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Death Trip

Surfers are riding unthinkably dangerous waves. Why aren’t more of us dying?

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Seven years ago surfing seemed to be on the cusp of peak gnar, with top-freighted slabs the photographic order of the day. It felt likely that these reefs would soon be smeared with the remains of the slow or hubristic. Factor in the growing list of 50-plus foot waves in the XXL landscape, and it was getting hard to ignore an obvious question: why aren’t more of us dying? Writer Brad Melekian took up the assignment, and discovered that the odds might be worse than the statistics show. —Scott Hulet


As a scene-setting tale of our heavy-wave surfing times, this one does quite nicely: In 2005, Reef McIntosh was whipping Raimana Van Bastolaer into 15-foot Teahupoo set waves—the typical violent, backless, reef-sucking south-swell fare that the spot is notorious for. After “five or six good ones,” Reef failed to penetrate the lip of one such meaty Teahupoo barrel, couldn’t get the craft over the wave, and so abandoned ship, sending the 800-pound personal watercraft tumbling earthward with the cascading lip, nearly skulling the now-dodging Van Bastolaer in the process. Not to worry. The ski washed onto the reef but was totaled. Everyone involved was unscathed.

McIntosh later admitted that he “didn’t know how to drive” a jet ski but that Raimana had said to him, “Don’t even think about it, let’s just go!” The story is well worn by now, but what’s alarming isn’t the story itself or the consequence-flouting attitude it connotes nor the fact that McIntosh later stated that he hoped the incident “helps [tow surfing] grow,” but the fact that such incidents don’t happen more often. After all, every south swell that puts a charge into the reef at Teahupoo carries the same number of would-be big-wave conquerors as typically descend on Jaws on Maui when a band of northwest swell shows promise. At the latter break, it’s not uncommon to see as many as 30 pairs of skis and surfers crossing the lineup.

And this is to say nothing of the waves themselves. When Laird Hamilton rode his millennium wave at Teahupoo in 2000, “we were all pretty sure that it was 50/50 whether or not Laird would have survived that,” says Matt Warshaw, author of The History of Surfing. “After all, a guy died three days before that.”

Today, though, waves like Hamilton’s are ridden with frequency, and Laird can be credited with rewiring the surfing populace, which seems to have grown bored with mere “big” waves and has developed a yen for “heavy.” To that end, the latest de rigueur in the sport are “slab” waves—waves that aren’t really waves, but rather abstract impressionist wave shapes that some surfers have taken to riding. The “wave” at Shipsterns Bluff in Tasmania, for instance—a square-lipped, four- or six- or eight-stepped oceanic phenomenon—offers a fetishist’s delight of photos of surfers tempting fate, and, in the process, has given rise to a whole new category of non-wave hell-surfing slab rider.

“Death is talked about in surfing a lot,” says Evan Slater, well-respected big wave surfer and the former editor of both Surfer and Surfing magazines. “But the reality is that it’s more dangerous to cross the street.”

In other words, we find ourselves in an epoch when it’s typical to see crowds of ill prepared motor-assisted surfers being whipped into backless, square, 20-foot, thick-lipped mutants that break over only several feet of water.

So.

Why aren’t more people dying?

“I really have no idea,” says Greg Long, who, at age 27, is recognized as the best big wave surfer of his generation. Long knows something about the consequences of riding mutant waves. He’s had his ear drum ruptured at Maverick’s, endured hold downs at most of the planet’s big-wave surf spots, come as close as anybody to riding the mythical 100-foot wave, won the Maverick’s Surf Contest and the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational, and is the all-time winningest surfer in the now ten-year history of the Billabong XXL Big-Wave Awards.

“It’s surprising that there aren’t more fatalities,” he says. “You look around at what people are doing, at some of the waves that people are surfing, at the number of people in the lineup at some of these places and, uh, yeah. I can’t tell you why more people aren’t dying.”

Despite the fact that big-wave surfing is routinely lauded as one of the most deadly pursuits on the planet, despite the fact that Forbes magazine listed it (without statistical warrant, turns out) as one of “The World’s Most Dangerous Sports” in 2002, big-wave surfing turns out to be not nearly as deadly as we like to think. In fact, for all the hand wringing that attended its arrival, no high-profile surfer—not one—has died tow surfing.

