Maverick's Untamed

01/16/2018 05:43 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2018
Photo by Ed Grant

This is a story about the history of Maverick’s, and the surfers who ride the giant waves. Maverick’s Untamed focuses on how the wave was discovered, and features contributions from some of the world’s greatest surfers sharing their experiences surfing Maverick’s and what they do when they’re not riding one of the world’s biggest waves. Surfers including Kelly Slater, Greg Long, Jeff Clark, Tom Curren, Grant “Twiggy” Baker, Peter Mel, Matt Ambrose, Ryan Seelbach and Grant Washburn provide detailed insights into one of the biggest and scariest waves in the world, and what these surfers do when they’re not busy chasing the ocean’s most powerful waves.

Around the beginning of the 1960’s, a trio of surfers from Northern California noticed an unusually large wave that was peaking just outside of Pillar Point, a jut of land on the coast of a tiny beach town located north of Half Moon Bay called Princeton-by-the-Sea. The surfers were Alex Matienzo, Jim Thompson, and Dick Notmeyer, and they decided to paddle out and attempt to surf this particularly large wave.

The surfers were not alone.

With them was a dog. A White German Shepherd named Maverick to be precise, who belonged to Matienzo’s roommate and came along with the surfers this day.

When the surfers started their paddle out to this yet unnamed wave of enormity in the frigid ocean off the Northern California coast (sans wetsuits since they had not been developed yet), Maverick decided to join in on the fun. The dog paddled out into the water in an attempt to join the surfers. The conditions were barely suitable for an advanced surfer, let alone a dog, so Matienzo decided to bring Maverick back to shore to avoid any injuries to the dog. Maverick was tied to a car bumper, and the three surfers set out again to explore this monstrosity that was breaking approximately a quarter of a mile from shore.

The trio didn’t have much success that day as conditions just on the inside were well overhead, and they decided not to surf the double-to-triple overhead waves that were breaking even further out. So they came back in, and for the next 15 years or so, the biggest wave to break on the Pacific Coast went unridden.

Matienzo, Thompson and Notmeyer did leave a mark though. They named the break Maverick’s Point (hence why there is an apostrophe in the name), after the dog who bravely attempted to join the men and surf one of the biggest and heaviest waves in the world. The name evolved to just being called Maverick’s, and while people avoided surfing the giant wave for many years, the local community kept the name and would continue to talk about this beast of a wave that existed less than a mile away.

And for the next 15 years, Maverick’s broke in solitude. It wasn’t until a young 17-year-old Half Moon Bay local named Jeff Clark decided to brave the elements that a surfer would attempt to ride Maverick’s for the first time.

“My family moved to Half Moon Bay in 1966, built a house right on the beach,” Clark said. ”I started surfing and one of the guys gave me a board, and it was just a beater. But I started riding it, started getting better. Actually made my first board with a little help from a guy from Hawaii that worked with Surfline Hawaii with Jack Shipley, later became Lightning Bolt. And those guys. But this guy helped me build a board in a garage and I started surfing the jetty.

“Once I figured out how to stand up and make a drop on a closeout, I needed a wall, so I started walking down the beach to the jetty,” Clark continued. “And I soon outgrew the jetty, looking for more power, and we started surfing this place on the other side of the point north of Maverick’s, the Cove. And it’s a nice left, just an easy paddle out, and it’ll hold 10, 12, 15-foot bases. And so I kind of cut my teeth on bigger surf there. The forecasting back then, in 1970, wasn’t the best. So when I started surfing Maverick’s, I’d be out there in a line-up. It’d be 6 feet. And then, suddenly there was a big set. Then I’d be thinking, ‘Oh, my God, this is a huge set.’ And you’re getting run over. A new swell would hit and you wouldn’t even know it until you were in the water getting run over.”

This was how Jeff Clark not only grew up as a local in the area, but how he was introduced to Maverick’s. It wasn’t until 1975 however when Clark finally decided to charge Maverick’s for the first time.

