Mavericks rescue team trains for big surf

Mavericks always puts on a show when big swells track toward the San Mateo County coast. 

Each wave presents a gamble that rewards skilled surfers with the thrill of a lifetime or severe punishment leading to imminent danger. 

While the amazing rides highlight each surf day, a safety team has been emerging over the past six years. 

The Mavericks Rescue Team is a tight-knit group of eight volunteer locals sharing a passion for the ocean. They devote their time and energy to learning more about the best rescue practices in big surf.

Frank Quirarte is the team manager.  He has been patrolling the Mavericks area since the late '90s.

"We train every year as much as possible," said Quiarte.  "Every surf session out there is a training session for us. It does take a certain skill and choreography to it.  It's something we have mastered over the years."

The team utilizes personal watercraft and rescue sleds on a surf day. Since Mavericks is in a marine sanctuary, personal watercrafts are only allowed under high surf conditions in the winter. 

While the ocean might resemble chaos, they have a strategy to maneuver in and out of danger.

"When someone does fall, and someone is going in for a pickup…we always have someone else shadowing, so that if they miss them there is always someone else in a position to get them," said rescue operator Parker Guy.

Kyle Marty is another rescue operator.  While he says the environment can be intense, he also finds calmness in the ocean. "There is crazy stuff happening all around you," said Marty.  "If you can just keep your mental headspace calm and clear…slow down when everyone else is speeding up."

Each incoming swell is unique and introduces new challenges.  Preparation never stops.

"We usually don't get much sleep the night before a big swell," said Drake Stanley.  "Half of that is just watching the wind and the weather." 

While safety crews are working in the dangerous conditions in the surf zone, there is another set of eyes positioned on a cliff that overlooks Mavericks. 

Eric W. Nelson is the designated wave spotter. He hikes up a cliff with camera gear and a radio.

"My running joke is that I am afraid of water and I am afraid to swim," said Nelson. 

He asked the team if he could help out.  They positioned Nelson on the cliff to keep an eye on the action. After waves roll through, there can be a lot to survey.  Eric paints the big picture that only he can see. There is constant communication with team members offshore and the Pillar Point Harbor Patrol.

"We had a set wave come through about six or seven waves in the set and four of the guys got taken out," said Nelson. "The rescue guys thought that there were 3 surfers going through the rocks and I was able to spot that fourth guy."

Taylor Paul, an experienced surfer from San Francisco, was on the rescue sled after a bad fall in 2023.

"I was so out of breath," said Paul.  "I was just going to let the waves take me through the rocks."

During the rescue, after coughing up blood, Taylor could hear the radio chatter, and he realized he was being watched from the beginning.

"They were coordinating where they were going to pick me up and if I was okay and where I was," Paul said. "It struck me how professional the whole thing was and how on it those guys are."

When the waves go flat, the team stays busy.   Unified with other local agencies, they lead a free water safety summit every fall to educate the public.  The whole community is invited, ranging from expert surfers to casual beach visitors.

Cary Smith is a training officer with the Pillar Point Harbor Patrol.  He works closely with the Mavericks Safety Team to coordinate the annual event.

"The Mavericks Water Safety Summit is the opportunity for the agencies to get together with the surfers and the water patrol to all share stories and create a climate of understanding of what to do when there is a rescue," said Smith.

From 2 feet to 20 feet, their ocean safety outreach is making a difference in the community.

"I'm proud of these guys for sure - 100 percent," Quiarte said.  "Just the dedication that they put in.  It's not an easy task."

"Just experiencing those amazingly giant, crazy and beautiful deadly waves that come through here is part of what makes us love what we do," said Stanley.