How two filmmakers with a camcorder and a jet ski made Mavericks world famous
El Granada locals Eric Nelson and Curt Myers started filming local surfers on public access TV. Today their Powerlines Productions counts Kelly Slater as a fan.
It’s early on a chilly January morning and Curt Myers has forgotten the most important piece of equipment he carries when he goes out to film monster waves: his life jacket.
Myers preaches water safety to anyone who will listen, often perched atop a jet ski, showing surfers the specific hand signals to use when they need to be rescued. But in the middle of what has been a slow season at Mavericks, California’s only big wave located just north of Half Moon Bay, the excitement of catching his beloved break on a world-class day is overriding Myers’ critical decision-making. “Ahhh, screw it,” he mutters to himself as he guns the watercraft out into the open ocean, his camera in the vehicle’s glove box.
The day is shaping up to be legendary: a major north west swell bringing waves up to 50 feet, and just-right tides with offshore winds from the east to shape the waves so they’re surfable.
As he passes the inside breaks, Myers notes to himself that today’s swell is the biggest he’s seen at Mavericks since 2001. He’s not the only person to catch on: surfers are taking off one after another on the waves of their lives.
Ion Banner, a Half Moon Bay local—who Myers reverently refers to as “the wise man”—is being towed by a jet ski into perhaps the most memorable wave of the day, riding it perfectly. But by the afternoon, the conditions take a turn. The wind shifts to the south and tears up the previously shapely waves.
Myers tells his protégé, Dom Padua, 17, whose brother became the youngest to surf Mavericks in 2015, to keep his jet ski south of the flotilla of boats holding sightseers, videographers and surfers, knowing that the new wind direction will push everyone in the water closer and closer to the impact zone where the giant wave crashes.
Then, as suspected, Myers spots surfers fighting to paddle out of the impact zone. He puts his camera away and fires the jet ski over to a group of struggling surfers, where six of them soon grab hold to the back.
As he drags the group to safety Myers looks back and sees a set of waves approaching. A Moroccan surfer catches the first. He rides down the face but can’t keep up with the enveloping white water of the bomb that just exploded behind him.
The Moroccan wipes out, goes under for what seems like minutes, then pops up long enough to snatch a breath before going down again as the next wave detonates on top of him. He comes up again and signals for help, and Myers sees the surfer getting closer to the treacherous rocks that make Mavericks deadly. Myers guns his jet ski to grab the surfer — no life vest and a 50-foot wall of seawater fast approaching.
Broadcasting California’s biggest surfing secret
Myers isn’t your typical surf scene mainstay. He made his name filming California’s big waves, not surfing them. With his business partner Eric W. Nelson (the ‘W’ distinguishes him from the two other Eric Nelsons in Half Moon Bay), the pair from El Granada helped put Mavericks on the surfing map by doing something that, in the early 1990s, seemed a little weird: they’d videotape Half Moon Bay locals paddling into, surfing through and getting crushed by a wave that can reach 50 feet or more.
What made that revolutionary wasn’t their jet ski filming tactics. It was that at the time Mavericks itself was a secret, even to surf aficionados who lived nearby. The local duo’s now-legendary public access television show, Powerlines Surf-Spots, and their feature length films shook the world of California surfing, opening eyes to the daredevil activity going on right under everyone’s noses.
In 1988, Nelson was a film student at the College of San Mateo while hosting Powerlines Surf-Spots on Tuesday nights on Mid Coast TV. Sometimes the show lived up to its name when Nelson would capture surfers from Santa Cruz to San Francisco ripping through winter swells but, mostly, the action was lacking.
Nelson had a knack for comedy (he held part-time gigs videotaping standup routines at the Punchline and Cobb’s Comedy Club in San Francisco) and his shenanigans were what dominated the show. That year, he drove to Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz to grab footage of the Coldwater Classic surf competition, but most of that episode was taken up by an off-the-wall hot tub interview with winner Richie Collins. Powerlines Surf-Spots mirrored Wayne’s World more than the X Games, but that changed with a phone call from local surfer, Jeff Clark.
“Eric, I’m going to surf Mavericks,” Nelson remembers hearing from the other end.
Clark, a Redwood City native, had been surfing Mavericks alone since 1975. Until that fateful morning in 1990, when he convinced two other surfers (Tom Powers and Dave Schmidt) to paddle with him and Nelson to film him, no one believed Clark when he said there were 30- or 40-foot waves in Half Moon Bay’s backyard.
How could a world-class wave be hiding in plain sight, especially in a part of the world where every surfable wave has people riding it from dawn to dusk, every day of the year? For one, Mavericks isn’t easily viewable from land — it’s tucked around Pillar Point with waves breaking a solid half-mile from the sand. And even when big waves do break, which may happen only a few times a year, fog can keep them completely hidden.