“It’s 1975, I’m a senior in high school, and we’d surfed Ross’s as big as it gets and we’d gone around and sat on the cliffs and watched Maverick’s break,” Clark said. “And this one day Brian and I got up there and it’s plate glass, and Ross’s is closing out. And Ross’s is named after old man Ross who was a mad surfer in the early days. But we’re sitting up there on the cliff, and we can see Maverick’s going off in the distance out around the point. I go, ‘Brian, man, it looks like it’s a really consistent, even swell. Let’s go around there and watch it and paddle out.’ He didn’t even want to walk around the point. He goes, ‘No way, man. It’s no good, I’m not going. No way.’ And I go, ‘Well, just keep an eye on me while I paddle out.’ And he goes, ‘All right, man. I’ll stay here on the cliff.’

“So I made the paddle out, around the north side, hammering through,” Clark continued. “I guess I wasn’t calculating as I was paddling out the first time. I just wanted it so bad, I just jumped in the water and paddled straight across a suck-out closeout on the reef, and finally punched outside and got out to where I was in deep water. Paddled out to the peak, and once I was out I was sizing up a peak. I knew how to do that really well. Then I set up my triangulations. I was looking back at the cliff, looking for a landmark to get my position really well. And I have to say the first set that rolled through I was a little too far inside and I started scratching around the north side, around the left, as hard as I could. And this thing is breaking on the bowl, and I am just getting up and over the corners on these lefts. And looking into those things, I have to say they’re kind of intimidating. You’re looking at a left that looks kind of like pipeline, but you’re way out in the middle of the ocean. And it’s a lot of water.”

To most, intimidating would be a vast understatement when looking down the falls of a large Maverick’s wave. And in 1975, most surfboards were not suited for a wave the size and strength of Maverick’s.

“The board I had at that point was a board I got in like ’73, ’74,” Clark said. “It was a 7’ 3’’ single fin, 3 ½’’ thick. That’s what we had. That was the state-of-the-art surfboard in 1975 for Northern California. We always got things about two years later than everybody else. And so I paddled out there on this big, thick thing, and I weighed probably 160 pounds. But I surfed every single day and was just wiry and quick. I could catch anything on my 7’3”, 3 ½-inch thick surfboard.”

And for the next 15 years, Clark surfed Maverick’s alone. Despite repeated attempts to share his experiences, it wasn’t until 1990 when others started to want to see for themselves what Clark was talking about. What they witnessed was a revolution in surfing.

“A lot of them didn’t believe me. They just didn’t believe me,” Clark said.  “I had a guy that surfed in the ’78 pro trials in Hawaii. I’ve seen him on waves that were 30, 40-feet tall, guy named Steve Nichols. I go, ‘Man, you’ve got to come surf this with me.’ ‘Oh, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah,’ was his response. And later on he comes up to me. He goes, ‘I guess you know this is my punishment. I just didn’t believe you that it was that good.’ So he outlived his time in his life when he really would go for a wave that big. And trying to get people to go out there in the ‘70s, I mean Half Moon Bay in the ‘70s, think about where you were in 1975, how big the town is wherever you’re at in 1975. It’s light years of difference between then and now. I mean the VHS was something new, right? All we had was VHS video cameras and Super 8 film still. And to the technology now. I mean did we even have cellphones in 1975? I don’t think so.

“It was 1990. It really blew up. The guys from Santa Cruz that had been going to Hawaii, all of a sudden after the Eddie Aikau in ’90, you have Richard Smith bringing home his Waimea gun because his brother Big Bird is going, ‘Rich, bring a three year Waimea gun.’ And Rich is going, ‘What? Are you kidding? No way.’ ‘Rich, bring your 9’6”.’ Rich brings it over and manages to come up in the spring of that year and get Maverick’s on pretty close to a 20-foot day. He was completely blown away,” Clark continued. “I remember saying, ‘Hey, Rich, how big is that? Pretty close to 20 feet?’ At that time no one would admit that there was a 20-foot wave in California. Because surfing north of Santa Cruz or even Todos Santos hadn’t quite been discovered yet. These waves that could rival Waimea just weren’t on the map yet. And now we bring this Goliath to the table, and nobody wants to say it’s 20-foot when in fact it’s every bit of 20-foot. It’s 52 degrees, and it’s a mean wave.”

Matt Ambrose surfing Maverick’s.
Photo by Ed Grant
Matt Ambrose surfing Maverick’s.

