22 years ago this week, the 36 year old celebrated big wave surfer Mark Foo flew to the recently discovered big wave spot Mavericks for the first time. It was his last time surfing Mavericks.
And his last wave ever.
After disappearing beneath the behemoth wall of water, he was found two hours later still leashed to the broken tail end of his ride.
Since then a number of household surf names have succumbed to the big wave; Donnie Solomon and Todd Chesser both caught inside, Malik Joyeux pearling and knocked out by his board, Peter Davi wiped out after allegedly partying too hard, Sion Milosky tombstoned and pinned down.
For many years, instead of these names being a cautionary tale, they have been celebrated, revered even, and a source of inspiration. You can only really know yourself and the wave if you put yourself in the arms of death.
Or so the story goes.
And no-one really knows how many lesser names and amateurs have met their maker on waves bigger than they could handle, following in the footsteps of the giants of the monster waves.
In these days of mega bucks sponsorship, ambulance chasing lawyers, and outdoor instructors being successfully sued by their trainees who fail to understand the principle of individual responsibility, it is surprising that big wave surfing is still a thing that happens in the name of sport.
Ahead of Mark Foo’s death all those years ago, the organisers of the inaugural Eddie considered calling off the comp because Maverick’s was at its brutal worst, and they knew there was a real risk of death. Foo himself looked at the break, and in a sentence that was either the most inspiring for a surfer and that sums up the draw of big wave surfing, or worthy of nomination for the Darwin Awards, uttered the immortal phrase ‘Eddie would go'(1), and signed his own death warrant.
And yet, the industry keeps seeking bigger, more dangerous, more brutal, waves. And allows the competitions to go ahead in dangerous conditions. Big waves means big media coverage, and that’s great for sponsors. And a cynic might say that death or two helps maintain the mystique and allure of big wave surfing, and is also good for the sport in general.
But are things changing? Yesterday, Twiggy, one of the giants of big wave surfing, and shoe-in for the world title, said of Nazare at yesterday’s WSLs
“Those 20-30 minutes during each heat, on the back of a ski, holding on with all your strength while jumping 10ft foamies, were some of the most terrifying experiences of my life and something I can’t see myself repeating? Deservingly @jamie_mitcho the maddest dog won and hoping all the guys with injuries recover soon. #riskvsreward”
It’s true that Nazare is one of the most notorious waves, shifting as a well as heavy, and yesterday saw a quarter of the competitors end up in hospital. So maybe Twiggy’s reaction is entirely understandable, and is reaction just to Nazare on the day.
Or maybe there is a rational re-evaluation of the risk reward ratio in big wave surfing.
(1) If this means nothing to you, do yourself a favour and hit up Eddie Aikau in Google. As one of the best known and admired characters and liefsavers on the North Shore, Eddie was renowned for going into conditions that no-one else would, to save people in trouble. A fact that is often ignored by those who use the phrase.
“Eddie would go” was about Eddie going into conditions to save people, not charging those conditions. Although, to be fair, he wasn’t afraid of charging the monsters either.