In the Pocket
There’s a set! Look at the set coming! Look at the first one barreling .?.?. here comes one—look at this one, dude! See how you go underground when you’re in there, then it throws you into the shallow? Sometimes there’s a little left that goes into the bay, a re-form that happens when it gets really big—but you’d rather surf somewhere else .?.?. you don’t want to surf out here when it’s bigger than five or six feet. It gets too gnarly, closes out, and throws you on that shallow reef. This is a small wave spot. It’s the steepest small wave around. It’s best when it’s glassy, but the wind’s coming from a weird direction .?.?. see how the wave is balling up?
was a big set we saw earlier, so much bigger than anything else .?.?. that was the north influence. The south influence pushes into the total wave shape. It breaks from two directions here, sometimes at the same time. It gives me a thrill, this kind of wave.
The pristine waters off Maui’s west coast convey majesty and presence befitting the ancient Polynesian Sport of Kings. They are about to be stirred by a tall, angular magician with a swimmer’s build and moves that very few on earth can match. Every time Clay Marzo enters the Pacific—nearly every sunlit hour of every day he’s not traveling, if the waves cooperate—he paddles out to commingle with his soul, which seems to breathe with gills. Waves come to him as if silently summoned, enabling him to turn around, drop in, and unleash rides so dynamic, outrageous, daring, and graceful that you’re left grasping for superlatives. He speeds through waves like a dolphin, explodes off the top like an attacking leopard, inverts and bends into impossible positions like an Olympic gymnast .?.?. and always seems to land on his feet. Like a cat.
Such is the case on a warm morning charged with sea spray and crowded surf spots, which can mean only one thing: the waves are pounding. The season’s first major northwest swell has arrived, bringing waves up to forty feet at infamous Pe’ahi, or Jaws, where tow-in surfers risk their lives as they tackle the monsters calved by a disturbance in the Aleutian Islands, far to the north. Meanwhile, at a break called Windmills, Clay Marzo sits with a videographer, fifteen miles and a world away from the nineteenth-century colonial seaside mystique of Lahaina and the luxury resorts on Kaanapali Beach. To the southeast, Haleakala towers two miles above the island, a conic crown and dormant volcano where Jimi Hendrix once played live, where silence surpassed only by space exists.
Silence. Nothing suits Clay better. He is entirely silent as he faces west, his hands smacking the steering wheel, his body twitching. He surveys the horizon, then the lineup, where waves peel in both directions from their breaking point. His mind works out the wave angles, where they break, how they break, and how the current and ever-present trade winds impact them. When wave faces approach fifteen feet, as they do at Windmills on this day, good choices can become life-saving choices. His focus is laserlike, absolute. Nothing can or will interrupt his concentration.
After studying the waves for forty-five minutes, Clay grabs his board and walks toward the ocean. He walks away from his life on land, a mighty and never-ending struggle between the way his brain is wired and the noise, crowds, social interactions, expectations, anxieties, and facial expressions the rest of us use to get by. He negotiates the everyday world clumsily, always a step off or to the side, it seems. If he’s connected to it at all, which is often not the case. If the activity of the moment isn’t about surfing, eating, basketball, music, or his girlfriend, Jade Barton, he’s oblivious. Uncomfortable.
There’s nothing uncomfortable about the way he approaches the ocean. His coordination while walking rocks and steep trails is superior, rhythmic, and smoother than the way most people amble down the road. His eyes scan from side to side, watching the action of every wave, calculating where to paddle out and position himself. He throws himself into the frothing shorebreak, surfaces, shakes his head a few times, yells out with excitement (or is it the relief of no longer being on land?), and sets off in the direction of the neighboring island of Lanai with paddle strokes that his videographer, Adam Klevin, calls “the best I’ve ever seen. He would win every paddle battle there is. Hands down.”
Minutes later, a set of twelve- to fifteen-foot behemoths approaches. Clay paddles into position. He notices a bump in the wave, a subtle shift beyond the sensory range of most humans. He wheels his board around and strokes to a point he’s already predetermined and anticipated through knowledge and intuition. His deep, powerful strokes are those of a champion swimmer. His instincts are beyond that. When a wave emerges and jacks up to its full two-story height, Clay sits in perfect position. He sticks a GoPro camera in his mouth (he and Klevin are filming), paddles hard, easily catches the wave, and looks down the line, his right foot forward, the direction in which he faces the wave.
Let the show begin. Clay connects in a way one would imagine Mozart diving into the wellspring of his latest symphony, Beethoven hugging the floor with his deaf ear to feel the vibration of his Fifth, or Monet immersing himself in French light. He races down the wave face as it peels behind him, seemingly at one with it. Clay leans like a motorcycle street racer into a deep bottom turn and propels himself up the face, then slots himself inside the pocket of the wave.
Just like that, he’s gone. Disappeared. Out of view. Spectators on the rocky beach or in their cars wonder the same thing: is he coming out?
Seconds later he emerges, arms raised high, GoPro still in his mouth, the shot of him scorching a nasty Windmills barrel certain to be played over and over on his flat-screen later in the day. And soon, on video throughout the world. Whenever Clay Marzo hits it big, the beach buzzes and the world finds out soon enough. “Kid’s off the charts,” says Les Potts, a long-board surfing legend who’s produced and witnessed plenty of greatness in his fifty years of surfing. “How’d he find that tube?”
This is where rides usually end, where most surfers pull out and paddle into position for another wave while story-building their ride to everyone else in the lineup.
Clay is warming up for round two. His fans on the beach wonder, what the hell is he going to do next? They cannot guess, but they know they may see something no other surfer in the world will attempt, let alone execute successfully. Anything is possible.
Clay whips to the bottom of the wave to gain speed and propulsion, then smacks it off the top, getting a few feet of air before landing in the wave. He throws the tail of his board sideways, like a skateboarder in a half-pipe, leaving a rooster tail of displaced water, and descends onto the diminishing lip backwards.
Now it’s time for the Merlin moment, when a wizard’s instincts take over: about to be swallowed by the massive turbulence, and while lying back almost in a sleeping position, he whips the tail of the board back around. With cat-quick moves and the flexibility of a long-standing yogi, he j...