Editor’s Note: Disruptors is a series that identifies the most groundbreaking moments in surf history. Check out more historic moments here.
Death. Alone and by itself, death is morose. It is unrelentingly dark, unbearably heavy, and unapologetically final. Yet when seen in the larger context of life — not life as in life and death, rather life as in this continuum of “being” which we’re all connected by — death is a mere tombstone, a marker that signifies the end of something, not everything. And it is in this light we look back on six of big wave surfing’s most influential deaths.
In a sport and pursuit like big wave surfing, death is, unfortunately, inevitable. We do what we can to protect those who paddle and tow into the monsters, but nature is unpredictable, and no amount of inflatable vests will overcome the power and force of the elements. Not now, not ever. Yet in big wave surfing, death’s inevitability accompanies a sort of passion only the select few who charge these behemoths truly understands. They live to climb these towering peaks, with hopes of summiting, but knowing that failure is, indeed, a very real possibility. This is not to say that anyone — family, friends, fans, or surfers — is necessarily ready for death. This is only to say that death was always in front of them, and they charged regardless, living their lives to what they deemed the fullest. For that, no amount of respect that will ever be enough.
We don’t intend for this to be a celebration of their deaths, but rather a remembrance of their undying passion. Their presence is still felt in every swell.
Our thoughts and well-wishes continue to go out to all those affected. The following are not ranked in an ascending or descending matter, but presented in chronological order, and are limited to those big wave surfers who died in the act – men who took their final breaths while cascading down the face of monstrous ocean waves. This explains the absence of big wave legends Eddie Aikau and Jay Moriarity.
Author’s Note: I invite you to share your remembrances of these men and others who gave their lives while pushing the boundaries of big wave surfing.
Date: December 23, 1994
Place: Maverick’s, Half Moon Bay, California
The Moment: Foo drowns during his first session at the recently “discovered” break.
Mark Foo’s death might be surfing’s most wide-reaching national and international mainstream news story to date. Coinciding with the recent “discovery” of Maverick’s, his drowning made front-page headlines around the world, along with the introduction of this break. And instead of a simple introduction of another gnarly destination for surfers to flock to, the headlines brought a sense of awe that not even the longest tall-tales could have instilled.
Foo was, after all, big wave surfing’s biggest personality at the time. The New York Times described him well:
But it was these same Maverick’s that attracted Foo, the 36-year-old surfing legend of Haleiwa, Hawaii. He was known as the Joe Montana of Big Waves, and was a do-it-all: broadcaster, author, businessman, health enthusiast, traveler. He kept hearing about the danger of Pillar Point and wanted to see it. He scaled waves for the same reason rock climbers scaled mountains: because they were there. As recently as September, he wrote an article for Tracks Magazine, comparing his daredevil surfing to space travel.
“What was it like to walk on the moon, Mr. Armstrong?” he wrote.
On December 23, 1994, Foo flew in from Hawaii to surf Maverick’s for the first time. It would also be his last. The details are murky, but he was seen wiping out — and was even photographed doing so — before getting lost at sea. It is commonly believed that his leash became entangled on the rocks, and that the furious current sweeping through the bay held him down and kept him from releasing himself from his board. His body was discovered still tied to the broken tail section of his board over two hours later.
Ultimately, his death went on to symbolize the mystical nature of the break. “We always knew someone would die at Maverick’s,” said Darin Bingham, co-owner of the Aqua Culture surf shop, told the Los Angeles Times at the time. “We just never thought it would be someone like Mark Foo. It will just add to the lore and legend of this spot.”
The legend will not only be remembered for his own feats of fearlessness, but for further immortalizing Eddie Aikau when he turned to hesitant organizers at the Eddie and responded to their collective reluctance to call the competition for fear that the waves were too dangerous to surf: “Eddie would go.”
Date: December 23, 1995
Place: Waimea Bay, North Shore, Hawaii
The Moment: Solomon is caught mid-way up the face of a Waimea bomb and is thrown over, drowning under the wave.
Having grown up surfing Ventura, California, Donnie Solomon was a surefire talent to watch. During an epic session at Waimea Bay, Solomon was sitting in the lineup with Ross Clark-Jones when they both paddled for the first wave of a set. Clark-Jones caught and rode the wave, but Solomon ended up in a terrible position and found himself on the inside. The waves approaching were only getting bigger.
Attempting to paddle outside, he once again didn’t make it— he was two-thirds up the face when the wave decided to break, throwing Solomon over with the lip. There was no reviving him once he resurfaced.
An avid supporter of the Red Cross, Solomon would stop by local chapters while tracking swells and competing on the WQS, encouraging other surfers to do the same. He was big on lifeguarding and safety training in first aid and CPR and considered it a necessity among watermen, especially the youth.
Sean Hayes once told Surfing: “There is a reason why people come together as friends and one of the best ones I’ve ever known was Donnie Solomon. He was the type of person who not only made you think about your life, but made you laugh about it… hysterically. When Donnie passed away at Waimea Bay in 1995 it took the wind out of a sea of sails and I was just one of the many ships set adrift, wondering what life would be like without a gale wind like Donnie. He was a staple in his peer’s lives and we knew we would do our best not to forget him.”