Famous Surfing Accidents That Changed Sport

Surfing is a life-changing sport. The exhilarating rush and the peace while waiting for a wave benefit our mental and physical health. But surfing is not without its tragedies. Like horse riding, skiing, mountaineering, and racing, there are fatalities.

Famous surfing accidents that changed the sport forever include Mark Food, Andy Irons, Bethany Hamilton, and Sion Milosky. These athletes have inspired many. But their tragic accidents have also caused the surfing community to find methods to mitigate risk, such as having jet ski water safety crews.

Surfing is not as deadly as many headlines suggest. Attempts at gathering data have led to surf fatalities stats of .05 per 1 million surfer deaths per year, .28 per 100,000 for male crude surf beach drowning rate, and 2.36 per 100,000 for international tourists. Nonetheless, lives are claims claimed, even of the most talented and skilled, and each has a story.

The Tragic Stories Of Surfers Who Pushed The Limits

Surfing is a thrilling and challenging sport that comes with inherent risks. Over the years, many surfers have pushed the limits of what’s possible, and as a result, some have suffered from tragic accidents. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most famous surfing accidents that have changed the sport forever.

The Tragic Story Of Mark Foo

Mark Foo redefined what was possible in big wave surfing. Tragically, he lost his life at Mavericks in Northern California after taking on a seemingly unremarkable wave. But surfing at Mavericks comes with hidden risks. We’ll look at Mark Foo’s life, death, and why Mavericks has unique dangers.

Mark Foo Was Prepared To Pay The Ultimate Price

“To get the ultimate thrill,” Foo often said, “you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price.”

Foo knew how to push the sport to the ultimate thrill. In 1985, he was reported to attempt a wave over 60 feet, unheard of at that point in the sport. Foo didn’t succeed and ended up being rescued by helicopter. But the attempt raised his profile amongst the surfing community and made people rethink what was possible. Not bad for a man who wasn’t taught how to swim until he was ten.

December 23, 1994: Mark Foo’s Last Wave

Mark Foo was addicted to big waves. The right kind would have him dropping everything to surf the big one. Thus, on December 22, 1994, he caught a red-eye after hearing that an Alaskan cold front was producing massive ways in Half Moon Bay in Northern California. The spot was known as Mavericks, where waves break off Pillar Point.

But when he arrived, the water had changed. Gone were the promised 50-footers. Instead, Mavericks was offering waves of 15-35 feet. Far from small, but not what Foo hoped. Nonetheless, he was there, and so were many big names, such as Brock Little, Mark “Doc” Renneker, Mike Parsons, and Ken Bradshaw. Besides, surfing Mavericks was a challenge, regardless of wave height.

Mavericks is infamous for their “mean” waves, and they’re not just referring to the sharks. The waves displace water fast and hard. “They say if you fall in those waves,” Trent Freitas told The New York Times, “The intensity of it will rip your wet suit off and turn it inside out.”

Thus, the wave that claimed Foo’s life on December 23rd around 11:20 am was not reported to be particularly big, with estimates ranging as low as 15 feet to as high as 30. In filmed footage, he can be seen in the water under a gorgeous blue and sunny sky right before he catches his second wave for the day.

Nothing initially looked off as Foo’s bright yellow board dropped in and hopped to his feet. But as he came down the wall, his arms flew up. It seemed like he may have secured his balance for a moment, but then he came off, belly-flopping into the water. That’s the last he was seen alive. His body wouldn’t be found until 90 minutes later.

What Caused Mark Foo’s Death?

Blame and theories have followed since the death of Mark Foo. For starters, nobody noticed his absence for about an hour until part of his board was spotted near the line-up. However, times were different; jet ski rescue crews were yet to be introduced, and it was crowded. Nor would it have occurred to him or any surfer back then to strap on a floatation vest, now typical attire at Mavericks.

Some speculated he hit his head. But while the coroner’s report doesn’t dispute the head trauma, it suggested Foo may have drowned before his head was hit. Others blame his death on exhaustion from taking the red eye. But the most popular theory suggests that his leash became tangled in the rocks. It was still attached to him and the tail fragment of his board when his body was found.

