, Salem, MA

November 15, 2012

Surfer had the honor and character that matter

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — The election campaign season was sometimes hard to watch and experience. Whether you were Republican or Democratic, there were ample opportunities to feel uneasy with the PACs, super PACs, 501(c)(4)s and other organizations supporting your candidates and speaking out on their behalf.

The negative TV and radio advertisements funded by these groups were often inaccurate, misleading or designed to elicit hasty and emotional reactions against opponents. Although not explicitly controlled or directed by the candidates themselves, the ads nonetheless were rarely repudiated by the candidate whose opponent was being dishonestly attacked.

To be fair to candidates and incumbents, however, it is not always easy to disarm unilaterally, and it is probably only by reforming the entire campaign finance system — speaking realistically — that we can promote more positive and responsible campaign rhetoric.

With this backdrop in mind, it was with great pleasure that I recently watched the film “Chasing Mavericks.” Based on the real life of Jay Moriarty, a young Santa Cruz, Calif., surfer, it is a story of honor, character, self-discipline and unshakable personal standards.

Moriarty died at age 22 in a free-diving accident in the Maldives. But while he lived he impressed the surfing world with his story, his attitude, his talent and his courage.

The film is timely. At a moment when so many problems exist at so many levels — personal, local, national and global — “Chasing Mavericks” reminds us of the importance of commitment, action and excellence, and the perhaps indispensable notion that working on things — be they objects, ideas, people or achievements — that are bigger than we are individually, and that will continue or reverberate after we are gone, has a transcendent value that can act to inspire us and others.

Born in 1978, Moriarty started surfing at age 9. By 15, he had mastered all of the moves and acrobatics being done on the medium-sized waves along Northern California’s coast.

His home life was troubled. His father had left the family when Jay was 8, and his mother struggled to keep a job and manage the household — both economically and emotionally. Her boyfriend left after he proved to be abusive.

Jay had the good fortune to live near Frosty Hesson, one of the best big-wave surfers of that era, and about 30 years Jay’s senior. Hesson had his own demons — he doubted his self-worth — but Jay prevailed upon him to teach him to surf the giant waves at a legendary area called Mavericks.

Mavericks is near Half Moon Bay, 45 miles north of Santa Cruz, and because of the area’s uniquely shaped ocean-bottom contours and coastal curve, it creates enormous winter-season wave heights of anywhere from 25 to 75 feet. In addition, the shape of the wave can be very peculiar and heavy — sometimes more sledgehammer than barrel. A number of surfers have died at Mavericks.

Moriarty had plenty of passion, but Hesson teaches him commitment — commitment to people, endeavors and a way to live. Hesson finds ways for Moriarty to develop and build himself — physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

Hesson’s been through a lot himself, and he sees himself in Moriarty. Together, they both grow by helping the other. They both have fears — traumas’ effects from the past, hanging on stubbornly — and ultimately they both tell each other about them.

Fearlessness and courage are a theme in this movie — applied to life, not just surfing. We learn that it takes honor and character to live with integrity and courage. And it can take practice and discipline and awareness to hone character and possess honor.

Lastly, we see Moriarty’s indomitable attitude and his appreciation for what he has. We all make a wake as we move through the world. What does ours look like?

At movie’s end, of course, we see Moriarty finally surf Mavericks. These are real waves — not Hollywood — and the surfers on them are shockingly tiny and breakable. These waves rise up, form immense walls, and then just rain and roar down on the reefs.

Seeing Moriarty fall and nearly drown on the first 50-footer, and then paddle back out to catch and ride successfully another monster, is like nothing else you’ve ever seen. It is an incredible sight, an incredible feat, and you’ll be moved.

What people can do, what they will do, is beyond inspiring; it is noble.


Brian T. Watson is a regular Salem News columnist. Contact him at