A local surfer by the name of Matt Ambrose was one of the first surfers to see for themselves what Clark was talking about. Ambrose grew up surfing in a small beach town called Pacifica, located approximately 10 miles north of Princeton-by-the-Sea, and knew the area quite well.  Yet Ambrose had little idea that a wave of that size was right in his backyard.

“I started surfing at Mav’s because we had exhausted all the other big waves in NorCal, and we were told by a local guy named Dick Keating that there was a big wave at Half Moon Bay,” said Ambrose, who is approximately 15 years younger than Clark. ”I talked to (Jeff) Clark, and he said that there was a north point. The road that led out there used to be closed, so we couldn’t access it easily. The older guys used to be able to drive out there and see that it’s basically a point break out there. The road they drove on was closed off when I was able to drive. If you see it from the other side, the road that was accessible to Ross’s, it looked like a crazy closeout left that didn’t have the look of a good wave. When I heard that there was a right, I couldn’t believe it. I saw it instantly and went to get a surfboard.

“You get completely mauled on your way out at other surf breaks in the area, like Ocean Beach,” Ambrose continued. “This place had an easy channel. And we had to travel to Hawaii constantly, and who the fuck wants to go out there? Outside of glitz and glamour, who wants to surf in Hawaii? It’s crowded, the waves really aren’t that good, and to have a world class big wave right here just blew me away. There was nothing else at that level around here.”

And thus started the influence of Maverick’s to the surfing industry. Yet the wave drew in a very mixed crowd of surfers. While some Maverick’s chargers surfed as their profession, others like Ambrose continue to do it purely for the passion, with little glory outside of success at competitions. 

“I’ve been doing a lot of hardwood, old school linoleum, stuff called marmoleum.  Learned that shit from Shawn Rhodes, who I surfed with in the 80’s and 90’s,” Ambrose said. “I used to shape surfboards. When that business crashed, I went back to flooring. I run a business called Ambrose flooring.”

Grant Washburn with the bottom turn at Maverick’s.
Photo by Ed Grant
Grant Washburn with the bottom turn at Maverick’s.

Soon after the word got out about Maverick’s, a large amount of surfers began exploring the colossal Northern California wave. Two in particular are part of a large group of surfers who live approximately 20 miles north of Maverick’s, in the city of San Francisco. Grant Washburn and Ryan Seelbach have been fixtures at Maverick’s since the early 90’s, and still surf and compete there today.

“I moved West after college in 1990, and first heard about Maverick’s shortly after settling at Ocean Beach,” Washburn said. “Doc Renneker was my neighbor, and after cutting my big wave teeth out front for a season, he insisted I join him at the new spot the following January – that was 1992.”

Like Ambrose, Washburn cut his chops at Ocean Beach (OB) before progressing to the mighty waves at Maverick’s.

“My preparation was basically getting slammed at OB for 18 months,” Washburn said. “That first season no one knew about Maverick’s, so the more extreme guys would just go after the biggest swells in the middle of OB. We would basically just try to get out, and then try to get as close as possible to the epicenter of the juice focusing around the middle. It is pretty much Maverick’s size without a channel, so that’s about as good a place to prepare as anywhere in the world. I loved being able watch the action from my place, suit up in my living room, and rinse off in my shower. For a guy that grew up hours from surf and starved for more power, it was heaven.”

Ryan Seelbach rides on while a nearby surfer wipes out at Maverick’s.
Photo by Ed Grant
Ryan Seelbach rides on while a nearby surfer wipes out at Maverick’s.

Ryan Seelbach started surfing at Maverick’s some years after Washburn. 

“In the mid-90’s I watched Nacho Lopez surf Mav’s from the cliff, and saw him wipeout so bad that I knew I didn’t want it,” Seelbach said. “Three years later, two close friends called me to say Mav’s was going off and they were picking me up in one hour to surf it. I raced over to SF Surf Shop and bought a Michel Junod that he shaped for himself, rode once at Mav’s and gave it to SF Surf Shop just a few days later. Apparently Michel had a Nacho situation that scared him straight.