What can’t be disputed is the impact Foo’s death had on the community. Over 700 people gathered at Foo’s beloved surfing spot in Waimea Bay, Hawaii, on December 30th. Around 150 surfers paddled out, and his ashes were given to the sea by Dennis Pang, a childhood friend.

The Death Of Andy Irons

Andy Irons was one of Kelly Slater’s greatest rivals. But his life was tragically cut short. We’ll look at his remarkable career and the circumstances that led to his early death.

Fame Took Time To Find Andy Irons

“He gave me such a gift,” Kelly Slater said of Andy Irons in an outtake of “Kissed By God. “He drew that desire out of me to be great again,” he reflected. “Andy revived some demon inside of me that needed to figure himself out.”

But Andy Irons didn’t initially catch much notice by the surfing elite. He grew up hitting the waves with his younger brother Bruce in Hanalei Bay on the island of Kauai in Hawaii. His future in surfing didn’t look that promising, given he quit for a year after a girl beat him at his first competition. When he finally returned, winning still wasn’t easy, and Bruce was known to come out on top.

But he got his act together and won the 1996 National Scholastic Surfing Association championships. The year before that, he’d won the National Armature title. Yet, despite his achievements, the spotlight failed to catch him. But that all changed when he won The Pipe in 2002.

Andy Irons Ten Year Career

For ten years, Andy Iron was a force on the waves. He swiftly proved his win in 2002 was no fluke and won the pipe again in 2003, 2005, and 2006.

But that was only a handful of his many victories, including taking the Quicksilver Pro France titles in 2003, 2004, and 2005; the Rip Curl Pro Search titles in 2006 and 2007; and a Triple Crown Champion in 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2006.  To put that in perspective, Kelly Slater has won the Triple Crown three times: 1995, 1998, and 2019.

However, behind the scenes, things were not all golden for Andy Irons. To regain perspective and sort out some of his personal life, he took 2009 off. Initially, the break seemed to have done him good, with him winning the Billabong Pro Tahiti in 2010. But later that year, he would be found dead.

Andy Irons: Addiction, Bipolar, And A Temper

Andy Iron lived a life of extremes, from exhilarating highs to the pits of devastating depression. Much of this had to do with him being bipolar. However, his temper and drug addiction added to his extreme mood swings.

Stories of his wild ways have become legends. Mick Fanning tells of Irons throwing a laptop overboard in rage after losing in poker. Irons was also reported to once roll a truck into a reef on his way to a party. Not that he let a car accident stop him; he just abandoned the vehicle and continued to the event.

In 2009, Irons “congratulated” Fannings on his world title by punching the guy in the face. “I wanted you to remember,” Irons said, “exactly the first time you saw me after you won.” Irons was even reported to be high on coke and pills when he won the 2007 Rip Curl Pro.

What Caused Andy Irons’ Death?

On November 2, 2010, Andy Irons was found dead in a hotel room at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport by two staff members. An autopsy revealed he’d taken a dangerous combination of drugs and suffered a heart attack.

Shortly before his death, he’d withdrawn from the ASP World Tour due to illness and was returning to his pregnant wife, Lyndie. Partway home, he had phoned her from the hotel room, telling her he was sick and had thrown up throughout the plane trip. “I am going to try to sleep all day here,” he said, “Love you. Bye.”

The Legacy Of Bethany Hamilton

Bethany Hamilton was one of the most promising young surfers, dreaming of going pro, when a terrifying event almost ended it all. We’ll look at the remarkable woman’s career and why she’s an inspiration to so many.

Shark Attack Threatened Hamilton’s Young Career

Bethany Hamilton learned to surf at the tender age of three in her home state, Hawaii. Soon she was competing, and by ten, she had secured her first sponsorship. Then, in July 2003, at only thirteen, Hamilton secured 2nd place at the NSSA National Championships. It was clear Hamilton was destined to be a legendary surfer.

