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Remembering the first wave

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Posted: Monday, June 10, 2013 12:26 pm | Updated: 1:04 pm, Mon Jun 10, 2013.

Surfing on the Coastside has deep roots, and perhaps no one is better positioned to recall them than 81-year-old Alex Matienzo, the man who named Mavericks.

Long before Mavericks became a contender for the marquee big-wave surf spot on the planet and the site of a contest that garners global attention, even before Jeff Clark stamped his name on the reef through years of solitary devotion - people were aware of the big peak off Pillar Point. Some even gave it a try.

"It was March of 1961," said Matienzo of the day the break was named. "It was a weekday. Dick Knotmeyer, Jim Thompson and I were just looking for surf. We were able to drive all the way out to where the breakwater starts now. We could see the south part of the break from the road. From up on the bluff we could see the whole break and it looked about 10 feet from there. When we got out there, it was more like 15 feet."

The three paddled out. But it was then that the wave's namesake came into play and claimed a starring role.

"I got kind of stuck with the dog," said Matienzo. That dog was a white German shepherd named Maverick.

"He came out three times and I had to take him back in. Finally I had to go in and tie him to the car," Matienzo said. "I was pooped by then." Matienzo said his buddies got more waves than he did that day, but that none of them were riding the steep, pitching bowl that Clark made famous years later.

"It was such a steep wave, our boards had these fat tails and they couldn't dig in," said Matienzo. He said they never surfed the place at the size that the place suggests today. For these pioneers it was a 12 to 15 foot proposition at most.

It is always a touchy business to determine who surfed a famous break first, especially one where so much daring and prestige is wrapped up in the endeavor. Even for Matienzo, it's an open question.

"Charlie Grimm and David Dyc said they rode that wave first," said Matienzo of a pair of pioneering surfers of the era. "I said, Dick (Knotmeyer) wants to name it Mavericks after the dog, and they weren't happy about that. They said, 'we surfed it first' - and I said, 'I don't care - I named it first!'"

In any event it is a name that has stuck, even if the dog himself didn't. Matienzo said he had to give Maverick away some time later to the daughters of an employer. Without his sun and salt lifestyle, Maverick's fur got darker over time. Matienzo said he lost the last photo of the dog, one the girls sent him years ago.

Matienzo came by his water skills in the city, in ways that seem almost unimaginable today.

Born in the San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach in 1925, he moved close to Ocean Beach in the 1930s and gravitated to the water.

"During that time there were a lot of people out of work. It was still the depression then," he said. "There were lots of adults who would watch us. We would get swept out by the rips and they would help us out."

Matienzo and his friends learned how to navigate the treacherous rip currents out at Ocean Beach by swimming parallel to the shore to escape. They began to body surf and in 1941 they shaped an eight-foot chunk of redwood into a rudimentary board in their high school wood shop.

Matienzo joined the Merchant Marines in 1943 and took to sea, a common path for many California surfers in the era of World War II.

"My first trip out of San Francisco was right down to Guadalcanal and I got a taste of what it was like," Matienzo said. "We were bombed twice that first trip."

On his next trip out, Matienzo ended up in Hawaii and rented a board at Waikiki with a fellow sailor. The two men looked Hawaiian from a distance, he said, and their floundering with the big, waterlogged board caught the attention of Duke Kahanamoku, the legendary surfing ambassador, Olympic swimmer and Hawaiian surf patriarch.

"When we opened our mouths, he said, 'hey you aren't from here,' and then he told us what to do on the turns," Matienzo recalled.

Matienzo watched Kahanamoku surf, dragging his foot in the water to gracefully angle the fin-less plank across the face, and running to sink the nose of the board and pivot for a flawless "Hawaiian pullout" at the end of the ride.

"The next day I rented the board again, and I watched that Duke surf again," he said.

The Coastside had old surf spots in those days, with waves lost to memory as surely as the Duke's line across a sweeping Hawaiian face. Matienzo remembers four different breaks within Pillar Point Harbor, before the breakwater was completed and the final pulses from the south were blocked.

"There used to be an old pier near where the creek came out (where the Harbor House Conference Center is now)," he said. "And there was a real smooth, fast wave - a right and a left. We used to just call it the creek."

Matienzo has followed the new era in local surf, even if he says he has been "too lazy" to get in the water for the last six years. He said he needs a new wetsuit.

He has been to all the Mavericks Surf Contests, except for last year's, and he says he doesn't begrudge anyone their good fortune or their efforts. He agrees that Jeff Clark has earned his association with the break, and says that no one ever did anything close to what Clark started doing off Pillar Point.

"It's good for them. They want to make the money," he said of today's surfing entrepreneurs and board-builders. "I never was that way. I could have made money back in the '60s, but I would have had to spend too much time out of the water." Matienzo worked for many years as a nurse in San Mateo.

George Moore is another local surfer, younger than Matienzo at 59, who is often mentioned as an early Mavericks rider. He remembers a small community of surfers in Half Moon Bay in the 1960s where everyone knew each other and spent all day at the beach. He lives in Half Moon Bay again now, after many years spent in Idaho and overseas.

"When I came back from Idaho I just didn't see people hanging there as much any more, they don't just come down to talk. It doesn't have that local feeling."

Moore thinks the Mavericks contest and interest in the wave is a sign of the times, and not a bad one.

"The world is pushed for new things, and new dangerous things to do," he said. People want to see big waves, big deeds and big consequences, he said, even if they don't necessarily think of themselves that way. But he is glad that Mavericks put the San Mateo County surf scene on the map.

"Just tell the young surfers not to push off on the old men when they're passing by," Moore said. "You never know who you're talking to."

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