Was This Past Colossal Maverick's Session Bigger Than The Famous Week of '94?

Tony Butt

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Updated 39d ago

Maverick's has been in the limelight for almost three decades. Over that time it has seen several epic winters, each one with barriers broken and riders achieving things that were previously thought impossible.

This winter, 2020-21, is yet another example, with some people calling it the biggest, cleanest year they can remember. For the past month or more, wave heights have barely dropped below about ten feet and local winds have been almost non-existent. A few really massive swells with super-clean conditions have been ridden – swells that a few years ago would have been considered off-limits or tow-only.

So we thought it would be interesting to do a comparison, go back to almost the very beginning of Maverick's as we know it, and see how 2020-21 compared to the famous winter of 1994. With the tragic death of Mark Foo and the famous ‘Iron-Cross’ wipeout of Jay Moriarty, the winter of 1994 firmly put Maverick's on the map as the heaviest big-wave spot on the planet. But were the swells that year as big and clean as this year?

Animated charts for Dec 10-24 1994, showing continuous swells hitting Maverick's.

Animated charts for Dec 10-24 1994, showing continuous swells hitting Maverick's.

The famous 1994 run of swell began around the first week of December and abruptly ended on the 23rd. In reality, it continued after that, but the 23rd was the day that Mark Foo died. The tragedy of Foo and the fact that the weather turned bad in the afternoon with onshore winds and rain, symbolically marked the end of that legendary run of swell.

At the time of writing (late January 2021) the swells have been pumping non-stop since just after Christmas. There have been several really big days, including Jan 10, when Peter Mel caught that huge wave from the outside reef – a wave that some people consider to be the best ever surfed at Maverick's.

Jay's iron cross wipeout.

Mel was also surfing Maverick's in 1994, and he was already recognised as one of the best out there. Grant Washburn was also a major presence in 1994, and, just like Mel, still surfs Maverick's practically every time it breaks. Over the years, Washburn has accumulated a vast amount of knowledge on the place and is considered the topmost authority on Maverick's.

So we asked him to give us an on-the-ground view of how this season compares with the legendary winter of 1994: “The thing that stands out for both runs [1994 and 2020/21] is the pattern. Multiple big systems were running right at us, with new long-period swells picking up before the previous ones dropped. Both also had nice weather parked on the coast, resulting in Maverick’s breaking clean for weeks. That being said, the big days this year were significantly bigger.”

Pressure chart for 18 Dec 1994 showing a fluid North Pacific with a continuous stream of low pressures across the entire northern half, and a high stationed off the California coast – the ideal setup for large, clean Maverick's.

Pressure chart for 18 Dec 1994 showing a fluid North Pacific with a continuous stream of low pressures across the entire northern half, and a high stationed off the California coast – the ideal setup for large, clean Maverick's.

A look at the charts for both years confirms what he is saying. There is a continuous stream of low pressures across the north of the North Pacific, and a large anticyclone almost stationary off California. It is the perfect combination for long-period swells arriving at Maverick's free of interference from locally-generated short-period waves, and with good local wind conditions.

That pattern is a classic ‘fluid phase’; better-known in the North Atlantic (see my article HERE) but still relevant to the North Pacific. It is characterized by several factors: a large north-south temperature gradient in the ocean and atmosphere; a large north-south pressure gradient in the atmosphere; a strong, meanderless upper airstream, and, often, a large ‘mother’ low stationed in the far north around which smaller, more-intense systems develop.

Now, as well as similarities, there are some differences between the two winters. Washburn states that the big days this winter have been “significantly bigger” than those of 1994. These bigger swells came from storms that deepened explosively from about half way across the North Pacific, generating swell only from the middle towards the eastern side of the ocean. This included the one that produced that colossal swell of Jan 10 (see the chart for Jan 8 2021 HERE).

Pete Mel's tube from a few weeks back.

This tells us something unique about the North Pacific compared with other oceans such as the North Atlantic. Since the Pacific is so wide, you don’t need to have a fluid pattern over the entire ocean to enable really big storms to develop. On Jan 8 2021, for example, there was a ridge of high pressure up through the middle of the North Pacific, effectively splitting the ocean in two. The pressure gradient between that ridge and the southwest flank of the low was what generated the storm-force winds needed to create the huge swell. And because of the extra width of the Pacific, the windfield still had enough space to move eastwards and pump even more energy into the ocean, before hitting land.

In summary, the winter of 2020-21 has seen a run of back-to-back swells at Maverick's similar to those in 1994. But this year there have been some much bigger days. With local conditions remaining clean, people pushed the limits of big-wave surfing more than ever.

So, does that mean that 2020-21 will go down in Mavericks' history as more significant than 1994? I’ll leave it up to you to debate. Don’t forget, in 1994, Maverick's was still in its infancy. The waves being ridden at the time – even though on the photos and videos they seem benign compared with today’s standards – were still ground-breaking, and still bigger and more gnarly than anything the vast majority of us will ever experience.

Pressure chart for Jan 1, 2021, showing a very similar pattern to the 1994 one.

Pressure chart for Jan 1, 2021, showing a very similar pattern to the 1994 one.

Pressure chart for Jan 08 2021 showing slightly different scenario, with an intense pressure gradient between a ridge in the centre and a low on the eastern side of the North Pacific

Pressure chart for Jan 08 2021 showing slightly different scenario, with an intense pressure gradient between a ridge in the centre and a low on the eastern side of the North Pacific

Cover shot by Fred Pompermayer. Additional reporting by Matt Rode, data from Francisco Silva and support from Jason Lock.