ageist profile: jeff clark, 60
When he was a teenager, Jeff Clark used to cut school in Half Moon Bay, California and hitch a ride up to check out the waves just north of a naval base shortly before town. It was there he first glimpsed what would become one of the notorious big waves in the world, one that broke only when the conditions were right in the winter. He knew he had to surf it.
So he studied the reef break: where the wave gathered power, where and when it broke on big days. With time he figured out where he had to be positioned to take the best chance. Then, in winter 1975, he paddled out. When he dropped down the face of the 20-foot monster he made history: the first person to ever surf Mavericks.
“Things that we don’t think we’re able to do,” he says, “with a little education – and check your preconceived notions at the door and step outside of your comfort zone – with the right guidance you can experience some amazing things that the world has to offer.”
Clark is now 60. In the last 42 years, his name has become synonymous with Mavericks and the wave itself has built up a fearsome reputation as one of the most dangerous waves in the world. It’s claimed the lives of skilled and talented surfers, like Hawaiian Mark Foo, and been the focal point of a surf contest held only when the waves are at their biggest – up to 30 to 40 feet.
For Clark, the wave has presented not only a challenge, but a lifelong commitment to the kind of physical and mental preparation it demands. There’s rarely a day he’s not surfing or paddleboarding – often on boards of his own design. When he’s home, he does ‘breathing scales’: practicing inhaling deeply by opening his stomach, chest and throat cavity as wide as possible then holding his breath for 30 seconds, repeating the exercise a minute or so later. “Something as simple as holding your breath during a commercial can change your life experience,” he says. “Try it for a little bit and you will see a difference.”
At 60, Clark isn’t looking to retire any time soon. That doesn’t mean he’ll be out on the biggest days every time. He’s already ridden the biggest waves he’ll likely ever ride in his life. So nowadays it’s more about using his knowledge of the demands of heavy surf to create products like big wave life vests and boards that will ensure the safety and performance of current and future generations. Of course, it’s not all about catering to the elite. He also designs and shapes paddleboards intended for a wider audience.
“There was a lady the other day and she just turned 76 and we taught her how to paddleboard and she loves it,” he says. “So when people say they can’t I say, ‘If someone told me I couldn’t, and I listened to them, I would have never surfed Mavericks and I would’ve missed out on one of life’s greatest experiences.’ ”