The Death of a World Class Surfer

Historic Ghost Tree is one of the world’s most dangerous Big Wave spots. And for one legendary California surfer, the ride of his life turned out to be his last.

“Waves are not measured in feet and inches; they are measured in increments of fear.” —Buzzy Trent

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A little before 10 a.m. on the morning of December 4, Peter Davi drove his Ford F-150 along the 17 Mile Drive in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a quaint town bordering Monterey in Northern California. His friend Osh Bartlett, known as Frog, sat beside him. Through the window they smelled the pine and cut grass wafting from the farms and gentlemen’s ranches up in Carmel Valley. Davi watched with a flicker of disdain as a parade of Audis, Lexuses, and the occasional Ferrari sped past. As the other drivers stopped to buy skim lattes at Carmel Valley Coffee, Davi and Frog passed the Pebble Beach Golf Links, turned right onto Cypress Drive, and pulled into the parking lot at Still­water Cove—already filled with pickups hitched to empty waverunner trailers.

Outside it was cool and misty—mid-50s and rising. A 10-knot breeze blew out of the north, swirling the loose, dark curls on Davi’s head. Tourists come thousands of miles to eye this stretch of picturesque coast, with its rocky shoreline and lush cypress trees. But to Davi, a lifelong local, it was the sound that struck him that morning. In the parking lot at Stillwater Cove he could hear Ghost Tree like he’d never heard it before. It was the sound of 70-foot waves—surely record size—detonating onto the boulder field at Pescadero Point.

Davi was a massive, intimidating man. Considered the unofficial mayor of this legendary surfing community, he’d earned widespread respect over the years among elite surfers by launching himself into the largest, most terrifying waves in California and Hawaii. He knew every break in Big Sur. He had a ruddy, wind-swept face and dulled dark eyes. He stood 6’2″ and weighed close to 250 pounds. When he pulled a 4/3-millimeter wet suit over his body, along with a hood and gloves, his paunch was visible. He grabbed his 8’5″ surfboard—a “gun” suitable for paddle surfing but too long for this dangerous tow-in scene. At 45 he walked as if in constant pain, as though the cartilage in his knees had been worn away.

This morning Davi was feeling every hour of those 45 years. He’d had a long night snorting speed. The crystal meth sizzling in his bloodstream was fading away, sublimating into a hangover so toxic his saliva tasted like it could strip the paint off a fireplug. He still had enough meth coursing through him to feel the searing high. And he was about to swim into the biggest waves on record at Ghost Tree, arguably the most dangerous surf spot in the world. “What took you so long?” asked Anthony Ruffo, a pro surfer and one of Davi’s closest friends. He and Randy “Flintstone” Reyes had already launched two jet skis into Monterey harbor and rounded the peninsula to Pesca­dero Point.

Davi drank from a water bottle and worked the muscles in his jaw. He strapped a six-foot leash to his ankle and plunged into the teeming brine. As his wet suit filled with the icy water, Frog started up his jet ski. Lying on his board, Davi grabbed the tow rope and they idled out of the cove. When they passed Pescadero Rocks, Davi saw the swell. It was Ghost Tree like he’d never seen it, a mountain of water. The breaking surf now sounded like an airplane crashing, even from half a mile away.

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The gigantic rollers were no surprise. “There were big buoy readings,” says Don Curry, 48, the legendary Carmel surfer who gave Ghost Tree its name, referring to weather data buoys that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintains far out at sea. “We knew we were going to get a big swell.” According to NOAA records, the buoys indi­cated 20-footers hundreds of miles out days earlier. A storm had parked in the middle of the Pacific for a week, packing 50 mph winds. The swells that resulted built as they neared the 9,600-foot deep underwater troughs called the Monterey Canyon off the California coast. As the storm blew and the rollers grew in speed and mass, the surfing world took notice. Historic waves were headed into shore, the kind that arrive only once every few years, if that.

