Why Jay? The Naming of a New Maverick’s Surf Contest

Why Jay? The Naming of a New Maverick’s Surf Contest

Why Jay? The Naming of a New Maverick’s Surf Contest
In the Green Room with Mike Wallace

It has been a memorable year of extremes in the surfing world, including the untimely death of 3-time World Champ Andy Irons and the 10th World title for Kelly Slater. Yet when Mother Nature makes the call, Maverick’s will once again surge front-and-center into the impact zone. On December 1 the window will open for “The Jay at Maverick’s Big Wave Invitational” and will remain open until February 28 (Ed: except for blackout period between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day).

By a fortuitous accident of geography, the reefs off of Pillar Point have for eons funneled muscular long-period winter swells into cavernous bowls and towering walls off of Half Moon Bay, which has comparatively only recently rolled out its welcome mat for this new threshold of surf legend and lore. For one epic day this winter our cozy hamlet will be thrown into a frenzy of activity as the contest machinery whirs to life, spectators jostle, shutters click, jet skis hum and locals either rejoice or duck for cover. Why, then, name the contest after a cheery, blue-eyed kid from Santa Cruz with the disarming grin who drowned on June 15, 2001, free-diving in the Maldives?

Well, in a world full of compromises, traffic jams, deadlines, dead-end jobs, bills, taxes and any number of other banal distractions, Jay lived his brief life with the rare sort of purity, joy and focus that most people never achieve in a lifetime. Pacifican Matt Ambrose vividly remembers the wide-eyed grom who “blew past me straight to the bowl” and said it “looked fun” before swinging into a past-vertical freefall. A less precocious veteran would have had a gut check, knowing that he’s way too deep if closer to the peak than Ambrose.

But from the moment Jay launched into public consciousness at age 16 on December 19, 1994, on the cover of Surfer, crucified in the maw of a feathering lip of that very same wave, he surfed his life in the sweet spot, right in the curl, making Maverick’s his second home. At times Jay was so excited to greet a rising swell, he was known to sleep overnight on the cliffs to be the first to crack it at dawn. Surely that’s grounds for residency, or squatter’s rights in our town? How many people can honestly say that their path inspires that level of passion?

In his too-brief 22 years, Jay’s preparation and athleticism was only outclassed by his infectious personality, which deeply touched those who knew him, surfed with him and loved him. And one person who knew him well was his Maverick’s mentor and tow partner, Jeff Clark. The pioneering big wave gladiator and the young gun built a special relationship in the water, logging countless sessions seared in the memories of a small cadre of awed witnesses. Clark recalls, “Mike Gerhardt, one of Jay’s best friends, brought me a bunch of stickers recently that said: ‘Never Forget Jay!’ And I said, ‘Mike, what do I need those for? I’ll NEVER forget Jay.’”

On just one of those many special days, Clark threw Jay the tow rope on an improbably giant and clean swell on December 22, 2000, and told the few remaining stragglers in the channel: “The sun’s going down, it’s 25-foot and we’re going to show you the future.” With the harbor horn bleating its lonely call, an amber mist on the water and the size of the swell amplified by the 20-30 foot spinnakers of spray and dark silhouettes of the waves, Clark zipped out the back and whipped Jay into a bomb. It was one of the longest rides ever witnessed at Maverick’s and you could only follow its progress by watching the ski on the shoulder with Jay completely engulfed by the shadows. Kicking out 45 seconds later, past the rocks, Jay would have probably continued all the way into Surfer’s Beach and high-fived a few groms if the wave hadn’t prolapsed back into the maelstrom.

As noted local sports journalist Bruce Jenkins sums it all up, Jay set the tone for future generations: “There’s only one thing about the Maverick’s contest that reminds me of Jay, and that’s the contest day itself. It’s always a huge success – fog, wind, rising tide, whatever, to say nothing of perfect days – because of the spirit in the water. It all came to a head three years ago, when Greg Long split his winnings among the five other finalists, but the Maverick’s lineup always shines when the very best, most committed guys are in the water. All the egos, sponsorship deals and personal agendas are cast aside, and nobody epitomized that attitude more than Jay. If he got the biggest wave on a certain day, he only wanted to talk about Grant’s wave, or Ambrose’s, or how good one of the hot young kids looked out there. His soul was pure; nobody could recall ever seeing him out of character.”

Jay had the audacity to live to the fullest, push over the ledge and laugh at life’s precariousness. In this sense, surfing Maverick’s is better characterized as a dance of life, rather than cheating death. This is why those of us chained to desk jobs and the daily grind are drawn to witness the contest. To be transported for a fleeting few seconds when time is suspended and a relatively puny human stands up, dwarfed by the enormity of the universe, pulls in, and comes back out to do it again, rejoicing in his good fortune to be alive in such a place.

As Maverick’s veteran Grant Washburn puts it: “For me, Jay represents the personification of stoke. Enlightenment is usually described as living in the moment, and enjoying every minute… and people work hard to achieve that state, but I think Jay was born with it. He had this very special disposition, a way of treating everyone like an old friend. He also had a habit of giggling at everything, and it was contagious. As we grow up, most of us lose part of the magical feeling that comes from just having fun. Big wave surfing is a way for us to get back to the wonder of being a kid. When a big set hits the reef, everyone becomes a wide-eyed grom. We all tap into our inner Jay – that amped-up 15-year old who was drawn to Maverick’s. Jay is that rare individual who makes a lasting impression on everyone he meets. If one of my kids had been a boy, he would have been named Jay. We had girls, but my wife liked the name Jaden… so I asked if we could throw a ‘y’ in there. Now my younger daughter Jayden is almost 6.”

Unlike Eddie Aikau, the Waimea lifeguard who sacrificed his life at age 31 on March 17, 1978, to save his crew stranded aboard the outrigger canoe Hokule’a in the Molokai channel, Jay didn’t put his life on the line to save others. Aikau made over a thousand undocumented rescues, but of course couldn’t be bothered to do the paperwork. Aikau selflessly put others’ lives before his own and, in addition to being a true waterman, set the standard for Aloha and Hawaiian pride.

In contrast, it was by living for the moment that Jay provided his lasting gift. Rising above pettiness, avarice, selfishness and other human frailties, he led by example with joy, camaraderie and inclusiveness that all too often seems to get lost in the rip tides of negativism. To “Live Like Jay” is to embody goodness, friendship and stoke. As contest organizer Katherine Kelly Clark recalls, “Jay was an angel come to earth. He used to come into my café and just light it up. I loved him like a son or a kid brother – nothing can replace him. Jay belonged to the world, crossed all barriers and rose above it all.”

What did these two legendary watermen share in common? Neither of our humble heroes sought the limelight; it came and found them. Both innately knew the secrets to living a simple life fully and sharing their gifts for doing so. Both, by their shining example, compel us to reflect on our own better nature. And, both were taken from us too soon.

Mike Wallace has surfed for over two decades on the East and West coasts, Hawaii, Europe and NorCal. Currently a resident of Moss Beach with his family of four, he can often be found haunting the beaches south of Devil’s Slide in search of the perfect sandbar with his blind dog, Moose.

(Article originally published (in modified format) by the Half Moon Bay Review and SurfPulse thanks them for the permission to post here.)