The fight-or-flight sensation is quickly followed by extreme focus as you move into position before the massive 60-foot wave takes form. If you miscalculate, if your positioning is off just slightly, you’ll wipe out and quite possibly drown.
The wave comes, catapulting you high above the ocean as you stand up on your board, riding free. Time slows down and the gravitational forces push against your face — a rush that can’t be experienced on dry land.
“That heightened sense of awareness is what we love,” San Francisco big-wave surfer Grant Washburn said. “It’s superliberating.”
This is the high that Washburn sought out when he made his first trek to Mavericks — located a half-mile off Pillar Point near Half Moon Bay — in January 1992, and it’s the thrill he’s tried to capture on film in the documentaries “Riding Giants,” “The Big Swell” and “Maverick’s: A Documentary Film.”
At 45, Washburn continues to chase big waves and he’s looking to win his first Mavericks Invitational, with the window for the event having opened Friday and running through March 31.
“He is a bull in the water and a gentle giant on land,” said surfer Ryan Seelbach, who also lives in The City. “He has been critical in how the big-wave community has developed through the years into an extremely well-united bunch of athletes.”
Long before Washburn experienced his first thrill at Mavericks, he dreamed about big waves in class, covering his elementary school notebooks with drawings of enormous swells as a child in Connecticut.
“I used to draw pictures of Snoopy on big waves and it was like, ‘How small of a Snoopy can I draw?’” Washburn said. “I was obsessed with big waves even though I wasn’t around them.”
Washburn learned how to surf in New Jersey, where he spent his summers with his grandparents, who owned a house on the beach. But even as a kid, he longed for bigger waves.
“I remember being really frustrated when I was 12 years old,” he said. “I always wanted the waves to be bigger, and they never really got there.”
He finally tasted the excitement of riding larger waves when a hurricane hit the Mid-Atlantic in his early teens, spawning intense, 12-foot swells off the Jersey shoreline. As the rest of the kids his age retreated to the beach, Washburn paddled out to sea.
“It was magic,” Washburn said. “I would have recurring dreams of that early experience, where the waves were huge and I’d wake up, and I wouldn’t want to be awake. So, it did lay something down in my subconscious.”
After playing college basketball at Trinity College in Connecticut, the 6-foot-5 surfer moved to The City at the urging of a friend. He found a place along Great Highway and surfed at Ocean Beach almost every day.
Eventually, a friend showed him pictures of Peninsula surfer Jeff Clark riding enormous swells at Mavericks. Driven by curiosity, Washburn made the trek down to the now-famous surf spot and he was mesmerized by the spectacle.
“Seeing it in person was absolutely mind-boggling,” Washburn said. “I’d never dreamed of anything like it.”
Washburn caught four waves that day and he wiped out on each attempt.
“I don’t even remember my rides because they were so unimportant to the day,” Washburn said. “I just wanted to see every wave — I never wanted to leave. I stayed there all day. I was the last person out of the parking lot.”
After that, Washburn showed up at Mavericks whenever the swells were breaking. He wanted to learn everything he could about big-wave surfing.
“He was eager to go,” Clark said.
Washburn supported his habit by editing film for a production company in the evenings. He also shot weddings and worked for NFL Films.
Eventually, Washburn started documenting the action at Mavericks too — a natural marriage of his two passions. In 1998, Washburn produced and directed “Maverick’s: A Documentary Film,” he was the cinematographer for the 2004 documentary “Riding Giants,” he worked the camera for the 2012 Hollywood film “Chasing Mavericks,” and he taught the movie’s star, Gerard Butler, how to surf.
With the possibility of Mavericks happening any day, Washburn is focusing his energy on winning the contest for the first time. He’s been a finalist on three occasions.
“I reckon it’s my turn, man,” he said. “I can still do it at a high level.”
Contest window: Opened Friday and runs through March 31
Viewing: The beaches and coastal bluffs closest to the break will be closed to the public
Tickets: People wishing to watch the contest can purchase $15 tickets to the Mavericks viewing festival, which will be held on the grounds of the Oceano Hotel & Spa