The phenomenon is called the trifecta—a perfect storm of waves when surfers follow the same swell from a huge weather system as it surges east across the Pacific, beginning in Hawaii’s North Shore and Waimea Bay, then up to Northern California, and finally to Todos Santos Island off the coast of Baja. The week before the big event, alarms had gone off across Internet bulletin boards, e-mails were sent, and text messages crisscrossed the globe.

By December 3, many of the world’s top big wave surfers had descended on the Cali coast. Locals, like brothers Russell and Tyler Smith, were already here; others, like Don Curry, Greg Long, Mark Healey, and Mike Parsons, also showed up, as did a Santa Cruz contingent of Ghost Tree pioneers like Shane Desmond and Tyler Fox. Carlos Burle flew in from Brazil. Some wave hunters had hopped across from Hawaii; others had come all the way from Australia.

When Davi arrived at Ghost Tree, about 21 waverunners and 15 tow-in surfers were buzzing around trying to capture the madness and glory. Davi was instantly recognized; he was a trailblazer here, one of the first to surf these dangerous swells. Photographers lined the shore, snapping away at the action. Seaweed, sea cucumbers, and forests of feather boa kelp churned in the white water. Davi took his place on the shoulder of the lineup. The swells at Ghost Tree were so large and moved so fast, surfers were towed by jet skis into the waves on special short boards with foot straps. But Davi maintained a lifelong disdain of the tow-in—preferring the purist attitude that surfing was about nothing but the man, the board, and the sea. That’s why he showed up with his longboard rather than the shorter, pointed guns the tow-in surfers were riding.

Davi surveyed the scene. Twenty-footers were rolling in at 19 second intervals, and when the swells arrived in the shallows, the earth pushed them upward another 50 feet into the air. Around now the first foursomes at Pebble Beach were making the turn onto the 18th hole tee box, and they saw what Davi saw from the water: the gargantuan, vertical mug of Ghost Tree in all its thunderous glory.

“I was saying the day before that someone’s going to die on the fourth,” pro surfer Grant Washburn said. “That’s the kind of swell that kills people for sure. It’s that big, it’s that heavy, it’s coming at a scary angle. When you’re near those waves, you’re pretty much aware that they will kill you.”

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By most definitions, Big Wave surfing was the first extreme sport, born one day in 1969. Three massive storms collided over Hawaii, and much of the coastline population was evacuated for fear that the waves would wipe away their homes. Armed with a wooden longboard, Californian Greg Noll spent two hours standing on Makaha Beach staring at the walls of water crashing down with thousands of pounds of force. Finally he marched into the sea and rode a 35-footer, the largest wave ever surfed at that time. “Some of my friends have said it was a death wish wave,” Noll later wrote. “I didn’t think so then, but in retrospect I realize it was probably bordering on the edge.”

Heretofore wave riders avoided breakers greater than 20 feet; they were considered too dangerous to navigate on the era’s primitive surfboards. The idea of seeking out huge waves was new, and it caught on. Every outdoor sport needs an Everest, and surfing now had one. Suddenly, a crew of surf gladiators began to travel the earth in search of that rolling peak, and the sport of big wave surfing was born. It spurred the industry to create new boards and permeated fashion and pop culture, eventually resulting in surf film classics Riding Giants and Point Break.

The scene in the continental U.S. came to the fore in 1975, when Jeff Clark discovered one of the biggest waves on the planet in Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco, that rose sometimes 70 feet in a symmetrical wave that broke in both directions. These were frigid, rocky, shark-infested waters. Clark paddled a half-mile out and surfed it alone. He named it Mavericks, and it’s still North America’s most famous big wave spot. In 1992, Clark got a call from a local in Monterey named Peter Davi, a 30-year-old commercial fisherman and renowned surfer. A group of hardcore riders had been hearing about Clark’s wave, and they wanted in. Clark agreed to guide them, and Davi, his friend Don Curry, and a gang of Santa Cruz heavies drove up Highway 1 to Half Moon. “In those early days Davi would have people videotape them surfing Mavericks and they’d watch it afterward and study it,” Curry says. “For them it was uncharted territory. I mean, we were surfing into rocks. Who does that?”