“So, with no prep or planning I went down with the new board, and caught three waves in one hour, met Jeff Clark and Jay Moriarty, and was super stoked!” Seelbach continued. ”Feeling confident and in charge, I moved farther over to the bowl, spun around and snagged a bomb that doubled up enough to have my board become airborne on the drop. I landed it, but couldn’t stick it, fell back and went over the falls into a dark deep place that was far deeper than I had ever been. I came up gasping and dazed to see a personal watercraft (PWC) rider’s hand outstretched from a ski. With my board snapped and another wave bearing down, I grabbed on and he dragged me to shore.  My first thoughts were, ‘OK, I lived and I handled a Nacho style wipeout.’ Would I go back? Yes, but with some mental and physical preparation. I was not ready for that situation!”

Similar to Ambrose, Washburn and Seelbach have professional careers that have little or nothing to do with surfing. Washburn is a film and video producer, coordinator, writer, director and surf documentarian, having worked on the film Riding Giants which documented the early days of Maverick’s and is currently doing production work on the upcoming film Of Men and Mavericks which focuses on the late Jay Moriarity and his mentor Frosty Hesson, played by actor Gerard Butler. Seelbach works as a federal employee for the Presidio Trust in San Francisco managing the environmental remediation program.

Kelly Slater paddling out at Maverick’s.
Photo by Ted Johnson
Kelly Slater paddling out at Maverick’s.

This isn’t to say that all the surfers who charge at Maverick’s have day jobs. Kelly Slater, without question the greatest surfer ever, made an appearance at Maverick’s on March 3rd, 2000 to compete in Quiksilver’s Men Who Ride Mountains contest. This was the second contest ever held at Maverick’s.

Kelly Slater with the bottom turn at Maverick’s.
Photo by Ted Johnson
Kelly Slater with the bottom turn at Maverick’s.

Slater has a hazy memory of the event due to ailing from an illness.

“I honestly don’t remember because two days before the event, I was in bed for 24 hours,” said Slater, who proved he could conquer big waves by finishing the contest in second place. “Couldn’t eat. I had a 24-hour flu bug, it was really bad. So I couldn’t eat, I was dehydrated, couldn’t drink anything because I was throwing up. And so for 24 hours literally I stayed in bed, didn’t leave.

“I woke up the day prior to the event,” Slater continued. “I had a little toast and avocado and could drink some fruit juice. Then I flew in and got there late that night. Al Merrick and I flew up, got there late, got about four, maybe five hours of sleep. I was messed up. Then I get down to the beach and it was like 40-foot faces that morning. That was a big swell. Short interval, giant swell, and all I had was a couple of Odwalla drinks that morning.”

Kelly Slater hanging on in the whitewash at Maverick’s.
Photo by Ted Johnson
Kelly Slater hanging on in the whitewash at Maverick’s.

“My first wave of the day was a 20-footer,” Slater said. “I made the drop, got a late drop, came around and thought, ‘I got this thing.’ Straightened out, and then the wave just rolled me. I was under water for so long. I thought, ‘God, I’m going to drown right now.’ I was out of it. I really thought I was going down for the count that time. It felt like I took about 30 strokes to get to the surface. I finally came up, and I was like, ‘OK, I’m not falling again today.’ I didn’t fall once more the whole day.”

Slater made it to the finals of the contest, and proceeded to accidentally ride an early wave all the way to the end with full intention of calling it a day, when he was told that there was still 40 minutes left in the heat.

“I ride in to the beach, and I had a 5/4/3 wetsuit with a built-in hood,” Slater said. “And I went in, I took the suit off, pulled it down to my waist, and maybe I even took it off. And then somebody goes, ‘You’re in the final, the jet ski’s waiting by the beach. You gotta go back out.’ And I was like, ‘Oh that sucks.’”

Kelly Slater veers right at Maverick’s.
Photo by Ted Johnson
Kelly Slater veers right at Maverick’s.

One of the very rare surfers that Slater considers an idol is Tom Curren, another legendary surfer whose day job is riding waves. Curren surfed Maverick’s in 1993.

“It wasn’t a big day,” Curren said. “Fun though. I wish I had a better quiver. I’m working on it though. I hope to paddle out there again.”

Out of all the legends who have conquered Northern California’s behemoth wave, there is one who has transcended Maverick’s beyond the rest. And, surprisingly, his hometown is not anywhere near Princeton-by-the-Sea, but rather the Southern California beach town of San Clemente, California.

Greg Long trying to beat the whitewash at Maverick’s.
Photo by Ed Grant
Greg Long trying to beat the whitewash at Maverick’s.

