When the World Surf League announces the entries for the wipeout of the year awards each year, thousands of people exclaim, “How on earth didn’t they die?!?”
While there have been a few high-profile surfer deaths in recent decades, surfing, especially in huge waves, is not nearly as dangerous as it appears.
On Oahu’s North Shore, Pipeline is well-known as the world’s most deadly surf break, having claimed the lives of more than ten surfers since the 1960s and resulting in numerous significant injuries and near-misses.
Thankfully, with all of the improved water safety, we are seeing a low body count, with inflatable life vests preventing surfers from being held underwater long enough to drown and on-land spotters working alongside jet-ski safety teams ensuring surfers are quickly whipped out of harm’s way after a wipeout.
Surfers Who Died During Surfing
We don’t intend this to be a memorial to their deaths but rather a celebration of their unwavering devotion. Every swell bears the imprint of their presence. All of our thoughts and prayers are with those who have been deeply affected by these surfers’ deaths.
Mark Foo (February 5, 1958 – December 23, 1994)
Mark Foo, a big wave surfer from California, on December 23, 1994 died while surfing at Mavericks. He was 36 years old at the time.
Foo was born in Singapore to Chinese-American parents who worked for the US Information Agency as photojournalists. He didn’t learn to swim, let alone surf, until he was ten years old when his family relocated to Honolulu from Washington, DC.
Foo’s larger-than-life personality was reflected in his surfing style — he was one of the first to slice up and down monster waves as though they were head-high — and it also made him a captivating photo subject.
He relied on surf videos and periodicals to keep connected to the sport while living on the mainland, so he understands the reach and power of such material. He made friends with surf photographers and was featured on the covers of Surfer and Surfing, the two most popular publications in the expanding surf business, more than the world champions who beat him in competitions.
Because of his widespread visibility, he secured commercial contracts that paid him to be a billboard surfer. Though he never made a lot of money surfing, he was practically paid to surf for free, a dream come true for any wave surfer.
Foo paddled out into the Maverick’s lineup in 1994 with big wave surfers Ken Bradshaw and Brock Little. Photographers packed the beach, and the presence of North Shore icons bolstered Mavericks’ credibility.
Foo has never been to this break before. Bradshaw and Foo had been on Oahu the day before, but on December 22, they hopped a red-eye to San Francisco after hearing about a once-in-a-lifetime swell. The next day, though, the surf had changed from glassy 50-footers to mushy 25-footers.
Foo had surfed bigger, gnarlier waves previously, but he dipped in on an otherwise average wave, went over the falls, and disappeared. His lifeless body sank to the water’s surface.
Foo re-imagined what it meant to be a professional surfer. He demonstrated that large wave surfers are athletes and artists and a realistic career option.
Sion Milosky (August 10, 1976 – March 16, 2011)
Sion Milosky was an undisputed hero among the working class. He was a welder who developed his business on Oahu and lived for two things beyond all else: his family and his work. Big surf was the second.
He traveled around legendary North Shore lineups, including Pipeline, Himalayas, and Waimea Bay, near the end of his life. Nonetheless, his wife and two children were always his top focus. He was once asked what he would do if he only had six months to live in an interview. He said without hesitation, “Spend time with the family.”
His devotion to his family, on the other hand, had no bearing on his surfing. The Kauai native was born into a family of surfers naturally adept in big waves. Milosky was an underground inventor in both the tow and paddle-in movements.
He was a former professional longboarder who essentially started surfing large waves because he could stay close to home. And the surfing world began to notice him: in 2011, he was voted Surfing magazine’s Underground Charger of the Year, and he won $25,000.
He reportedly spent the money on that fateful trip to Half Moon Bay. When asked what superpower he would choose in that same interview, he replied, “Eternal life.”
Sion Milosky, then 35, of Kalaheo, Kauai, died while surfing Maverick’s in Northern California, causing tragedy in the surfing world. According to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Sion had caught a number of waves before taking a two-wave hold-down and drowning.
According to the article, Nathan Fletcher discovered Sion’s body floating about a mile from the lineup.
Donnie Solomon (? – December 23, 1995)
Donnie Solomon, who grew up surfing in Ventura, California, was an obvious talent to watch.
Solomon was sitting in the lineup with Ross Clark-Jones during an extraordinary session at Waimea Bay when they paddled for a set’s opening wave. Clark-Jones caught and rode the wave, but Solomon got himself into a bad situation and ended up inside.
The waves were just getting more prominent as they approached. When Solomon tried to paddle outside, he didn’t make it—he was two-thirds up the face when the wave decided to break, throwing him over the lip. He couldn’t be revived once he reappeared.
Solomon, a Red Cross supporter, would stop by local chapters while tracking waves and racing on the WQS, inspiring other surfers to do the same. He believed that lifeguarding and safety training in first aid and CPR were essential for all water sports like surfing, particularly the youth.
Todd Chesser (February 16, 1968 – February 13, 1997)
Todd Chesser was born on February 16, 1968, in the state of Florida. After his father was killed in a car accident when he was three years old, he went to Hawaii with his mother, Jeannie.
Perhaps, Todd inherited his abilities from his mother, a 1986 female athlete of the year. He made names when he ranked fourth in the 1990 PSSA (Professional Surfing Association of America) Tour.