Nelson, who had only heard tales of the break from Clark, jumped at the opportunity to capture footage of Mavericks for his show. He trekked up the hill at Pillar Point with his video gear and stomped down the four-foot-tall grass to make a clearing for his tripod. He then fixed a telephoto lens onto his Super 8 camera with duct tape.
“Like a two-story house about to land on me”
The first footage of anyone surfing Mavericks was caught by Nelson that morning and would be broadcast on Powerlines Surf-Spots the very next week.
California’s biggest wave was a secret no more.
As word of Mavericks spread, Nelson’s fascination with the wave grew and his desire for closer and clearer shots of it led him to making the 45-minute paddle out on a 10-foot board, his camera sealed inside a Ziploc bag.
One day while filming from his board he lost track of his position in the water, only realizing his mistake when a set of monstrous waves bore down on him.
“It was like a two-story house was moving through the water and it was about to land on me,” Nelson recalls. “Hyper-focus kicked in and I paddled as hard as I could.”
Nelson cleared the wave unscathed but knew he had to rethink his filming technique. Nelson didn’t think he was that good filming from the water anyway: he had trouble keeping the camera steady and couldn’t get the hang of the quick movements needed to capture the action. Luckily, around the same time, Nelson met a steady-handed counterpart, Curt Myers, an aggressive paddler who was comfortable filming from the water.
Myers had just graduated from Half Moon Bay High School and had a public access show of his own, The Curt Myers Show, comprising mostly snowboard, skating and surfing footage he captured of his friends from his Canon L2 on Hi-8 film. He contributed to Powerlines Surf-Spots and, while doing so, got Nelson to dream about moving away from TV and into feature-length films.
“Mavericks is a phenomenal place and a phenomenal wave. It’s the test of all tests,” Myers says now. “What were we going to do — just sit around and look at it? We knew there were bigger stories that needed to be told.”
The newly formed Powerlines Productions released its first movie, twelveleven, on VHS in 1999. The pair developed their method: Myers would be in the water on a jet ski with Nelson shooting at long distance from the cliffs above. In 2000, they brought on Chris Wilson to help them with post-production after meeting him at the X-Games Film Festival. Wilson’s film, Seth the Hard Way, took the top prize that year.
“His skills are outstanding and we’re lucky to have him onboard” Myers says of Wilson.
Together they’ve released ten films. Perhaps their most popular, 100 Ft. Wednesday, documents the winter of 2001–02 at Mavericks where the break saw some of its biggest waves ever and surfers pushed the limits of their sport.
Nelson remembers going on tour with the film in surf towns up and down the California coast.
“For me it’s always been about the crowd reaction — when a heavy wave’s happening or a guy’s eating it and you hear the gasp of the audience. Surfers have great respect for what we do. We’re not trying to exploit them, we’re trying help further their careers.”
Promoting hometown NorCal surfers, who often don’t garner the same attention as surfers from Southern California, is a major mission for the Powerlines team.
“Anthony [Tashnick] and Colin [Dwyer] are great examples of why we do what we do,” Myers tells me of two big wave professionals who starting gaining notoriety through Powerlines films. (Whipped!!! was Tashnick’s breakout performance at 16 years old, and Dwyer had his with Ride On.)
Another 16-year-old the team’s helping draw attention to today is Half Moon Bay High sophomore Luca Padua.
When Surfer Magazine asked to use a Powerlines clip for their website, Myers proposed a trade: highlight Padua (the youngest ever to surf Mavericks at the age 13), and the clips are yours. Myers also mentors Luca’s 17-year-old brother, Dom, who’s interests lie more in videography.
“They are exceptional kids,” Myers says fondly of the Padua brothers. “Luca is far beyond his years in surfing [and] at this point [Dom’s] showing me stuff in editing.”
Success as filmmakers, but still working day jobs.
For the thousands of hours they’ve dedicated to documenting Mavericks, the Powerlines team still doesn’t earn enough from their content to make it a full-time gig. Surf lessons, catering events and staging homes help fill in the financial gaps. Transitioning their films from DVD to streaming sites, like Vimeo and YouTube, has also been a work in progress.
Today their Instagram feed is probably the best place to soak in their content. That’s where 20,000 surf enthusiasts from around the world (including 11-time World Surf League Champion, Kelly Slater, who leaves the occasional comment) tune in to follow the recent action at Mavericks.
But it’s hard to make a living off of Instagram. Myers dreams of having an app where all of their content is in one place for fans to watch and enjoy. He wants to sell merchandise as well.
The team also plans to release a new film called Next Level, dedicated to the swell they just lived through in mid-January (Myers and the Moroccan surfer escaped the impact zone and the inside rocks) and they hope video sales alongside a movie tour will help bring in money to support their efforts.
“It’s serendipitous calling the film Next Level,” Myers tells me. “That’s kind of what we want to do — get to the next level.”
Follow Powerlines Productions on Instagram @powerlinesproductions
Check out their website for movies, apparel, events and more — www.powerlinessurf.com