The men who sought out the Goliaths of the sea found something spiritual in them. The danger, the immeasurable power of the ocean’s thrust, the adrenaline surge: The big wave offered transcendence. Riding the big wave was like a drug, and mortal notions like jobs and money took a backseat. “To keep your sanity, you have to ride waves, and some of them need to be big,” surfer Dave Kalama once said. “The closer you get to total annihilation, the more real everything becomes.”

The sea claimed its share of the best. In 1994, Hawaiian Mark Foo drowned in an 18-footer on his first attempt at Mavericks. A year later, Donnie Solomon died in a 20-foot wave in Hawaii’s Waimea Bay. Todd Chesser was fished out of 25-foot swells at Alligator Rock in Oahu in 1997. Three years after that, Briece Tarea was killed at Tahiti’s Teahupoo (“Broken Skulls”). But the pull of the big wave still beckoned, and many who’d experienced the high it provided couldn’t resist. “I’ve never thought about surfing these waves as all that dangerous, really,” comments Mavericks founder Clark. “On my worst day out at Mavericks, I’m doing better than my best day onshore. It’s my home.”

Peter Davi’s legendary status was based not on pure skill but rather his love of the sea and his desire to hurl himself into the most intense situations the ocean could muster. He was a peer to the greats in the sport—Clark, Curry, Peter Mel, Johnny Gomes, Laird Hamilton.

Davi grew up in the 1970s on the foggy Monterey peninsula, the grandson of a renowned sea captain who ran 90-foot ships off Cannery Row back when it was still the hard-luck harbor of the John Steinbeck era. “Pete was a real mellow kid,” says Curry, who grew up with Davi. “I moved to Hawaii in 1978, and when I came back in ’81 the kid had become a big man. He had figured out how to have a good time. He was looked up to, and when he went to the North Shore later that year, he fit in with the big intimidator crowd there. That’s where he got a lot of his notoriety.” Davi spent a few years surfing the North Shore’s towering waves. “He was one of the guys who paved the way to Hawaii for us California guys,” says Clark. “He had his spot on Pipeline in the lineup. I mean, you can’t buy your way in there. Pipeline is so heavy. When you can call Pipeline your home, you’ve made it. That was him: Pipeline Pete.”

When Davi returned to California, he chased the Pacific’s biggest swells up and down the coast. He lived for years in the redwood stands of Big Sur with his son, Jake, now a pro surfer, and Jake’s mother, Katrin Winterbotham. He knew the breaks along the fickle beaches of Big Sur probably better than anyone. Even before he was to make a name for himself in Oahu as Pipeline Pete, everyone in the Monterey area knew him. He had the reputation as a hard-working guy with a huge heart and a Sicilian-bred tough-guy edge. “I met Pete at a local spot in Big Sur around 1980,” says Anthony Ruffo. “He was a big Italian dude, real intimidating, and Big Sur was most definitely his spot.”

By the winter of 2007, Davi had moved his family to Pacific Grove. From his hillside house nestled in a grove of oaks, he had a view of Monterey Bay. The house had no TV. Surfaces were covered in driftwood, pieces of jade, arrowheads he found on Pescadero Point, stones from Big Sur. Like his Italian forefathers, Davi made a decent living working netting boats. Five or six nights a week, he’d arrive at the docks at Moss Landing and go out with the crew of a large diesel netting boat. He’d fish all night, and return around 7 a.m. to unload mackerel, herring, and squid. If the swell was good, he was ready to surf by nine.

