the water didn’t go in the water. “You know them when you see them,” said Malibu lifeguard specialist Kevin Williams. “They’ve got a lot of bravado but not much experience.”

One such person was a hefty Los Angeleno named Silverio Laconsay, 54. It took him about 40 minutes just to bull his way through the whitewater and get to the lineup outside. Once there, he looked a little tuckered, and lifeguards patrolling the area suggested he go in, but Laconsay insisted he was fine. The swell was historic. “I’m not going to miss it,” he reportedly said, shortly before suffering a fatal cardiac event. “They pumped on him for 15 minutes, breaking ribs, while he foamed from the mouth, turning green,” said Malibu regular Sean Colburn. “But he had already passed. It was totally gnarly.” It was the only death at Malibu that week, though close calls were frequent.

“Intense,” said Laird Hamilton. “Was I scared?” said Daniel Robinson, 17, nodding his head. “Glorious,” said Robert von Sternberg, 75, and still charging. “Yeah. It was almost like it was the 1980s all over again.”

Laird Hamilton finally arrived around 6 pm, somehow finding a place to park his Hummer and hoofing it across the sand carrying his stand-up paddleboard. Pretty soon, he was almost all anybody on the beach could see. Wave after wave after wave, him standing tall, paddle slapping away, cruising beneath other surfers, above them, all around them, him just hanging there like a cool surfing Jesus, flipping his hair back as he paddled back out, one of the few not wearing a wetsuit, his vast panoply of beetle-brown muscles glistening in the cloudless, late-summer sun.

“There’s Laird!” a newcomer to the beach said.

“Oh, Laird’s going to shoot the pier!” somebody else said.

“Oh, Laird,” another person said.

At times, it seemed as if Laird were on every wave the ocean had to offer. “I mean, it’s OK, it’s Laird, I give him a pass,” Andy Lyon said later, “but he was being a pig, taking off on everything. Would I rather him not cut me off? Yeah. Would I rather him not be like ‘fuck you’ to me and have some respect? Yeah. He’s cool, though. Laird’s fucking Laird.” Other folks used words like wave hog and asshole to describe Hamilton, primarily because he insists on riding a SUP and using a paddle to catch waves, which gives him a mechanical advantage over prone surfers. And also because his presence tends to overshadow the surfing of equally skillful, real Malibu regulars like Lyon and Sarlo. Which may, in fact, be somewhat intentional: A chuckling friend of his says Hamilton probably chose Malibu as his late-Tuesday surf spot due to a sudden and acute case of his “own kind of attention-deficit disorder”; in other words, an overwhelming need for media love. And he got it, too, because the TV crews and video cameras were soon out in force, capturing both Laird the heroic (he saved one man from drowning, as featured on TMZ) and Laird the ballsy (he shot the pier, repeatedly, as also seen on TMZ), as well as a rare, noteworthy appearance of Laird the imperfect (he ran over a guy on his SUP and broke the guy’s arm, as not mentioned by TMZ).

Right before dark, Lyon and the rest of the lineup finally paddled in. Some of them strapped on headlamps and tied glow sticks to their wetsuit zipper pulls and went back out, surfing well into the night, but Lyon was exhausted. He’d been in the water for 10 hours almost without a break, and as he trudged up the beach, his head was buzzing. “Normally, I’m not that stoked when I see somebody else get a killer wave, because I should be on it, but that evening I was stoked for everybody,” he said. “It was that whole excitement of what was happening, all those people on the beach watching, the ambulance getting Laird’s victim out of the water, the lights, camera, action, the camaraderie of all of us getting bomb waves, and then coming in, it was like coming out of the gladiator pit, like coming out victorious in the dark. It’s probably not something we will see again.”

(Laird Hamilton shoots the Malibu Pier. – Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

By dawn the next day, the real crowds had arrived and, with them, a distinct change in the mood in the water, where a hundred or more surfers were bobbing up and down and desperately trying to catch a wave or desperately trying to avoid being mowed down either by waves or by fellow surfers. “Hostile, aggressive, hungry, frustrated, confused,” said von Sternberg. “It was a fucking mess.” Said legendary surfboard shaper and Dogtown Z-boy mentor Jeff Ho: “During a ride, you’d have to navigate your way through a crowd, boards are flying everywhere, people are flying everywhere.” Said Zuma Jay, proprietor of  Zuma Jay’s Surfboards, “In my 40 years of business here, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Word went around that out-of-towners like longboard genius Joel Tudor and world-champion surfer Kelly Slater were on their way, that singer-surfer Jack Johnson was already in the water, and that actor Gerard Butler, star of the surf-themed movie Chasing Mavericks, was on the sand, albeit taking pictures, not suiting up and going out, perhaps wisely. Later on, the waves smashing against the length of Malibu Pier began to knock loose some of its massive pilings. Soon, a bunch of them were bobbing around in the surf, looking for surfers to crush and other pilings to crash into.

