“Adventuring can be for the ordinary person with ordinary qualities..."
“But you were thinking, ‘We should do that?’” I ask Peter Brotsch, a handsome, silver-hair’d 73-year-old gardener from Sanford some thirty miles north of Orlando. “You were thinking, ‘We should paddle out there?’”
He pauses and I can hear his mental gears turning over. Can feel the warm humidity of Central Florida. See the Spanish Moss dangling from Southern live oaks.
“Yeah.” He drawls after some time. “We were thinking there’s a wave, a monster of a wave, but we need to surf it.”
“Mavericks is still a monster…” I laugh.
“We called the whole setup Maverick…” he gently corrects. “Just Maverick, named after Alex’s roommate’s dog.”
And California’s big-wave gem, its discovery and conquering, has an iconic story as grand as the first climbing of Mt. Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first step on the moon by Neil Armstrong. We all know it by heart. That surfers had ridden the inside corner at Pillar Point, just outside of Half Moon Bay as early as 1961. We know that Jeff Clark, a fifteen-year-old local paddled out to the main peak in 1975, the first to do so, and rode it alone for fifteen years, teaching himself to surf regular instead of goofy to better conquer the towering rights. We know that it was brought to public light in a 1992 Surfer magazine story titled Cold Sweat.
We know because it has been committed to paper and never disputed but, like pre-literate cultures, surfing’s history is mostly told person-to-person, mouth-to-ear as surfers are, in large part, still pre-literate ourselves.
The magazines were only ever read by a few. The histories by fewer and so while Jeff Clark’s bravery should still be applauded, his claim to being first might be one step too far and let us return to Central Florida and Peter Brotsch who left Ohio the day President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas.
“How wild is that?” he says through a low whistle. “We packed up and moved from Ohio to California on November 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was shot, to San Mateo, and I was sixteen-years old.”
“Did you know about surfing before then?” I ask. “Had you always wanted to be a surfer?”
“Oh hell no.” He responds. “The girls walking around San Mateo High School are what made me want to be a surfer. All the gorgeous ones, the prom queens and beauty queens were dating surfers and that was it. That’s what I wanted to be right then and there so I went out to Santa Cruz and figured it out.”
Peter picked the aquatic dance up relatively quickly, starting at Cowell’s, moving on to Pleasure Point before landing at the famed Steamer Lane where he caught his first biggish wave.
“How was it?” query.
“Oh my god, it was like…” He searches for words. “If I had to do a standing broad jump off my board I probably could have jumped twenty-feet. It was just… you can’t describe it. You really and truly can’t. There are no words to describe the feeling of taking off on a wave that is over your head.”
That first adrenaline shot sent him in his friends on a quest for more, for bigger, for less crowded, for adventure and soon they were surfing Princeton there in Half Moon Bay. An open ocean beachbreak with a rock jetty that can handle some size.
Peter continues, “One day in 1968 we were coming over the hill on our way to Princeton and there was a car in front of us that had boards on it and we didn’t know who it was because we had never seen the car before and, you know, and it was a pretty close knit fraternity. So when we got down there, they didn’t stop at Princeton. They kept going. We watched them and thought, ‘Maybe they’re going up to Pacifica or somewhere up there…’ but no, they turned off and we could see ‘em because the road into Pillar Point goes off the Coast Highway then wraps around the point so we could see the car. You can’t see the waves and you can’t see all the water and the rocks out there but we could see their car and we wondered, ‘Where the hell they’re going?’ So we went out after ‘em. You know, just to follow ‘em. And that’s the first time we saw it.”
It is a cold, rocky, formidable place, even on the most inviting days, and I was instantly curious if Peter and his friends paddled out after them. He laughs, “No, no, no, no. We did NOT paddle out there and I’ll tell you something. We stood there and we watched them maybe three or four times after that too and they had a hell of a time catching a wave because the things were so thick and…”
“…They were on the inside corner, right?” I interject, needing to know the exact facts here. The exact order, times, places.
“Yes.” Peter responds. “They were on the inside those occasions we watched them.”
“But were you looking at the main peak and thinking, ‘Let’s surf there?’”
“Yeah.” He drawls after some time. “We were thinking there’s a wave, a monster of a wave, but we need to surf it. We all felt we needed to watch for a while. We needed to see, you know, is there a consistency to the break? Is there a consistency to the size of the wave? What’s the whole story because, see, I’ll give you a little background, Chas. When you surf up and down the west coast. One day you may see a spot like Tunitas Creek or Pescadero or one of those places and the break is beautiful. Ok? Three days later there’s no break. So we were always very cautious about going out right away unless we knew the place, and of course, we didn’t know that place.”
