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Grant Washburn

A Golden-coast

By: Todd Walsh

Grant Washburn goes big.

Grant Washburn is part of the close knit group of Northern California surfers who helped pioneer big wave surf spot, Maverick's, in the early 90's. He went on to make the first documentary film on the now world-famous spot, with the aptly titled, "Mavericks - A Documentary Film." His 1993 film was an early look at the awesome power of the spot, and "the big wave riders who dared to accept its challenge."

I'd met Grant a few times at Surfrider events in the past and figured he would make an excellent Golden-coast interview.

Turns out, Grant not only welcomed my inquiries, but provided very thoughtful,inspiring answers to my questions. The result is an interesting look at the world of big wave surfing at Maverick's, through the eyes of a contemporary, unique surfing personality.

Our e-mail correspondence for this interview took place around the time of the World Trade Center bombing, and Grant offered these words as a preface to the interview:

"Sorry about the delay. I actually wrote all of these answers before the WTC mess...Along with the shock and sorrow comes a fresh perspective in the wake of the tragedy. Life is precious and short. We have been given a chance to take part in something very special, and it's up to each of us to make the most of it... Surfing has brought people from all over the world together, and created a very special community. Hopefully apolitical groups like ours will help pull folks together, breakdown boarders and ignorance, and lead the way to a more sustainable and compassionate future for our planet."

Here is the interview. Enjoy.

G-C: You grew up on the East coast. What compelled you to come West? How did you land in San Francisco?

GW: I landed in SF by complete chance, I had originally planned on traveling for a while. I ran into a friend from home my last month of college, and he was going west to take a construction job with his older brother. We talked a bit, and he invited me along. The house was in Menlo Park, so I went home and checked the map, saw it was close to the ocean and said OK. I had no knowledge at all about the coast, or the surf, but I was sure it would be better than Connecticut. I drove across the country with some buddies from school, and went straight out Route 92 when I got here. I had a 5 mil with boots and lobster-mitts and a 6'10.

G-C: Do you recall your first winter surfing Ocean Beach? What was that like?

GW: The main thing I remember, including the summer, was being shocked that there was always something out there. That was new to me.

Ocean beach, winter 2000
Sure it was just windblown junk most of the time, but it was a heaven compared to four years in Hartford, and a lifetime of summer flatspells in New Jersey. Then there were some serious epiphanies as I saw more and more real swells, and began to recognize the scope of the whole deal. It was a dream come true, and a nightmare.
I broke boards and leashes, got beaten to the bottom and then to the beach... things that weren't part of the East Coast experience (and I hadn't worried much about before) were now priority one. I needed bigger and stronger equipment, and lots of energy.

G-C: How'd you start surfing Mavs?

GW: Doc finally talked me into going down during a huge swell in January of 1992.

Maverick's 2000
I had been surfing with him on the biggest days and having a great time up in SF, but by then he was a full Maverick's convert. Some of us thought he was just avoiding the brutal paddle-outs and telling tall tales, but as it turned out, the crazy rumors were just the tip of the iceberg.

G-C: You were one of the first to do a documentary on Mavericks? What inspired that?

GW: The waves inspired me, and not just at Maverick's, although they certainly were the focus. The whole experience of being around big waves is amazing; it's a string of those encounters in life where you just can't wait to tell some one about it, or better yet show them. I was compelled to experience as much of it as I could, and to record my experiences. I have always loved capturing images and telling stories, and naturally turned my attention on the surf.

G-C: Among other things, I thought the Mermen soundtrack was perfect and really helps define the documentary. Were you surprised with how much impact their sound had on the film?

GW: I was listening to the Mermen constantly throughout most of the filming, and their sound had become synonymous with big surf for me. I had spoken with Jim Thomas a few times and had decided I would use his music for the film by 1993.

We kept each other stoked over the years, and traded tapes. I would give him surf footage, and sometimes project stuff at their shows, and he kept making new music and giving me unreleased samples. By the time I was editing there was too much to choose from, and he was giving me more right to the end... " Ooh you gotta hear this crazy one!" The music is a huge part of any film, and I knew Jim's songs were perfect, I just wish I could have used more of them.