When state park officials couldn’t figure out what action to take, Zuma Jay jumped in the water and began swimming the pilings, one by one, out to a lifeguard’s launch so that they could be towed to a safer spot.

“I’d never seen waves like that at Malibu before,” Patagonia-sponsored Mary Osborne said. “There were bodies and boards everywhere, and people were throwing up, they were that out of breath. It was mayhem.” Meanwhile, Allen Sarlo, in his flashy red wetsuit, caught a bomb and tore the face off of it, pumping himself far down the line into the flats and right through the pier — he shot the pier seven times that day — as each of about half a dozen would-be snakes and poachers took one look at who they were about to drop in on and backed down.

Up on the PCH, an audience of hooters and hollerers was letting loose.

Shortly before noon, with the surf still giant, a skinny guy in a shiny black wetsuit trudged out of the water and hustled up the beach. This was one of the stranger sights of the day, because the guy was Andy Lyon, and it seemed almost inconceivable that he was packing it in so early. But there he was, walking toward the nearby enclave known as the Malibu Colony. When he’s not surfing, Lyon is a real estate agent, and he had to meet a lady from New York who was starting a $20,000-a-month lease. There are worse problems to have, but all he could think was, “Fuck, of all the days . . .” Still, he had a big, fat commission coming his way, so he had to go show her around her new digs. But he kept his wetsuit on throughout the entire walk-through and his mind on the real prize.

(Mike Dora, one of first alpha-dog enforcers during his heyday during the Sixties. – Photo by

Then she started going on and on about how happy she was. “Yep, yep, yep, OK,” Lyon said repeatedly during the next hour, until he couldn’t stand it anymore. “I got to go!” he barked, and bailed to get back to the water.

Of all the local surfers in Malibu, few are more local than Lyon. His grandfather dealt in real estate here, too, when prime ocean-view lots went for $2,500, and he’s never lived anyplace else. That nickname of his, Angry Andy — he got it not only because of how he behaves in the water but also because of how vocal he is about everything he thinks is wrong with his town. These days, he’s mostly pissed off about the giant sewage plant that’s probably going to be installed less than a hundred yards from his old elementary school; how dredging in the Malibu Lagoon has messed with the waves; how the city council seems to care a whole bunch more about honoring the high-school football team than the high school surf team; how developers are trying to turn Malibu into a destination shopping mall. Not to mention the myriad traffic problems, the PCBs at the high school, and the recent failing grade — an actual F — Malibu received from the Los Angeles Conservancy for its apparent inability to preserve the town’s history.

In both 2012 and 2014, Lyon ran for city council, his basic message being, Let’s restore Malibu to the way it was when I was a kid. Lots of citizens favored that idea, but he lost both times, mainly due to his volatile nature, with little help from a 2011 YouTube video that shows him going ballistic at a public meeting and a council member having to call for the sheriff. He just can’t contain himself.

“I am like an outsider in my own backyard,” he said, “but I am going to keep the fight going. I’m just hoping something happens before it’s too late.”

In the meantime, he has no plans to stop his bellowing in the water, if only because whenever he eases up, “people start to wedge in and think they can get away with shit, so then I have to blow my lid and then they know I don’t get challenged. Then someone will cut me off and go, ‘Hey, man, it’s Malibu, we’re all going to ride waves together.’ Well, no, we’re not. If this was Hawaii, you’d get your ass kicked.” He went on, “But you really can’t push it like you used to do. I mean, I’ll defend myself. Some guy tried some shit and I fucking cracked him with my board, like, ‘Fuck you, man. Don’t get near me. Fuck you.’ But you can get sued now. Or, you can get kicked off the beach for years at a time. I’ve had a lot of guys start shit with me, trying to edge me into throwing, just so that I’ll get kicked off the beach. So many people would like to see that. I’m not going to risk it, though, so I’ll just push it to the limit. I’ll yell. I’ve fucking full-leaping tackled guys off their boards. But I don’t really shoot boards anymore, maybe just little warning shots or something. Malibu’s become the land of pushy, lawyered-up fucking surfers. The other day somebody dunked a guy and got taken away by the cops.”

He tilted his head and said, “Malibu is fucking weird. It can start to make you crazy and you can end up like Angie Reno.”

