Mavericks – Not Made for TV
By Mark Neuling
Photojournalist for TechTV
Friday February 27, 2004

It was just past 6 a.m. when I pulled into the Albertson’s parking lot in Half Moon Bay. As I was getting my gear ready in the back of the car a slow drizzle began. I didn’t know if this was to be a portent for the rest of the day or not, but I hastily finished arranging my equipment and got back in the car. My watch said 6:13 a.m.

I was to meet with Becky Worley and another freelance cameraman at a quarter past six. Since “Becky-time” is usually 20 minutes late I reclined my seat and closed my eyes. A minute or two later Worley’s big black Ford cruises past my car and circles, shark-like, on the glistening parking lot pavement. Will wonders never cease I think to myself, Becky is actually on time. I crank over my engine and follow her to a parking space a short distance away. The other shooter meets us and we hold a brief meeting in a small coffee shop that’s probably only been open for a few minutes.

We’ve never worked with this particular shooter; I had only met him the day before. He’s far more alert and awake than I am. Worely buys a muffin and some water and then briefs him on the shoot and what she’s looking for.

The day before The Mavericks Surf Contest was given the green light. The contest is held anytime from December 15th through March 31st. It’s supposed to be a yearly contest but hasn’t been held for several years due to the lack of big surf as well as the lack of a sponsor. After studying surf conditions using a variety of buoy information, satellite photos and weather charts, Jeff Clark the Contest Director, places a call to two dozen of the best big-wave surfers in the world. They have 24 hours to make their way to Half Moon Bay, California; about an hours drive south of San Francisco.

The waves they will be surfing can crest at 50 feet or more. They break about a half mile off-shore on a shallow reef. One surfer was killed at this contest in December of 1994. The prize money for first place is five thousand dollars.

Becky and I will be on the media boat. The other photographer will be shooting the surf contest from the cliffs above the beach. She also wants him to get some reaction shots of the crowd as they oh and ah over the action. I wash a Dramamine down with some of her water.

After getting our media credentials our little band splits up, Worley and I head to the media boat where the photographers and reporters can watch the heats from a distance of 100 meters or so. It is an interesting collection of people and gear; most are in their late 20's to early 30's, only four or five of us are past 40. Many seem to have surfer backgrounds. Cameras range from point and shoot digitals to medium format, there are only two of us onboard with broadcast television cameras.

Worley and I have had bad luck around water with our gear. She has been admonished by our news director to bring back all the gear. I remind her that we always bring our equipment back; it just isn’t all working when we return.

We board a dowager party/fishing boat out of Pillar Point Harbor. A pot of coffee is brewing in the galley. The captain of the vessel gives a brief safety lecture, one I can tell he’s done many times. Two comments stand out. The lavatories are to be used for only two things, if you have to vomit, do it over the side. Becky prays under her breath that she doesn’t throw up. His other piece of advice is one that most sailors will know, one hand for the boat and one hand for you. With that we set sail shortly after dawn, the rain has stopped and the harbor is calm. It’s the last smooth water we’ll see for the next seven hours.

Dawn breaks over Pillar Point Harbor the day of The Mavericks Surf Contest. February 27, 2004.
©Mark Neuling 2004

Photographers have a pack mentality. Most of us head to the front of the boat to vie for camera positions. Everyone’s adrenaline is up. The boat begins to pitch and yaw; there are nervous jokes about “The Perfect Storm.” I shoot a few minutes of tape. The captain comes on the PA, “There will be a little rough water once we leave the breakwater," yeah no kidding I think. I decide to sit on a bench beneath the wheelhouse and wait until we’re farther out. I grip my camera by its handle and rest it in my lap and frame a shot of one of the other photographers silhouetted at the bow of the boat. I roll on the shot for five or six seconds when the right side of the boat suddenly lifts. The bench I’m sitting on has unexpectedly become a roller coaster ride without any seatbelt, my camera flips on it’s side and I somehow mange to get my left leg underneath me to prevent being dumped on the deck. One young woman asks me if I’m alright, she won’t be the first person this day to ask about my well being.

Once my brief rodeo ride is over I decide to check the video to see what it looked like from the camera’s perspective. I hit rewind, nothing happens, a red light flashes, the camera has jammed.

Cameras have personalities and quirks. Even though mine is beat up and scarred it’s only failed me once in two years. The engineers say there is nothing wrong with the deck, it’s the recycled tapes we use, but there is a strange juju between my camera and Worley. This only happens on her shoots. I turn the camera off and let it rest for a few seconds. When I power it up again the red light is off. I hit the eject button, the door opens and the DVCPRO cassette pops out. I carefully inspect the tape and then gently load it back in the deck. I can hear the heads threading the tape; we’ve just dodged the biggest bullet we’ll face all day.

When we reach the competition area about a half-mile off-shore there is an armada of boats the likes of which haven’t been seen since Dunkirk. Party boats, fishing boats, one lone sail boat tacking back and forth and dozens of zodiacs and jet-skis. Most of which have at least one photographer shooting stills or video.