But it almost didn’t happen.

On October 31, 2003, a 14-foot tiger shark ripped off Hamilton’s left arm just below the shoulder while surfing with a friend at Tunnels Beach, Kauai. By the time she reached the hospital, she’d lost 60% of her blood. It was a miracle she survived. However, her dreams of becoming a highly paid pro surfer looked to be at an end.

Bethany Hamilton Returned To Surfing 26 Days Later

Bethany Hamilton was back on the surfboard only 26 days after the attack. On January 10, 2004, she competed at an NSSA Regional Event. She took fifth. A year later, she’d take first place at the 18-and-under NSSA National Championships.

Bethany Hamilton: Pro Surfer And Inspiration

Bethany Hamilton’s pro surfing dreams were achieved despite the tragic attack in 2003. In 2022 she took 9th at the Billabong Prop Pipeline and 4t at the Priority Destinations Pro. During her career, she’s also become a mother to three children and, in April 2023, announced a fourth on the way.

Hamilton has also built up a reputation for being a huge inspiration. She’s been a regular on the public speaking circuit and has been featured in numerous magazines and TV shows. Her story was also turned into a film. In addition, Hamilton is a prolific writer, having published eight books.

Hamilton’s surfing career and life have pushed the boundaries of the sport and given hope to many.

The Tragic Tale Of Sion Milosky

Sion Milosky, the surfer of the working class, gravitated to big wave surfing to ensure he had time for his family. Tragically, he died while surfing Mavericks in 2011 despite wearing a flotation vest. We’ll look at his life and the debate his death ignited.

Sion Milosky: Blue Collar Family Man

Sion Milosky loved surfing, but not as much as his family. Nor did he find fame find him early. He was a blue-collar worker, a welder who excelled as a craftsman. It paid the bills and supported his wife and daughters. They were his world. He told an interviewer that he would “Spend time with the family” if he ever found out he only had six months to live.

When he first started finding success on the waves, it was as a goofy-footed longboarder, less glamorous than the faster and more maneuverable shortboards. He was attracted to the big waves as they required less travel, and he could stay near his family. He became known as an innovator of the paddle-in and tow.

But by 2009, he won Surfing Magazine’s North Shore Underground award of $25,000 and found himself on the cover of three magazines. The recognition spurred him on, and he told an interviewer, “I want to catch the biggest wave ever.”

Sion Milosky Faced Maverick’s 50 To 60 Foot Waves

Sion Milosky’s trip to Mavericks on March 16, 2011, left him facing the heights Mark Foo had flown over for back in 1994. But, according to witnesses, Milosky was having an amazing day, catching numerous waves. “Sion was dominating it,” recalled Ken “Skindog” Collins.

However, Milosky was in the water at low tide. Low tide at Maverick’s has been called a “researcher’s paradise,” but it isn’t for surfers. In some places, depths are limited to as little as 15 feet. It makes it more likely for a surfer to be injured or concussed when drilled by the wave.

Unlike Mark Foo, Milosky was wearing a flotation vest when he came off the lip of a wave. But the wave collapsed on top of him, holding him down. Then, to make matters worse, a second big wave crashed in, keeping him under.

Nathan Fletcher got on a jet ski, technically illegal at Mavericks, and went to search for Milosky. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t find the body until 20 minutes later.

Milosky’s death sparked a debate over the federal ban on allowing patrols of the break by personal watercraft. Instead, only certain government patrols are allowed, and they don’t understand the nuanced needs of the surfing community. But jet skis have a negative impact on the environmentally sensitive coastal region.

It is a delicate balance to ensure human safety while preserving the ecosystem and habitat that gave us our beautiful sport.


Surfing tragedies remind us that even talented are not immune to the power of the sea and spark conversations on improving safety. But the stories of Mark Foo, Andy Irons, Bethany Hamilton, and Sion Milosky serve as a reminder of their greatness and humanity. The beautiful sport is made so by our people and how we care for one another, including checking on each other’s mental health.

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