“Death is talked about in surfing a lot,” says Evan Slater, himself a well-respected big wave surfer and the former editor of both Surfer and Surfing magazines. “But the reality is that it’s more dangerous to cross the street.”

This is something that we don’t acknowledge when we’re busy doing the salty sea-dog in-the-parking-lot thing, namely because it runs counter to the code of bravado that is entrenched so deeply in our culture. “I always wanted to challenge death,” Woody Brown said in looking back on his life of big-wave pioneering in 1940s Hawaii. “I loved to get just as close to death as I possibly could and then dodge it. That was my thrill in life.”

Brown spoke with authority, as he was surfing at Sunset Beach with Dickie Cross in 1943 when the pair got caught by rising surf and tried to paddle to safety at Waimea Bay before Cross died—surfing’s first big-wave fatality.

Seventy years later, the allure of death is still deeply embedded in the big-wave experience. Why else would Buzzy Trent’s oft-quoted cliché still reverberate in surf circles? When Trent famously said, “big waves aren’t measured in feet, but in increments of fear,” he voiced a legacy for eras of big-wave surfers. What these surfers were doing was not merely an athletic feat. It was not the result of careful preparation, knowledge of the sea, years of surfing experience, and a dash of mental toughness. No, what they were doing was cheating death with every ride.

This is not to say that people don’t die surfing. They frequently do. It’s just that they usually die semi-anonymously in pedestrian conditions.

“Surfers, when you think about it, have always had a lot invested in the idea that what they were doing was deadly,” says Warshaw. “In reality, it’s not that deadly at all.”

The statistics don’t point to a very fatal situation. In their article about the deadliness of big-wave surfing, Forbes writes: “Surfing is misleading. These waves aren’t big, they’re ludicrously big. Drowning, by being pulled under by the current, by smashing your head against hidden rocks, or by being whacked by the board on which you were supposed to be elegantly surfing, can be deadly…as Adam Wright, surf forecaster at California’s Surfline, points out, ‘Anyone can try this sport, but the chances are you won’t be coming back.’”

Actually, the chances are very high that if a person were to try to ride big waves they’d be perfectly fine. How else to explain the case of German-born Sebastian Studtner who won this year’s Billabong XXL Biggest Wave Award, but who didn’t surf ten years ago and had never surfed before he began tow-surfing big waves?

Ironically, it’s been some of big-wave surfing’s most authoritative voices that have long held the position that the danger ascribed to big-wave surfing was trumped up. “It isn’t perilous, dangerous, or as hairy as it’s cracked up to be,” Peter Van Dyke wrote in Surfer magazine in 1966. Ken Bradshaw, big-wave standard bearer of the 1980s and 90s, is on record as saying that to those pursuing it, big-wave surfing “isn’t considered a death defying act” (a sentiment shared by Todd Chesser, who, in 1994, told Surfer magazine that “if you know the basics, the danger [from riding big waves] is minimal,” and then died while surfing the North Shore’s Outer Reefs in 1997).

This is not to say that people don’t die surfing. They frequently do. It’s just that they usually die semi-anonymously in pedestrian conditions. Rip currents are the number one cause of oceanic death, it turns out, with nearly 100 annual fatalities in the U.S. alone, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. These are mostly non-surfers, though. And while nobody keeps stats on wave-riding deaths, sift through the dozen or so accounts of surfing-related deaths from the last two years and two things will jump out at you—in many cases, the ocean was just a bystander. Mid-fifties types suffering on-board heart attacks that were going to rear up whether the concerned party had been surfing, jogging, or playing tennis. And, two, in many cases, the surfer was caught in a situation they weren’t prepared for. Andrew J. Nathanson, for instance, who in the summer of 2009 while surfing East Quogue on Long Island, New York, while Hurricane Bill was sending rapidly building waves that way. The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg, in reporting the death, described the man as “a semi-retired financier living full time at his new beach house…[seeking] to gain a fast proficiency in wave riding. So intent was he to master the sport that he began hiring instructors daily to give him lessons on their own time, after surf camp hours.” That same pluck had him paddling into the face of an oncoming hurricane, even as his instructor paddled Nathanson’s daughter into the beach.