G-C: Did you film most of the movie?

GW: I shot some of it, but I had plenty of help. My partner Will Smith shot a lot, especially the surfing, and Lili helped with the interviews. Shooting 16 or 35 mm film is almost always a team effort, and in big surf it is essential. Jeff Clark's boat driving, and local knowledge didn't hurt either.

G-C: It has a great feel to it...What do you attribute that to? What was the reaction to that film?

GW: The ocean also has a great feel to it, and the images reflect that, as does Jim's music. All we had to do was weave the elements together through the telling of the story. I remember feeling that the pieces were so strong that the project simply had to be good. I'm happy with the final cut, but it could have come out ten different ways, and they would all have been solid. People of all ages, from all over the place like the film, and the positive response has been an incredible reward. It always feels good to know someone appreciates what you did, or that they learned something or were inspired. The fact that their kids and their Grandmothers like it too is icing on the cake.

G-C: Do you have any other film projects in the works?

GW: I'm working on a few things, at least one of which will turn into some kind of a Big Wave Movie, but it's basically business as usual... I'm not rushing it, and it could come out ten different ways.

G-C: What do you do in the off-season (and during the season) to prepare for the surf at Mavericks and Ocean Beach? What role does "fitness and diet" play in your surfing regimen?

GW: Surfing often, and staying healthy and in good shape are prerequisites for a good season of big waves. I get in the water 5 to 10 times a week minimum, eat well and do some cross training and stretching. I try to stay on the program all year, that way you're always ready.

G-C: How has your equipment changed over the years you've surfed Mavs?

GW: I went from riding too short a board, to too long a board, and then worked back down. I still have a few monster guns, but right now I'm feeling a ten foot board is essentially enough to ride almost anything, and when you do scratch onto a Tsunami, the big girls sometimes get a little hard to maneuver. Even though I might glide right in, I don't want to negotiate that ledge on a 13 foot board.

G-C: With the massive media coverage, and now with tow-in surfing, can an unknown charger still go out and get a wave at Mavericks?

GW: I don't think tow-in surfing will interfere with anyone paddling into waves, because the guys know better, and they really only do it on the biggest days. The coverage has certainly made it harder to park, but aside from a few clear mornings each season, the crowd is generally pretty manageable. I'd rather share the waves than be out there by myself, and most everyone feels the same... if you want to surf giant waves in solitude there are other places to go.

G-C: I've surfed Ocean Beach for the last 5 or so years and have been out in relatively big conditions. The Beach can serve up a nasty, powerful wave. How would you compare a big day at the Beach to Mavs? There aren't rocks to deal with, but otherwise, seems like OB can be as treacherous...

GW: Ocean Beach can definitely be treacherous, and has a long list of fatalities to prove it, but Maverick's is different. With the same 15 foot swell running, peak waves can be 50 to 100 percent taller and more powerful there, and the bottom shape and rocks make the impact zone far more intense. The speed, mass and thickness are also considerably focused.The paddle out at OB takes the cake though, always a treat.

G-C: Do you have any interest in exploring outer reefs (Cortes bank) and whatnot?

GW: I love riding big waves, and I'm always ready to try and find some, but I'm not much of a jet-set surfer. I've been to Canada and South Africa, but in the winter I like staying at home, and riding with my friends.

G-C: What keeps you motivated to surf the big stuff?

GW: I really don't know why I'm motivated to go out on the biggest
days. I do know that I love the fun and excitement, and being in touch with the seasons and the cycles of Nature. But why I allow myself to risk injury or death for those things... I don't know. I am comfortable in the water and feel confident, but all humans have that "it won't be me" instinct that makes it easier to drive on the highway or fight in a war.
I think when we're out there and the giants are lurking, we're chasing that elusive feeling that comes from knowing you've tested yourself to the core. Whatever it is that brought humanity this far and whatever ultimate purpose life has in the universe; explore, expand, improve, evolve... when we ride big waves, we're being true to that natural drive.


Special thanks to Grant for taking the time to do this interview. Also, thanks to Frank Quirarte for all photos (except "Ocean Beach, Winter 2000").

Comments? Send an e-mail to Todd Walsh at,

Golden-Coast Productions, 2001