But there was another side to Davi. He had become a part of a different subculture crystallizing among surfers in California. There is a moth-to-the-flame quality to the thrill of the big wave. “I guess [big wave surfing] is an addiction,” surfer Ken Bradshaw once said. “I have no idea, but it must be like being on drugs. Because when you’re not doing it, it torments and eats away at you.” Many surfers in the late ’90s began to rely on an alternative source for that high. It was a jaw-clenching ride that could be experienced no matter the size of the rolling ocean, within the confines of a smoky living room or a barroom toilet. In the early ’90s crystal meth burned through the surf community like no other, especially along the Highway 1 corridor from San Francisco to Big Sur. “Adrenaline junkies thrive on the rush of the wave,” says surf icon Peter Mel. “After surfing a big wave, you get depressed, and you look for another rush. Drugs are a quick fix. Maybe the drugs fill the hole, because surfing is the best feeling—ever.”

Somewhere along the way, like so many others, Peter Davi began to surf that phantom wave. “We were close when we were kids and I was a hard partyer, too,” Curry says of Davi. “But then we went down different roads back in the early ’90s. I went down the road of sobriety, and Peter went in the other direction.”

Davi straddled his board in the Ghost Tree lineup, watching waverunners tow riders into the massive swells. Pro surfer Anthony “Taz” Tashnick was next to him. Like Davi, Taz was trying to paddle into the waves rather than use the tow-in. He hadn’t surfed Ghost Tree, and Davi was feeding him pointers. A heli­copter was now hovering above, the chopper blades punctuating the sound of the crashing waves. When a swell rolled in, it sucked the water out of the shallows, revealing the boulders that lay just beneath the surface. The waverunner engines revved, and some brave soul launched himself into the fury.

A roller approached and Taz prepared to paddle in. “Here it comes!” Davi yelled. “Ten feet in, 10 feet over, you’re going fine. Go! Go! Go!”
Taz stood up, got blinded by mist, and airdropped. Just like that he was pinned by thousands of pounds of water beneath the surface; it was like being locked in an industrial washing machine. “I rolled and rolled and rolled and rolled,” he said of the terrifying ride. Jeff Clark, who was also at Ghost Tree on December 4 and had two 60-footers drop on his head, described the sensation of being trapped in the whitewash beneath the surface: “You just check out. You go to sleep. It’s like falling out of an airplane. What are you going to do about it?” When Taz made it to the surface, he choked and gasped for air. He’d had enough of Ghost Tree. He started to swim in toward the shore, headed straight for his car.

Davi went to the inside of the break and tried to paddle into the overcooked scraps. But it was unsatisfying. He attempted to catch one of the big rollers, but they were moving too quickly. He no longer had the athleticism to paddle into this kind of wave; the swells rolled under him without picking him up. He knew he had to put his principles aside and get a tow. It was the only way. He saw old friend Kelly Sorensen on a waverunner. Sorensen owned a surf shop in town and had sponsored Davi for years, supplying him with boards.

“I wanna get one of those waves,” Davi said.

“OK,” Sorensen replied. “Ride it, Pete.”

They waited, and when Sorensen spotted a swell, he throttled the waverunner. Davi pulled himself up on his board. The wave was big but not gigantic; he rode it, and at the end he tumbled back into the sea. His friends Ruffo and Flintstone passed on a waverunner. Flintstone was driving and Ruffo was sitting behind.

“My turn,” Davi said to Ruffo.

Ruffo jumped off, and Davi climbed on, holding his board. Flintstone drove him back to the lineup.

The meth in Davi’s bloodstream now mingled with adrenaline. He was about to harness the full power of a historic wave—on a board ill-suited for a swell this size and speed. He grabbed hold of the rope behind the waverunner. And then he saw it, rolling in with immeasurable force. A vast wave rose up out of the sea, moving fast and high.

Thirty feet. Forty feet.

