Hammer man Matt Mohagen

Matt Mohagen at Hammerland

Matt Mohagen at Hammerland, where he won the South Bay Boardriders Club South Bay Big Wave Contest. The victory earned him $2,000 in prize money and the 10-6 Pat Reardon gun and Body Glove wetsuit he is pictured with. Photo by Mike Balzer

For the past three winters, since finishing high school, Matt Mohagen and his childhood friend Matt Pagan have gone to Hawaii’s North Shore to compete in big wave contests. Because broken boards are common in the contests, the two board caddy for one another. They stay at a house owned by Pagan’s dad.

“I do better in big wave contests. I don’t like doing the grovel thing,” Mohagen said during a recent interview. By “grovel thing” he meant California’s winter contests, which are generally held in small surf. TransWorld Surf’s recent gear guide issue devotes over half of its eight-page board section to grovel boards, “the board of choice for most of the pros on the WQS (World Qualifying Tour), who are surfing mostly average waves like the rest of us.”

Mohagen prefers a standard, 6-foot thruster, even in big waves when most surfers would pull out their longer “step-up” boards.

“I feel a bigger board is kind of cheating. If I can surf a small board, why not push myself. I like to be scared,” Mohagen said.

But despite surf forecasters predicting an even smaller than usual winter for Southern California, Mohagen returned home from Hawaii this winter, after competing in just one contest, at Sunset. He left Hawaii early because he thought he could win the South Bay Boardriders Big Wave Contest.

Surf photographer and SB Boardriders co-founder Mike Balzer came up with the idea for the contest as a signature event for the club and as a way to bring recognition to the South Bay’s crew of talented, but largely unheralded surfers. Balzer borrowed the idea from his San Diego State surf teammate Bill Sharp, who, as editor of Surfing, established the K-2 Big Wave Challenge. The contest grew into what is now the $100,000 Billabong XXL.

The 22-year-old Mohagen was just the type of South Bay surfer Balzer had in mind for the club’s contest. Mohagen was a stand-out rider at El Segundo High before choosing to home school so he could compete full time on the National Scholastic Surfing Association Tour, and then the WQS (World Qualify Series).

“Matt’s really mellow and soft spoken. You wouldn’t know to meet him that he charges big waves,” said Pagan. “But that’s his forte. There are not a lot of people like him. He gets scared, but doesn’t show it. He won’t back down. He’s definitely a competitor. When we competed in NSSA contests he set the bar for our area.”

“I did the whole nine yards. Every weekend, my parents drove me up and down the coast to contests,” Mohagen said.

At 16, he earned a spot on the U.S. National Surfing Team, which won a silver medal at the World Junior Championships in Tahiti. In 2008 he advanced to the quarter finals of the Pipeline Monster Energy Pro by beating three-time world champion Andy Irons. That same year he scored a 9.6 in the semi finals of the Vans Puerto Escondido, Mexico, contest.

Since becoming a Los Angeles County Lifeguard three years ago, his name has twice been engraved on the Judge Taplin Bell as a paddler, which recognizes the top lifeguard medley teams.

But despite his surfing achievements and resemblance to Kelly Slater, with his long, thin body and shaved head, Mohagen is unsponsored. Body Glove supplies him with wetsuits, but he buys his own boards and pays his own travel and contest expenses with money from summer lifeguarding.

“My hat’s off to people who can sell themselves to sponsors, but I don’t like to do it,” he said.

The Big Wave Challenge

Matt Mohagen Jeff Farsai

Matt Mohagen at Hammerland on January 19, 2011, on the wave that earned him the South Bay Boardriders Big Wave Challenge award. (Video still by Jeff Farsai (JeffFarsaiphotography.com)

In addition to big wave experience, winning the SB Boardriders Big Wave Challenge would require the cooperation of a photographer/videographer to document the ride, and Mother Nature.

The uncontrollable variables, notwithstanding, Mohagen’s confidence that he could win the contest wasn’t unfounded.

The winter of 2009-10 brought the South Bay its largest number of big swells in recent memory. But 2010-11  promised far fewer big swells. That meant the winner would need sufficient knowledge of local breaks to recognize what might well be a single, one- to two-hour window when the swell direction, wind, and tide would all come together to produce a rideable, big wave during the December through March contest period.

Within the contest boundaries – Palos Verdes on the south and El Segundo on the north – the only rideable breaks during big swells are Hammerland on the north side of the El Segundo jetty, the Redondo Breakwall and Indicator in Palos Verdes. All three are lefts, which favor goofy-footers like Mohagen. (Lunada Bay in Palos Verdes is also a big wave spot, but was not included in the contest boundaries because Lunada locals couldn’t be relied on to respect other South Bay surfers. Mohagen’s one session at Lunada, when he was a 14 year-old, ended when “they threw my stuff around and I was forced to leave. I could understand it if we were being disrespectful, but we were surfing inside and we were only 14,” Mohagen recalled.)

Mohagen grew up in Culver City, surfing Hammerland and neighboring El Porto.