Some surf breaks are simply more fatal than others, but this is about the only constant in the surfing/death relationship. Pipeline regularly kills surfers and photographers, as does The Wedge in Newport. Except the reality is that when people die surfing, it’s usually just an anomaly.

For advanced surfers, some surf breaks are simply more fatal than others, but this is about the only constant in the surfing/death relationship. Pipeline regularly kills surfers and photographers, for instance, as does The Wedge in Newport. And while geography brings some sense of order to these deaths, the surrounding circumstances defy the easier-to arrive-at set of conclusions. That is, while it’s easier to believe that the deceased surfer had been doing something wrong—“pushing the envelope too far,” “taking too many chances,” whatever—the reality is that when people die surfing, it’s usually just an anomaly.

Take the case of Malik Joyeux, Tahitian-born barrel rider who’d surfed Teahupoo for years, but who died surfing a pedestrian-looking six-footer at Pipeline. Joyeux was hit squarely by the lip and likely lost consciousness before drowning. Similar circumstances surround the death of Noel Robinson, an accomplished surfer who was riding “average” waves at Puerto Escondido last summer when he died.

“In situations like that,” Slater says, “You come to the conclusion that this freak thing happened and it is so rare.”

Statistically, surfing deaths are incredibly rare, despite the grip they seem to have on our collective imaginations. Though they’re not as sexy, there are a number of more deadly aquatic pursuits than surfing, each of them more blasé than the next. The most deadly water sport, according to the United States Coast Guard, is angling, far and away, which accounts for nearly 200 deaths each year. And when you include landlocked sports, it seems that most of your high school athletics are more dangerous than surfing—including cheerleading, gymnastics, and pole vaulting. There are fewer than 50,000 pole-vaulters in the United States, for instance (compared to five million surfers), and for at least two decades they have steadily had at least one of their legion die each year, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research.

What’s interesting about the preponderance of fishing and pole-vaulting deaths is not that they happen, but that the preoccupation of death has not ingrained itself so much in these cultures the way it has with surfing. It’s hard to imagine a pole-vaulter staring austerely at the high bar and saying, “You can try to vault, but you might not come back.”

But, as the saying goes, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.

“Look at it this way,” says Greg Long, “Statistics are deceiving. Just because the number of people dying while riding big waves is relatively low doesn’t mean that it’s not a deadly thing to do. If you put me on a motorbike and ask me to do the things that Travis Pastrana is doing, there’s no question—I’m going to die. And it’s the same thing here. The people who are riding big waves have a solid foundation of how to operate in the ocean. If you took someone from down at the local beach and put them in those situations, you’d have a lot more fatalities.”

Statistically, surfing deaths are incredibly rare, despite the grip they seem to have on our collective imaginations. In fact, most of your high school athletics are more dangerous—including cheerleading, gymnastics, and pole vaulting.

Which is why, of all the surfing deaths, Mark Foo’s passing at Maverick’s in 1994 looms largest. Foo’s death was compelling partially because it was such an anomaly (the first death of its kind since Cross’s death in 1943), but also because it carried all the narrative elements that big-wave surfing’s history had laid out.

“The death thing is a little metaphysical to me,” says Slater, who found Foo’s lifeless body in the middle of the Pacific on that December day in 1994 and swam it back to a waiting boat. “Because the ones that happen are almost these symbolic deaths. Every once in a while there’s an inexplicable ‘why did that happen’ thing, but a lot of the more publicized deaths seem to have these deeper meanings. Eddie Aikau. Jay Moriarty. Mark Foo.”

Foo was a brash ego who had ruffled feathers throughout his career, had prophesied his own death, and was fond of uttering the memorable sound bite that has since been re-scripted into seemingly every surfing melodrama this side of North Shore. “If you want to ride the ultimate wave,” Foo said, “you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price.”