Flintstone opened the waverunner’s throttle. Davi launched out of the sea like a water-skier, lifting his linebacker-size body up with all his strength. As he gained his footing, the wave started to break on the outside, generating an unholy roar. Davi released the tow. The board raced along the rising wave, pushing Davi faster and faster. He was moving over 20 mph now, cascading down the face of the wave, the wall of water towering over him. This was it: transcendence. The closer you get to total annihilation, the more real everything becomes. Boulders emerged, and Davi flitted around them with skill. The wave began to collapse on him. Coated in spume, he rode the whole wave, then let himself fall into the white water. The chop was so rough it tore his leash and carried his board away. The clamor still filled his ears, and his heart was pumping wildly. But he’d emerged in relative safety, protected by the boulder field. He was treading water amid some feather boa kelp, about 100 yards off the beach. Flintstone had picked up Ruffo, and the two rode over.

“Hey, Pete,” Ruffo said. “Want a ride in?”

“Nah, I’ve paddled this plenty of times,” Davi said, still breathing hard, his heart still pounding. He must have felt immortal. He waved his friends off and began to swim.

“We never second-guessed it,” Ruffo said. “It was the most natural thing in the world.”

No one ever saw Peter Davi alive again.

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Thirty minutes later, Flintstone and Ruffo were headed back into Stillwater Cove. Ruffo noticed what looked like a snorkeler. They slowed to get a look and realized it wasn’t a diver. Ruffo jumped into the sea. He found Peter Davi floating, his face bone white and cold to the touch. He had abrasions on his head. No one had noticed Davi missing.

Onshore a 17-year-old EMT trainee performed CPR until the rescue personnel arrived. Davi was laid on a pier within feet of the ocean. A crowd gathered and watched as a paramedics inserted a femoral IV and pumped Davi’s chest, trying to revive him. All efforts to jump-start his heart failed. He was pronounced dead at 1:28 p.m.

As an ambulance carted him to a Monterey County hospital, the surfers were still out at the lineup, unaware one of their own had been killed. But the word spread. Cell phones rang, and local news reporters and television teams arrived to report on the story of a legendary surfer’s death. Davi’s rise and violent fall mimicked the last wave he’d surfed. “He went out the way he wanted to go out,” said
Sorensen, interviewed on-camera back at his surf shop in town, “in a big wave situation.”

“You can die in a motel with a crack whore, or in a hospital bed when you’re 80, or like this,” says Ruffo, of his friend’s last ride. “This is as it should be. The comforting part is that he’s a 45-year-old legend.”

Four days after Davi’s death, on Saturday, December 8, friends and family crowded into a Pacific Grove Catholic church for a memorial service. Afterward they headed over to the park at Lovers Point. The sun was shining, and the winds were light. One hundred surfers hopped on their boards and paddled out to form a circle just outside the break. They performed a traditional waterman’s send-off, chanting the dead man’s name.

“Davi. Davi. Davi.”

Then they paddled into the breakers, which carried them gently back to shore. 

The Monterey County coroner’s report found the primary cause of death was “asphyxia due to ocean drowning” coupled with “blunt force head and chest injuries.” When the toxicology reports were issued, the full story became a little clearer. The coroner reported “acute methamphetamine intoxication may have played a contributing role.” Davi had 0.75 milligrams of crystal meth in his system per liter of blood.

His friends don’t agree on what happened that day at Ghost Tree. Sorensen believes that in the aftermath of riding that big wave, Davi suffered a heart attack. Ruffo believes his leash snagged on rocks during an inshore surge as he paddled in, and the surge pummeled him into rocks, knocking him unconscious. Others think he was caught in ropy tangles of kelp. Don Curry is less ambivalent.
“This is a cautionary tale more than anything else,” he says. “Peter didn’t die surfing Ghost Tree. He died swimming in, and that’s the real tragedy for a surfer. You simply cannot be in a spot like Pescadero Point when you’re fucked up.”

While all the details will never be known, this much is: The next time the NOAA buoy readings signal gigantic rollers headed California’s way and the alarms go off on Internet bulletin boards, the world’s top surfers will gather again at Mavericks and Ghost Tree. They will fly across the globe in search of their next, and possibly their last, big wave.