Hammerland earned its name shortly after the El Segundo Jetty was built in 1983 to protect the Chevron Refinery from tumbling into the ocean.

According to Balzer, who has photographed Hammerland since it began breaking, “Pro surfers Ted Robinson, Chris Frohoff, Steve Machin and Kelly Gibson were surfing it one day and after getting out of the water, they all said, ‘We got hammered.’”

Last winter, Balzer sent photos he’d taken of El Segundo surf shop owner Tyler Hatzikian at Hammerland to Surfer’s Journal. The magazine’s photo editor Jeff Devine sent back an email that read, “I love those photos of Pipeline.”

Devine’s misreading of the photos was notable on two levels, Balzer said. First, because like Pipeline, Hammerland breaks top to bottom in shallow water. And secondly, because Hatzikian is to Hammerland what Jerry Lopez was to Pipeline. Hatzikian began crawling under the barbwire fence at the jetty when it was still under construction. He shapes his own boards, specifically for Hammerland, and specifically for himself because no one else will paddle out at Hammerland on a 10-foot, single fin weighing 30 pounds. Hatzikian said he doesn’t wear a leash because big boards tend to tombstone in big waves when their riders fall, and at 39, he doesn’t handle the hold-downs as well as he did when he was younger. But an equally probably explanation is that everything about the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Hatzikian, from the single fins he shapes and glasses, to his crisp Pendletons and guarded private life, harkens back to the mythical era of board builders Bob Simmons, Dale Velzy, Greg Noll and Hap Jacobs. They didn’t wear leashes.

Balzer emailed back to Devine, “That’s not Pipeline. Look at the barbed wire in the foreground. That’s Hatzikian at Hammerland.” Devine promptly assigned a writer to profile Hatzikian for his magazine.

No expectations

The surf models for Wednesday, Jan. 19 showed scout sets [a term newly coined by Swellmagnet.com’s Mike Durand] for the largest swell of what had been a disappointing winter. The forecasts said the swell wouldn’t peak until the following day. Otherwise, conditions looked perfect. The swell was coming out of the northwest, the wind would be offshore through the day and the tide was dropping to a minus 1.4 at 3 p.m. Hammerland likes a northwest swell on a minus tide.

Normally, Hammerland breaks left, in front of, or north of the jetty. Only on rare occasions, with the right combination of swell direction and low tide, is it possible to take off south of the jetty and cross in front of it to the north side.

January 19 was one of those days.

Mohagen left home that morning with his 6-0 Anderson. On the beach, he met up with his older brother Chris, fellow lifeguard and Hammerland specialist Kenny Brechtelsbauer and former El Segundo High surf teammate Eddie Lester. Mohagen and Lester met when they were 10-year-old Marine Street Junior Lifeguards. During the two years they surfed together at El Segundo High, before Mohagen started homeschooling, they threatened perennial surf powerhouses Mira Costa and Palos Verdes High for the South Bay Surf League title.

“Matty, Eddie and Alex Abad would win the short board heats, but we didn’t have the depth to win the meets,” former El Segundo assistant coach Susan Moon said.

Mohagen and Lester, now a trainer at Equinox, also competed together on the WQS.

Lester brought his 6-foot-6 “step-up” board that day and would be glad he did.

A short time after the four paddled out they were joined by Hatzikian and Body Glove marketing director Scott Daley.

The view from the water

After a few promising waves, Mohagen paddled back in to call photographer Jeff Farsai.

Farsai got the call at his Long Beach studio about 11 a.m. He said he’d be at the jetty in 30 minutes.

“Matt didn’t say it was big, or anything out of the ordinary. He just said it was good,” Farsai said.

Farsai started photographing surfing at Santa Cruz while in high school. He received a degree in photography and visual arts at Cal State Long Beach and in 2003, landed a coveted internship at Surfer magazine.

He met Mohagen, and Pagan five years ago on a boat trip in Indonesia, sponsored by Katin board shorts.

Like Mohagen, Farsai was put off by surf industry politics.

“I was shooting ground-breaking stuff, but the magazines only wanted to run the photographers they were already working with,” he said.

He shifted his focus to commercial photography, in particular celebrities and musicians, whom he found easier to work with.

But he kept up his relationship with Mohagen.

“Matty gives 100 percent, no matter what the conditions. And he charges,” he said.

“That day, when I got to the jetty, I saw it was maxing out and changed as quickly as I could. Then I swam out on the north side and tried to stay right in front of the jetty,” Farsai said.

Despite being a former high school swimmer and high school swim coach, staying in position was a constant battle. Swells wrapping in from the south swept him north and swells from the north swept him south.

Several years ago, a big storm blew up the end of the jetty, leaving behind a minefield of boulder size rocks that form a shallow reef off the end of the jetty.

“Hammerland’s not a playful wave,” Balzer said. “It intimidates really good surfers. Without a board, it’s even scarier. I can’t believe Jeff was sitting in front of the reef that day, because if a set caught him he’d have been in a lot of trouble. With the camera, you only have one arm to swim with.” In fact, Farsai did get caught inside that day and was sucked over the falls. Fortunately, he missed the rocks and was able to hold on to the water housing protecting his Canon 7D, which was so new he hadn’t gotten around to putting a leash on it.