Foo’s death satisfied a macabre fascination with the deadliness of big-wave surfing both within the surfing world that was dealing with the emergence of Maverick’s as a surf spot and to the world at large—and so it garnered a huge media following. Outside magazine’s Jon Krakauer—fresh off a National Magazine Award nomination for his piece on Chris McCandless (which he would later revisit in the book Into the Wild) smelled the same romantic, crazy spirit in Foo that he saw in McCandless, and did his best to pair the deadliness of big-wave surfing with Foo’s own death preoccupation. Throughout Krakauer’s piece runs a heavy current of analysis on the type of surfer that Mark Foo was—an unabashed glory-seeker who kept a “Filofax [with] the phone numbers of surfing’s premier photographers, whom he cultivated and kept in close contact with.” Krakauer took pains to establish Foo’s primary goal in surfing (fame, glory, et al.), a sentiment that was summed up best in San Francisco surfing icon Mark Renneker’s comment on the lack of common sense he witnessed on the day of Foo’s death. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Renneker told Krakauer. “Here were the best big-wave surfers in the world, and they were behaving like fools. Partly it was the fact that some of the guys surfing Maverick’s for the first time were underestimating it. But mostly it was just Kodak courage: doing stuff they wouldn’t consider doing if the cameras weren’t there.”

“Statistics are deceiving,” says Greg Long. “The people who are riding big waves have a solid foundation of how to operate in the ocean. If you took someone from down at the local beach and put them in those situations, you’d have a lot more fatalities.”

If that type of behavior was alarming in 1994, it’s commonplace in 2010. And celebrated. How else to explain Garrett McNamara’s bizarre feat of waiting below an Alaskan glacier so that he could ride the waves wrought by its calvings? Or the fact that the Maverick’s Surf Contest last year took place in waves that were almost too big to paddle, but were watched by a live audience of 50,000. Or the enduring success of the Billabong XXL Awards?

Since big-wave surf contests were conceived, their ethical validity has been questioned, and they have been derided for the way they tempt fate. Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama have for years famously refused to participate in the Billabong XXL awards or other big-wave contests on moral grounds. “Part of their argument was that it was dangerous,” says Warshaw, “that somebody was going to die from this. But they haven’t.”

“The reality is that it’s not that much of a career opportunity,” says Slater. “If you look at the number of big-wave surfers making a living from it, you can count them on your hand.”

But there is also a sense among big-wave surfers that the sport isn’t any safer, just that surfers have found ways to mitigate the damage. A big-wave wipeout may still be out of one’s control, but with an army of jet skis roaming the lineup, help is almost always on offer. When Foo died, nobody noticed his absence for an hour, an unfathomable occurrence in today’s big-wave lineups, monitored as they are by surfers, tow-partners, photographers, and, in many cases, water safety crews.

It’s this type of aggressive preparedness, says Long, that might account for the lack of fatalities in today’s surf world, despite the fact that surfers are riding bigger, more dangerous waves in greater quantities. Long should know. In addition to being one of the ballsiest big-wave surfers in the world, he is also one of the most cautious and prepares himself meticulously—physically, mentally, and in addressing worst-case scenarios.

The jet ski in particular, he says, has become a safety net for big-wave and heavy-wave surfers. Long points to an incident when his own life was likely saved during a 2009 session at Maverick’s wherein he ruptured his eardrum before Jeff Clark rescued him on a jet ski. Similarly, when Shane Dorian endured a two-wave hold down earlier this year at Maverick’s, there was little doubt from anybody on hand that Dorian’s life would have been in grave danger had he not been rescued by a jet ski.

There is also a sense among big-wave surfers that the sport isn’t any safer, just that surfers have found ways to mitigate the damage. A big-wave wipeout may still be out of one’s control, but with an army of jet skis roaming the lineup, help is almost always on offer.

And while the ski saves lives, which is inarguably good, it’s equally impossible to argue that it doesn’t lead under-prepared surfers to ignore the consequences of their actions in the ocean. “Jet skis definitely give people a false sense of security,” says Slater. “People do things knowing that they can come up and look for the ski versus having to swim in on their own. I think that’s a little bit of a bummer. I don’t want to be the ‘glory days’ guy, but part of the big-wave thing is sitting in the middle of the ocean knowing that you’re entirely on your own.”

