No Easy Rhodes at Mavericks
Shawn Rhodes reflects on his stellar career at the world- famous break
By Neal Kearney
When considering the life of a standout Mavericks surfer like Shawn Rhodes, one might assume that his scariest underwater moment would be something like a two-wave hold down—an experience that has made some of the best, including Shane Dorian and Greg Long, question their hazardous profession.
But Rhodes’ closest call came much earlier in life. As a young boy, he was playing by himself in an otherwise unoccupied pool when he suddenly slipped and sank to the bottom of the deep end. “I remember looking up at the surface from below, just thinking, ‘How do I swim?!’” he says.
Luckily, a man had seen everything happen from his second-floor window and rushed down to rescue the waterlogged kid. Rhodes was so spooked that when his stepdad Jim tried to take him out surfing at age 7, he kicked and screamed all the way to the water’s edge, clawing at the sand as though he was heading into an fiery oven.
“So it’s kind of trippy: I went from almost drowning to surfing big waves,” laughs Rhodes.
Rhodes, now 46, has cemented his veteran status at Mavericks. He’s among a tight-knit crew of Northern California surfers, including Matt Ambrose and Ion Banner, whose performances at the break have been nothing short of outstanding for more than two decades. Along the way, there was a troop of Santa Cruz surfers, like Darryl “Flea” Virostko and Pete Mel, nipping at their heels with full-throttle efforts at the powerful break off of Pillar Point. Rhodes looks back on that pressure to perform kindly, grateful for the push from the star-studded Santa Cruz squad.
“In those early days, the only time it would get packed was with all the Santa Cruz guys coming up,” he says. “But it was fine—they were pushing everyone’s limits. I liked rising to that challenge, to be honest. I felt like that was my peak.”
It all traces back to that day his stepdad had to drag him into the ocean, when young Rhodes realized that the ocean was not only not as scary as he’d built up to be, but that it was actually really fun.
“I just remember looking through the water—it was so clear and I could see kelp and little fish swimming in front of us,” he recalls. “From then I was hooked. I just wanted to do it more and more and more.”
Rhodes spent a few years body boarding the playful waves by his home, right off Pedro Point in Pacifica. After a few years, he ditched the bodyboard and returned to surfing. It wasn’t long before he was charging waves bigger than most homes.
Rhodes and his crew relished the rush of the surf at Pedro Point, but pined for something bigger. Something heavier. Something like the perfect peaks off of Año Nuevo State Beach, except 20-feet high. One day, Mavericks pioneer Jeff Clark pulled up to the Point on a solid swell and asked if they had bigger boards, as he had a secret big-wave spot that he thought they were ready for. Rhodes heeded this call to arms, and the next year ordered up some bigger boards for his quiver.
“We were always talking about that elusive, perfect, and giant wave,” he says. “All of a sudden, we had it.”
Rhodes paddled out at Mavericks for the first time at age 21. Over the next two decades, he was out for every swell possible. His performances during sessions and subsequent clips in Mavericks surf flicks such as Nuthin’ but Nuts! and Twenty Feet Under made him a no-brainer to be considered for the Quiksilver “Men Who Ride Mountains” event in 1999. Over the next 15 years he competed in eight iterations of the invitational event when it ran, placing as high as seventh place.
He’s open about his recent “retirement,” in which he has not surfed the break for the past five years. Nor Cal Surf Shop, which he opened in Pacifica 25 years ago, keeps him busy. The shop is just a stone’s throw from his beloved Pedro Point and services the local community with surf goods, such as boards from his own surfboard label, Neptune Surfboards.
“I started a surf shop because there used to only be one around, but they didn’t really take care of the kids,” he says. “So I was of the mind that I could establish one that could.”
Thirty-one-year-old Pacifica local Travis Payne is one of the locals he’s mentored in Pacifica, along with Mavericks charger Colin Dwyer and aerialist/competitive dynamo Brogie Panesi. Payne stunned the surf world when he placed second in the 2016 Titans of Mavericks contest, and is always one to watch at the explosive reef. He counts himself lucky to have grown up under Rhodes’ watch.
“I’ve known Shawn since I was in elementary school,” Payne says. “He let me borrow a big-wave gun and took me out to Mavericks for the first time when I was 16. Shawn was an animal at Mavericks, and pretty much anywhere else he surfed.”
Rhodes was also one part of the “Committee 5” at the Titans event, along with Clark, three-time contest champion Virostko, and his childhood chums Banner and Ambrose. The group served as a governing body for the event, deciding on invitees, wild cards, waiting periods, and more. He’s grateful to have had the experience to represent Mavericks, but walked away with a bit of a sour taste in his mouth after money troubles forced Titans CEO Griffin Guess to file for bankruptcy in early 2017.
“I know Griffin ultimately had his heart in it, but I don’t think the money he needed was there for him,” he reflects. “He always seemed sincere and genuine but did things that weren’t so sincere and genuine.”
When Rhodes is not busy managing business at Nor Cal, he can be found taking his own kids surfing. He’s relishing their “twinkle-in-the-eye” look that he once wore after being introduced to the waves by his stepdad all those years ago. As far as his relationship with Mavericks, his reverence for the break will never end.
“The thought of dying was always on my mind out there,” he says. “That’s a crazy wave. It could kill anyone at any time, rescue vest or not. It’s downright deadly.”