Farsai decided to experiment shooting video rather than stills for the first time with his new gear, because more and more of his clients required video.

No leash, no problem

Hatzikian was planning to wait until the following day to surf when he got a call around noontime at his shop from lifeguard Tom Seth, who was recovering from hip surgery.

“Tom said Matt was getting barrels, and told me to stop what I was doing and get down there,” he recalled.

The first wave Hatzikian took off on began breaking well south of the jetty on the outside reef.

“I was so far out that I turned off the bottom before I even reached the guys in the line-up. But I’d taken off too deep and the wave closed out,” he said.

He punched through the top of the wave just as it passed in front of the jetty. His board washed in and lodged in a cave in the jetty, eight feet above the water line.

Daley had caught the previous wave and was walking back out on the jetty, because the waves had gotten too big to paddle out through, when he saw Hatzikian wipe out.

“I’m thinking, ‘Tyler’s dead. I hope I don’t have to rescue him,’” Daley said.

Hatzikian swam in through the rock boils to the jetty and began looking for a way to climb up to his board.

“I was still thinking it was going to be bigger the next day, and I wouldn’t have a board to ride if I couldn’t get that one back,” he said.

Another set wave came through, washing over the top of the end of the jetty. When the water retreated, Hatzikian’s board floated free and slid down the rocks into his arms.

Afterwards, Hatzikian was asked if he wished he’d been wearing a leash. He said no.

“If I screw up, I pay the price. Without a leash, you can’t just drop in recklessly, take a wipe out and pull the board back,” he said.

Matt Mohagen check

Matt Mohagen celebrates his Big Wave Challenge victory with (left to right) Body Glove CEO Russ Lesser, surfboard shaper Pat Reardon, videographer Jeff Farsai and finalist Derek Levy. Photo by Brent Broza

The wave

Daley was on his lunch break and, like Mohagen, had brought his 6-0 instead of his usual 6-4 because he thought the surf would be small. He quickly realized the swell had arrived a day earlier than forecasted.

“I saw a set coming off the buoys on the south that mark a no dive zone over an underwater oil pipe and I knew they were big lefts. When the sets come off the tanker reef north of the jetty, you know it’s a right.”

The bobbing buoys also caught the attention of the others in the line-up.

“Matty, Kenny and I saw the set way out there and I thought, holy crap, that’s a big set. It was my turn, so I took the first one,” Lester recalled. “It broke out a little further than Matty’s so it wasn’t quite as hollow, but it was a fun wave.”

Farsai was sitting inside, fighting to get into position.

“Eddie’s wave was big, but I couldn’t get into position, so I missed it. Then, when I got over the top of it, I saw this beast coming. Everyone in the lineup was screaming. I yelled at Matt, ‘Go on this one.’”

“I saw the wave minutes before it hit, wrapping in from the south, which was crazy,” Mohagen said. “I told Kenny 10 times, ‘I’m going, I’m going.’ I was sitting further in than the other guys because I was on a short board and I didn’t know where it would break. I’d never caught a wave there before. I was so far behind the rocks, that I didn’t know what would happen. I just put my head down and went for it.”

“It let me in easy. But halfway down the face it jacked up. I caught a rail and almost fell. It was one of the most intense drops I’ve had in California.”

“I saw him make the drop, and thought ‘Great, he made it,’” recalled Farsai. “But then he went into his bottom turn where the water boils up on the rocks in front of the jetty. The wave jacked up again and he started to wobble. But he stuck it, and went cruising down the line in that classic stance with his arms down at his side, making it look like it was easy. I went over the top of the wave, hoping it wouldn’t suck me over, because I wanted to get the whole ride.”

Lester was paddling back out and saw the spit blow Mohagen out of the barrel.

“I think you just won the big wave contest,” he yelled at his former high school teammate.

Based on a viewing of Farsai’s video, Balzer, and fellow Big Wave Challenge judges Scott Daley, Matt Walls, Pat Reardon, and Charlie Carver estimated the top to bottom breaking barrel at 18- to 20-feet.

Mohagen was one of five contest finalists. Three others were photographed that same day at the Redondo Breakwall on waves that were arguable as big as Mohagen’s. Derek Levy and Marcelo Malinco were photographed by Brad Jacobson and Chris Rodriquez was photographed by John Wayne Miller. Hatzikian was the fifth finalist. He was photographed John Tindall the following day on his red, 10-foot-1 Tyler screaming past the end of the jetty on a triple overhead wall.

The judges, by unanimous vote, gave the first annual South Bay Boardriders Big Wave Challenge Award to Mohagen.

Any doubt about who deserved the win was settled by the roar that greeted the screening of Farsai’s video of Mohagen during the Big Wave Challenge awards ceremony at the Hermosa Beach Community Center three months later, on Friday, April 8.

Mohagen said he plans to use his prize money to travel to big wave contests this summer in Puerto Escondido, for the Quiksilver Pro and Arica, Chile for the Arica Surf Challenge. B

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