*

We have, each of us, likely had such a moment in the ocean where, even if we weren’t convinced that we were going to die, we gave a good amount of thought as to what we were doing in the water and whether or not we’d be willing to throw off the old mortal coil for the sake of being there. Settings that come rushing to mind: shallow Fijian reefs, the way that waves in Hawaii jump astronomically over the course of an hour, the inside at Black’s when a canyon set is looming. And this all in the head-high to double-overhead category. But, so you’re there in one of these settings, facing down the fifth of a ten-wave set, getting tired, desperate, maybe a bit panicky, and you begin to wonder what you’re doing in the water. And, if you’re the type that’s honest with yourself, you also begin to wonder how feckless and senseless a manner of dying riding a wave would be.

If that sounds too cautious, consider this: After his near drowning at Maverick’s last year, Shane Dorian relived the event for an ESPN camera crew. “I had no air at all, and I started panicking—straight up panicking,” Dorian said. “Flashes of my son’s face looking at me, and I’m thinking what am I doing? What the hell am I doing at the bottom of the ocean in San Francisco?”

For his part, Evan Slater, 38 now, father of two daughters and a fair bit removed from the 24-year-old self-described “big-wave soldier guy” who discovered Mark Foo’s body at Maverick’s, has decided to stop surfing the Maverick’s surf contest. “At this age, late thirties, it’s just like one of those old heavyweight fighters—what punch is going to knock you out for good? Certainly, the last couple years have given me less of a reason to actively pursue it. I still enjoy it, but I don’t feel like I have anything to prove anymore. That little voice saying ‘don’t kill yourself’ gets a little louder. I don’t know how many more two-wave hold-downs I can sustain. And each year at Maverick’s, I’ll have another one where I’m like, ‘Fuck, I don’t want to go through that again.’ I’ve had enough of them.”

Greg Long, meanwhile, at 27, has lost several friends in the ocean, almost died himself, seen people on the brink come back to life, and given careful consideration as to whether or not dying surfing big waves is a worthy way to go or so much selfishness.

“You question your mortality,” he says. “You question what you’re doing and the situations you’re putting yourself in, and you weigh it against the rest of your life. I have given it a lot of considerate thought. Not while I’m surfing, but when I have time to sit back. In the end, you have to accept the consequences of what you’re doing. You have to accept that it’s a possibility. For me, that’d be a dream way to go. My life is in the ocean—it’s the place that I’m the most happy, the most content, and if my card came up that way, I’d be perfectly okay with that. So I prepare myself to minimize the risks, but once you’ve done that, some things are out of your control.”

If there is a metaphysical continuity to surfers’ deaths through the years, then perhaps the message for our times is that carelessness has consequences, that statistics don’t lie—until they do.

On discussing her husband’s death with the New York Times, Elyse Nathanson, the wife of the financier who died on Long Island, said, “I found peace in knowing he was doing something he loved when he died,” a common sentiment. But Mark Foo’s sister, SharLyn Foo-Wagner, when interviewed by John Krakauer shortly after her brother’s death, said, “My mom is mad…It’s no comfort to her that Mark was doing what he wanted to be doing when he died. She thinks it’s such a waste.”

The idea of something being “worth dying for” is probably a bit of a misnomer. None of us knows the day nor the hour and all that. “There are a million different ways to die,” Long says. “You get in your car to drive down to the beach for a surf and you could very easily die. If you sat around and focused on all of the ways that you could die, you wouldn’t even be living a life. The same goes for big-wave surfing.”

Or, as Slater puts it, “Surfing is a part of your identity. Just because some guy dies, you can’t change who you are. That’s what you do. If you decide suddenly that because somebody died you can’t do it anymore, then maybe you weren’t really into it in the first place.”

Fair enough, but surfers in general in our modern era have a preoccupation with “progression,” with “pushing the limits.” So there’s only one way for the sport to go: heavier slabs, bigger waves. That more people haven’t yet died, that they don’t frequently, doesn’t mean that they won’t, that the consequences aren’t very real.

If Slater is right—if there is a metaphysical continuity to surfers’ deaths through the years, then perhaps the message for our times is that carelessness has consequences, that statistics don’t lie—until they do. As the boundaries get pushed, as hubris drives decisions, as more people “don’t think about it” and get on the ski before jumping off when a wave comes, it’s likely that these things won’t go unchecked.

The laws of probability are unforgiving, after all. “If you keep putting yourself out there,” says Long, “you keep putting yourself in these situations, it’s only a matter of time before it catches up to you, or to someone around you. You understand that when you get involved in this.”