Greg Long started surfing in smaller waves, winning the 2001 NSSA National Championships and securing a relatively lucrative endorsement deal from surf industry brand Ocean Pacific (OP) that allowed to him to chase giant waves without financial inhibitions. Unfortunately, OP became an exclusive distribution partner with retail chain Walmart, and the company ended their core surfing roots by removing the surf team and using faux celebrities to model their clothing.

Greg Long was without a sponsor. Having won the Red Bull Big Wave Africa contest at Dungeons, South Africa in 2003, Long would routinely amaze fans of big wave surfing and his peers alike by charging on the world’s largest and most dangerous waves. Long once embarked to Cortes Bank, one of the largest waves in the world located over a 100 miles west of Southern California in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, by riding half the way on a PWC. The harrowing journey showed everyone just how committed Long was to big wave surfing, especially given the lack of financial support from the surf industry.

In essence, Long has become the unofficial ambassador to big wave surfing, and rightfully so. Long is the only surfer to win all three prestigious big wave surfing contests in the history of the sport. Long was victorious at the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational in 2009 (Kelly Slater finished in second), the Maverick’s Surf Contest in 2008 and the aforementioned Red Bull Big Wave Africa contest at Dungeons in 2003. Long’s competitive accomplishments are unmatched, he handles himself incredibly well, and all-in-all there is an overwhelming consensus amongst his peers that Long is a genuine, good person.

Case in point. The final heat of the 2008 Maverick’s Surf Contest.

Long was one of the favorites to win the contest. He finished second in 2005, and everyone at that point recognized Long for the amazing surfer he is. Yet Long made an interesting and selfless proposition just for the sake of surfing freely. Long proposed to his fellow competitors in the finals (Grant Washburn, Tyler Smith, Jamie Sterling and Grant “Twiggy” Baker) a pact to split the winnings regardless of the outcome. They agreed, and the finals of the 2008 Maverick’s Surf Contest became one of the most exciting moments in the history of Maverick’s.

Yet Long got his start surfing big waves like most other surfers.

“I surfed Maverick’s for the first time when I was 19 years old,” Long said. “For years I had seen photographs and watched nearly every movie out there in complete awe of the place. In 2001, I met Grant Washburn down in South Africa, at which point he extended the invitation to come up and surf it. The following winter I did.

“Maverick’s is one of, if not the heaviest and scariest, surf breaks in the world,” Long continued. “From its immense size and power, to the cold water, currents, sharks, it demands the most of you as a surfer both physically and mentally. I physically trained extensively before I surfed it for the first time. I also studied every second of footage I could find so as to had a better understanding of how the wave breaks. But even when I felt ready to surf it, I didn’t jump straight into a big day. The first time I surfed it, it was barely breaking, but big enough for me to get a better feel for the place. I gradually worked my way up surfing it on slightly larger days. It wasn’t until the contest in 2003 that I had my first proper 20-foot-plus day. I can vividly recall every wave I rode that day.“

Long considers his victory at Maverick’s to be one of his greatest accomplishments.

“Maverick’s is probably the biggest achievement of my life, from a competition standpoint,” Long said. “There are three big wave paddle contests each year (Maverick’s Surf Contest, The Eddie and Red Bull Big Wave Africa, which has since shut down) and Maverick’s goes hand-in-hand with The Eddie in terms of prestige. The victory was incredible. It’s something I’ve strived for since I was first invited years ago. I’ve dreamed about a victory like that since I was a kid.”

Grant “Twiggy” Baker with the steep drop at Maverick’s.
Photo by Ed Grant
Grant “Twiggy” Baker with the steep drop at Maverick’s.

Long did eventually get an official surf sponsor. Billabong now supports Long as one of their team riders. Long’s good friend, fellow Billabong teammate and 2006 Maverick’s Surf Contest champion Grant “Twiggy” Baker, who hails from South Africa, agrees that Long is at the top of his class.

“He’s the top big wave surfer in the world,” Twiggy said. “No one else compares right now.”

“That is quite a compliment, and I return it right back to him,” said Long, when told about Twiggy’s comment. “When it comes to paddling and tow surfing, I honestly don’t know many surfers who are as constant as Twiggy. I think that’s why we get along so well. We both have the same goals and missions. There are other incredible big wave surfers though. Shane Dorian comes to mind. How can anyone say there’s someone better than him? There are a lot of other people who deserves just as much credit. Jamie Sterling is also really on it in terms of chasing big swells. The active pursuit of big swells never stops.”