Chesser was scheduled to fly to Maui on February 13, 1997, for a stunt scene in the film “In God’s Hands.” However, he chose to stay in Oahu because the surf was ripping. Outside Alligator Rock, Todd paddled out with Aaron Lambert and Cody Graham at 9 a.m.
Todd Chesser drowned two hours later after being trapped inside by a big 25-foot set. His buddies attempted to dive beneath one of the waves, but he was already pinned down for too long.
Aaron and Cody got to him, but then another wave came in, and they lost track of him. Todd was discovered unconscious near Waimea Bay later that day. At Oahu’s Wahiawa Hospital, the regular-footer was pronounced dead.
Malik Joyeux (March 31, 1980 – December 2, 2005)
Joyeux was born in France and relocated to French Polynesia when he was a youngster. His mother, Hélène, raised her three children on Moorea, a tropical island in the South Pacific. He began surfing at the age of eight.
As a surfer, Malik began to receive sponsorship arrangements for a few items such as clothing, boards, and plane tickets. Didier Piter, a French surfer, took him under his wing in the European Gotcha team, and he was able to secure an official contract to fund his surf excursions.
That fateful morning of December 2, 2005, Joyeux takes off deep on an eight-foot wave at Oahu’s Pipeline in Hawaii. Witnesses said that as Joyeux slid into the wave, his board’s nose dipped into the face of the wave, reducing his forward motion, but that he rapidly recovered, and the damage had already been done.
He attempted to move but was struck by the wave’s lip and forced below due to a loss of essential speed on this very technical wave. The power of the wave shattered his board. The leash of Aamion Goodwin’s board was entirely intact, ripped off by the force of the wave, according to Aamion Goodwin, who caught the next wave.
He could not be seen because his board was no longer attached to his body. Water photographers and other surfers looked for Joyeux, but challenges and bad weather hampered the search. Myles Padaca, a surfer, discovered him 15 minutes later at Pupukea beach break, just to the right of Pipeline’s peak.
Padaca found him and, with the help of a few other surfers, brought him to the shore. Lifeguards and paramedics attempted but failed to resuscitate him. According to the postmortem report, he had likely smacked his head on his surfboard, knocking him out instantaneously.
Other Surfers Who Died During Surfing
Passmore’s final ride came at Alligator Rock, a half-mile out from Waimea Bay, in 2013, on one of the day’s biggest waves. Witnesses claim he was seen briefly following the wipeout before being hit by the next wave. Kirk could not raise his head above the water’s surface and take a deep breath.
Peter Davi drowned in Ghost Tree in California on December 4, 2007. Davi opted to paddle into a big wave while other surfers were dragged into 70-foot waves. Later, in Stillwater Cove, his body was discovered floating in a kelp bed.
When Alec Cooke, aka ‘Ace Cool,’ went missing at Waimea Bay in 2015, he was a more recent surfing death.
On that particular day, he did manage to catch a couple of waves, earning himself a spot in the record books. He paddled off at dusk into a building swell at Waimea Bay when he died while surfing and was never seen again, despite a multi-day coastal search throughout the North Shore.
Cross decided to boost his game on December 22, 1943. In quest of large waves, he and his friend Woody Brown traveled to the North Shore.
They began out from Sunset Beach, but the strong swell forced them to paddle two and a half miles down the coast to Waimea, where they hoped to reach the beach. Brown washed up on the beach unconscious, but he lived. Dickie’s remains were never found.
Why Has Nobody Died While Surfing in Big Waves Lately?
A morbid core exists among the majesty of riding large waves – the cost of conquering some of nature’s most dangerous waves came from some of big-wave surfing’s best and brightest have died while surfing.
From Sion Milosky (Maverick’s, 2016) to Donnie Solomon (Waimea Bay, 1995), Mark Foo (Maverick’s, 1994), and Todd Chesser (North Shore, 1997), plus all the other near-misses.
Fortunately, even though the bounds of progress are being pushed to their limits, there appear to be fewer and fewer disasters recently. And it begs the critical question: why haven’t there surfer deaths recently?
Big-wave surfing’s evolution and focus on safety have grown relatively organically, like everything that has been allowed enough time to adapt. Surfers and safety personnel have learned from their mistakes in the past and have altered their strategies accordingly.
You’ll grow better at something if you practice it enough – and, conversely, if you fail enough. It’s a natural progression based on experience. And that’s precisely what’s going on in the big waves.
Big wave surfers are well aware of the dangers they face, and they are also mindful that drowning is not a peaceful way to depart from this world. Why would they put their lives in danger by doing something that could kill them? Because they have to leave. That’s all there is to it.
The good news is that today’s life-saving standards are higher, and more safeguards are in place. Even while the hazards remain the same and the waves surfed are greater than ever, the introduction of jet ski support and life vests increased the surfers’ safety and reduced surfers deaths.
Dying while surfing isn’t at all fun. But, would you go surfing if you knew there was a significant chance of dying?
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Q: What was the biggest wave ever surfed?
A: Andrew Cotton hauled US surfer Garrett McNamara into a big wave at Nazaré on November 11, 2011. According to Guinness World Records, the 78-foot (23,8-meter) wave was the largest wave ever surfed at the time.
Q: Why don’t surfers wear a life jacket?
A: Surfers don’t use life jackets since they aren’t necessary and unsightly. Surfers are usually skilled swimmers with a thorough understanding of the ocean, and they are always tied to a massive floating gear (their surfboard). PFDs make duck diving and paddling more difficult.