I deeply understand not wanting to rush headlong into the monstrous, growling, freezing Pacific, having grown up in its icy claw, but need to get the timeline sorted so ask, “You watched it, what.. four or five times and then…”
“Actually we watched it that whole winter of 1967.” Peter clarifies. “We didn’t go out that winter. We did not go out that winter and then in the fall of 1968, the swell started building, I guess, a little bit early, and we could tell it was building because the inside waves were bigger; you know, at Princeton we were experiencing instead of four to five foot waves, we were experiencing six to eight foot waves, and the peak was getting up to toward ten feet so we thought, ‘Well, you know, the swell is starting to build a little bit so let’s go out and see what Pillar Point looks like.’ So we went out and, you know, it wasn’t that big. Probably fifteen, sixteen… yeah fifteen sixteen feet. So we all agreed. We all agreed, all of us that we all agree, number one, and then number two, we all go out together. Then, when one of us felt the urge we just took off, and it was Sopjes who took off first, you know, he was a gutsy guy. He was 6’2” – 6’4” probably 240 lbs. Ended up playing football, got a college scholarship, so he was a big kid and he took off first…”
“But do you remember your first wave?” I inquire, caring about Sopjes, which I hear as “Sausage” but caring more about Peter and feeling the distinct crumbling of legendary Jeff Clark’s Mavericks ballad. The saga of one brave man alone in the mist.
This time Peter doesn’t pause. “Oh yeah. I remember like it was yesterday.”
I insist he describes it even though he just finished saying a there are no words to describe the feeling of taking off on a wave that is over your head but he kindly acquiesces.
“Yeah I mean, it’s just a… it’s just a wave? Actually, I took off a little bit late because it seemed like it was easier to catch it taking off a little bit late so as soon as I got up, man, I was going right. Hard right. And I got out in front of the break and it was just a smooth ride, man. I loved it. So then after that it was just nothing. It was a piece of cake. But then as the swell started to build, toward the middle of the winter, we just… we didn’t go out anymore.”
I need to know if he and his crew were the first to ever surf that main peak.
“We knew that we weren’t. We knew we weren’t the first people.”
I parry, “So you know that somebody else surfed it before you.”
“I knew those guys we watched surfed it before us too even though they never told us about it, and we never watched them.”
“But you really surfed the main peak?” I ask, again, needing confirmation.
“Oh, absolutely. A bunch of times.” Peter responds and his voice is filled with confidence.
Now I wonder, “So you were the second? Or fifth? Or… how many people had surfed it before you?”
“There’s no way to know.” He answers. “I mean, there is no history. How did we know? How did those guys know? How did Jeff Clark know? Did he have somebody watching it all this time? There is just no way to know.”
Peter first found out of Clark’s claim only four or five years ago when he visited his wife’s sister l in Palo Alto.
“So, one year we went out there…” he tells me “…and one day her husband says, ’I want to go up to Mavericks.’ I said, ‘Where’s Mavericks?’ And he said, ‘In Half Moon Bay.’ And I said, ‘You gotta be kidding me. Where the hell is Mavericks?’ And so we went and once we got there, I told him, ‘I’ve been here before. I’ve surfed this place before… I mean, I didn’t surf them that big, but I surfed this place before years ago.’ And that’s how I found out that Clark said he was the first one to surf it.”
Surf history, largely pre-literate, but I need to pass this fantastical adventure, this complete narrative altering, through surfing’s most celebrated and only surf historian, famed author of both the Encyclopedia of Surfing and the History of Surfing Matt Warshaw.
“Question…” I text while walking shirtless down a swampy road. “Is it undisputed that Jeff Clark was the first ever Maverick’s surfer? I mean, Maverick?”
“Tiny dispute from some guy whose name I forget, but I think safe to say, yes, undisputed.” He responds immediately.
“What if I told you a 73-year-old gardener in Sanford, Florida surfed it six or seven years before Jeff and others surfed it before him?”
“The peak?” Warshaw wanted to know and then doubted it. “Hard to imagine doing it on longboards, pre-leash.”
But Peter Brotsch doesn’t even wince when I later pass along Warshaw’s dubious eyebrow lift.
“Maybe hard to imagine, but it was done. All we had were longboards. The other thing that is not being taken into consideration is that the swell only gets real big in the middle of winter. Or at least that’s the way it was in our days there. We rode the peak many times at 15 feet before those massive winter swells. Guys that surf now really don’t understand how things were back then, but they can all believe what they want. I lived it.”
Sir Edmund Hillary, first conqueror of Mt. Everest once said, “Adventuring can be for the ordinary person with ordinary qualities, such as I regard myself.”
Such as a handsome, silver-hair’d 73-year old gardener from Sanford some thirty miles north of Orlando who has a tale to tell as robust as any.
Such as any surfer who tucks a board under her or his arm and heads out the door into the great wide open where certainty be damned.