Maverick’s hasn’t been without its fair share of tragedy. Hawaiian greats Mark Foo and Sion Milosky passed away surfing Maverick’s, 17 years apart. It’s a humble reminder to Maverick’s surfers of just how powerful a wave it can be.

Matt Ambrose emphasized what it takes to surf big waves.

“I will say this because I’ve been wanting to say this for a long time,” Ambrose said. “People say you need to train with other people to prepare for surfing big waves. Basically, every guy who is a big wave surfer just goes and tries it. You get to a certain point where you surf a lot, and you want to surf bigger waves and you eventually want to surf the biggest wave, and you want to know if you’ll survive it. I don’t think you need to train to surf big waves, but you need to surf.

“I don’t think you need to sit in a room and hold your breath and that kind of stuff,” Ambrose continued. “Kind of like Greg Long and those guys that go chase big waves. That’s what it’s all about. I would be proud if there was some guy younger than me that just got out there and tried it, instead of just talking about it and wanting someone to hold their hand. Everyone’s like, ‘You’ve got to train.’ Why? It’s a big, giant a-frame that breaks out in the middle of the ocean, and that’s where you take off. If you don’t know that, you’re retarded and you shouldn’t be surfing it.”

Peter Mel goes for the more daunting left at Maverick’s.
Photo by Ed Grant
Peter Mel goes for the more daunting left at Maverick’s.

Santa Cruz surfer Peter Mel, a former Big Wave World Tour Champion, is another Maverick’s veteran who shared his expertise on charging big waves.

“We don’t get to surf big waves every day. You can’t just go down to your local beach and practice surfing 30-foot waves,” Mel said. “This year especially is a prime example of a year that wasn’t that great for big surf here in the Pacific. We only had three or four days where we actually got to paddle Mavericks this year. We didn’t have the event, so it was kind of a bummer.

“With age, you get to pack those sessions in, and have that wisdom,” Mel continued. ”I’ve had 20 years of big wave surfing (experience), which is probably 40 sessions, maybe 50 sessions total that I got to do. I’m as physically fit as I’ve been in a long time, so I want to keep competing in the big wave stuff, and I’m staying focused with my surfing, by surfing in these other events, as well as watching and learning.”

“Dick Keating was my mentor. And Shawn Rhodes. And Jim Kibblewhite. These guys were all older than me, and all three of them were my mentor,” Ambrose added. “No one was going with you though. Everyone was doing their own thing. There was no way to ease our way out there.”

Jeff Clark surfing at Maverick’s.
Photo by Ed Grant
Jeff Clark surfing at Maverick’s.

No one will ever know where Maverick’s would be in surfing history had Jeff Clark not gone out and started surfing it by himself for 15 years. Nor would people have the opportunity to enjoy Clark’s recollections of how he first discovered the giant wave.

“Our little league coach Walt Von Hauffe took us out to surf inside the reef where other surfers surfed in the 60’s,” Clark said. “Walt owned Von’s Cinema in Half Moon Bay (the only cinema to ever exist in the small town). We’d surf the little longboard waves at high-tide, which is pretty protected. One of the other riders who came with us, Alex Matienzo, had a roommate whose dog was named Maverick, and we used to take him out to the beach. That’s where the name Maverick’s came from.

“This guy, Brian Heafy, who I tracked down for the film Riding Giants, became one of my good surfing buddies,” Clark continued. ”We’d surf almost daily together. I was 15 or 16, and Brian and I were surfing all the local breaks. Brian and I finally decided to go out to Maverick’s. I was feeling it. Brian eventually went back in. He didn’t want to try it. Even though the leash snapped off my board that day, I decided to keep trying to catch these waves. Even without a leash. Brian had no desire to do it. And after that first moment, Brian was over it, and my friends didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

“Every time the swell was big, my friends would hit up the Jetty,” Clark said. “I wanted to surf the juice.”

So too did a dog. A White German Shepherd named Maverick.

Note: This story was originally published in 2012 for USA Today, where I was a Senior Editor managing a staff of reporters. This was one of the few articles I personally published there.

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