A helicopter circles the area throughout the day with a cameraman shooting from the open door. At one point the chopper pilot makes a low-level, head on pass at the waves, barely skimming over their crests. He must be getting spray on his windshield I think. Fingers of foam reach upwards towards the chopper issuing a challenge; don’t fly so low or we will pull you in. Worley knows a chopper pilot in Maui who twice has gone in the drink. For the rest of the day the pilot maintains a healthy altitude. Still, it feels like a scene from “Apocalypse Now.”

As the competition starts I again make my way to the railing. I envy the still photographers. They are like cowboys riding a Brahma bull. They grip the rail with one hand and shoot with the other, firing off four or five frame bursts. These modern auto-everything cameras, sigh.

Two awesome newspaper photographers, Mathew Sumner (L) of the San Mateo County Times and Frederic Larson (R) of the San Francisco Chronicle.
©Mark Neuling 2004

But I need two hands on my big camera, so I decide to try and shoot from my knees; it works for football and basketball, why not surfing. But the boat slams from wave to wave, I’m getting poor shots and nausea has settled in my stomach. I call a retreat to the back of the boat. As we make our way amidships I look down at the palm of my right hand, the base of my ring finger is black and blue. I had gripped the camera so hard when I was slammed on the bench that I bruised my hand.

In between heats there is time to take a break. Worley watches over my camera as I make my way to the back of the boat. I’m giving in to the ball of nausea that is slowly churning inside. I lean over the side and gag once or twice. Surprisingly little comes out, I’ve actually managed to keep most of my breakfast down, but I only feel a little better.

I go back to bench and sit, out of the game. There is one other TV photographer on board the boat, he’s lugging a big Ikegami BETACAM. I don’t know what station he’s with but he joins me and we compare notes. He too has had a difficult time framing shots in the heavy seas. And every time we do get a clean shot of a surfer he disappears in a trough or another boat blocks our view. He admits to feeling sick as well. Several years back a CNN crew begged to get off the media boat.

The author feeling a whiter shade of pale.
Photo courtesy of Becky Worley.

The wipe-out of the day happens before us. Several surfers catch the face of a wave and are suddenly pitched forward into the maelstrom. Their colorful boards spin on end making for a dramatic wipe-out. Neither of us lifts our camera to record it.

I’ve forced myself not to look at my watch, but the hours have passed and I need to use the head. I can barely turn around in the closet size bathroom. As I fumble with the layers of clothing I’m wearing the boat lurches and the lid to the toilet slams shut. Oh this could be very interesting I think if that happens again. But I manage to take care of my business without further incident. It was the steadiest shot I made all day.

I duck inside the small cabin to warm up. It looks like a triage. The coffee-maker is splayed in the sink, the coffee grounds spread about like shrapnel. One woman sits, head in her hands, eyes tightly closed. I can’t imagine what she’s thinking. Another photographer reclines on one of the benches with a shiny new Nikon in her lap. Occasionally throughout the day she’ll make her way on deck, fire off a few frames and then withdraw back inside. Several others eventually join them. I actually feel better on deck.

TechTV reporter Becky Worley.
©Mark Neuling 2004
Becky offers me some crackers and a cookie. I only nibble at them. She passes me some water and another Dramamine. While she’s sitting next to me I begin to shiver. The chills, like contractions, had been coming sooner and lasting longer. From out of nowhere she produces a fleece vest for me to wear. She peels off her gloves and gives them to me. “You have to hold the camera,” she says. I have now been broken down completely, reduced to wearing women’s clothing.

But as the morning passes into afternoon and the tide comes in, the waves drop a little, there is less wind and it feels warmer. I finally get my sea-legs; the knot of nausea in my stomach has finally unraveled. I feel like I’ve just gotten over a bout of the flu.

Worley and I go to work for the remaining heats and the finals. I brace my self against a bulkhead amidships. As I follow the surfers beginning their plunge down the walls of water she spots who will be following next into the abyss. I hear her time and again say “inside” or “outside”. I just pan back and forth and don’t have to search very hard for the next rider. Finally we start to get some decent shots.

The ride back to the harbor seems to take no time, the ocean feels like glass.

Back at Becky’s truck we hook up with the cameraman we had on shore. He’s sunburned but effervescent about the footage he’s gotten. The freelancer has recorded lots of terrific sequences from the competition as well as fantastic shots of the crowd lining the beach. Worley seems pleased. He’s stoked about his days work. I just quietly stow my gear away. It wasn’t my day to get the game winning hit. After he’s left I confess to Becky that I feel like I let her down. But a great reporter like Becky crafts the perfect ending. “You fought your way back,” she reminds me.

That night I’m dog tired, my legs ache and I sleep for ten hours. This day has given a new meaning to the term “newspuke.”

Mark Neuling

© Mark Neuling 2004

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
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