A moment of silence, now, for Angie Reno, a name that comes up often, usually in hushed tones, during conversations with locals. He was a renowned big-wave surfer in the Seventies, a Pipeline specialist, and a regular Malibu enforcer. According to legend, he once dunked a guy, and when the guy came up pissing and moaning, Reno said to onlookers, “Someone call 411 and get the number for 911.” Classic. At some point, though, he went totally off his beam. Some say it’s because he wrote the treatment that became Baywatch, was given a measly $100,000 as compensation, and watched everybody get Hasselhoff-rich but him. (“They used Pamela Anderson to bait him into signing something that he would never sign otherwise,” said Laird Hamilton.) Or else it was because of the Malibu crowds, the constant daily battle with kooks from the San Fernando Valley, from Santa Monica, from anywhere but here.

Reno was in a constant frothing rage and allegedly even started threatening to kill people. “I’m going to go postal one day down here and you’re on the top of my list,” he said to one longtime Malibu surfer. This kind of behavior eventually got him legally banned from appearing within 500 yards of any Malibu beach for five years. Even so, during the August swell, he was reportedly seen drifting past Surfrider Beach in his car, head turned to the sea like everybody else’s but with absolutely no chance of riding one of its waves. It may have looked like the Eighties all over again out there, with all three of Malibu’s fabled points once again connecting for some truly honking, blistering, once-in-a-lifetime rides, but Hurricane Marie was already well out in the Pacific. By Friday, it was pretty much all gone, the waves, the TV cameras, the quadcopters, the out-of-towners, the horrible parking situation, leaving behind only an eroded beach and a stack of knocked-down pier pilings.

Two weeks into September, however, everybody in town is still talking about how great it was and debating what they’d seen and gone through. Up on the PCH, a snaggletoothed curbside surfer-philosopher named Charlie is sitting under an umbrella next to the white van that serves as his home and opining, “I’m sorry, but the reality of it is, Allen and Andy were both out, everybody was surfing, and some guys were even surfing good. I got a few waves myself. But Laird was way above everybody. He was larger than life.” Over at Zuma Jay’s Surf Shop, Zuma Jay, who does business with the military, tells the story of how Laird snaked him on a wave and after he complained about it, all Laird could say was, “Sorry, dude.” And then, after a beat: “Hey, I need some 4-ought ammo. I got this great big old gun and I need ammo for it.”

Inside Coogie’s restaurant, Hamilton is ordering a carrot-orange-turmeric-ginger juice to go with his bowl of chicken soup and his five scrambled egg whites with peas, onions, and chicken, and making no apologies. “Look, you can’t go out with 100 or 150 guys and not be dropping in on them or having them drop in on you. When people drop in on me, I’m just like, ‘Sure, no problem.’ I think Andy dropped in on almost every wave I was on. Hey, I don’t even care. And the way I grew up, if I started worrying about what people are thinking about me, I’d be at my house, in my room, not moving.” Then he starts getting all worked up about the guy whose arm he broke. “When you go surfing, there’s an assumption of risk. This accident was unavoidable. But now he’s giving me these indirect passive-aggressive threats, trying to push me like I’m responsible. We got this weird photograph of his board where his kids wrote on it, ‘Laird almost killed my dad. Laird crushed my dad’s arm. Laird, please pay my dad’s bills.’ So now we’ve got this whole drama that I’ve got to deal with.”

At his pad overlooking the PCH and a goodly slice of Malibu water, the top dog himself, Allen Sarlo, is playing back videos of him shooting the pier on Big Wednesday, as it’s now called, to hell with the surfing movie of the same name, and explaining how it’s done. “You stay on the top part of the wave to keep your speed up, aim for a piling, then carve a bottom turn that’ll give you the speed to scoot through the pilings to the other side.” Oh, and watch out for the crosspieces that’ll block your way and kill you if you hit them. They had never been successfully shot. Until now. “See, on this one wave, all of a sudden that big X was in front of me, and I just ducked underneath it and was like, ‘Wow!’ ” He stops the video at the very moment he ducks, and lives, and it is indeed like, wow.

And outside the Becker shop, Angry Andy Lyon is no longer angry.

(Kassia Meador rides a wave. – Photo by Sylvain Cazenave / Corbis)

He’s telling the story of one Wednesday ride in particular, which he shared with surfer girl Kassia Meador. “She is so fucking hot,” he says, “and on that wave we were almost standing in the tube together. Another guy started off between us, but I pushed him out. This was a big wave. We were face-to-face. She trimmed high in the barrel, then when we got through that, we just started doing these really tight go-behinds, where I came around her and then she came around me, crossing over, coming almost straight at each other. And at the end, we just fucking kissed.” He pauses, leans forward. “Her boyfriend probably wouldn’t be stoked on that, but she just gave me a big kiss — the best kiss I’ve ever gotten from her — and I think I said to her, ‘That’s almost as good as if I’d had sex with you.’ We were just out in the water, down at the pier, after the greatest ride, just laughing.”

He shakes his head, a smile on his face. A hot chick on a big wave during the most momentous swell in recent history. It’s something neither of them will probably ever forget.

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