writer, photographer
Why Do So Many Surfers Meet Untimely Deaths?

From left to right, Mark Foo, Andy Irons, and Todd Chesser. Photos: Screenshot/ASP/Chesser Family

The Inertia

When you start reading about surfers throughout history, you may notice that an awful lot of them have met untimely ends. Some, from surfing itself: Mark Foo’s leash tangle in the rocks at Maverick’s, Todd Chesser’s drowning at Outside Alligators on the North Shore, Joaquín Miró Quesada hitting the reef at Pipeline. But some, from other (seemingly) unrelated causes: Ron Stoner’s disappearance at the height of his career. Warren Bolster’s suicide at a surprisingly late age. Andy Irons untimely overdose. Are these instances random, or is there some connection here?

While sadly, drownings and big wave deaths happen almost reliably in surfing (though they are not common, per se), these aren’t what sparks my (admittedly macabre) interest in the subject. The spark comes from the patterns of surfers who engage in risky activities that have no effect on their surfing whatsoever. The two are related, but there are plenty of surfing deaths that aren’t caused by drownings or sharks or any natural causes.

These instances of surfers disappearing and/or engaging in risky activities leads me to believe there’s some psychological makeup that is more common in surfers that also explains the higher rates of unnatural deaths.

First of all, and this kind of goes without saying, but a lot of surfers are adrenaline junkies. Surfers like Mason Ho, who certify my feelings of spirituality and trust in the universe because if someone can (consistently) survive surfing dry reef slabs, over rocks, and plenty of North Shore locations that don’t even look surfable, there must be someone up there watching over us!

Then there’s the theatrics involved: for example, a surfer named Jim “Wildman” Neece signed a deal with an L.A.-based film company in the early ‘70s to ride a 40-foot wave at Kaena Point on Oahu. The more the feat was hyped up, the more ridiculous it became: “The mission would involve a small oxygen tank strapped to Neece’s back, and a pull-tab inflatable device around his waist. To nab the money, Neece would not only have to take off, but make it to the end of the wave, still on his feet.”

Neece’s dream was infectious, and Mike Doyle had the thought that a surfer could be dropped in by way of helicopter. “My idea involves a helicopter with a 150-foot nylon line with a shock cord tied around the surfer’s waist. By this arrangement, the surfer could be pulled into the wave just like a waterskier, and if he didn’t make the drop or if the wave closed out, the helicopter could shoot ahead of the break, dragging the surfer forward and up and into the air.” This story, which is hilarious, is not completely out of line with the stunts that have sprung up in surfing’s history. Maybe there’s something in surfers that longs for attention?

Up until recently, I assumed the term “adrenaline junkie” was some sort of lingo with no real meaning behind it. I was very wrong. According to Medical News Today, the term “adrenaline junkie” describes “a person who feels a compulsion to take part in exciting, dangerous, or intense activities.” The key here, though, is this: “studies show that when adrenaline junkies stop engaging in intense, exciting activities, they can begin to feel withdrawal symptoms.”  Surfers who work half the year to fly to a faraway countries, stake out at remote point breaks with few amenities, suffer flat spells for weeks, and do it all just to fight each other in the water when a swell finally hits? Probably not “normal” or understandable behavior to the average person. How surfers deal with the lack of adrenaline can often lead to tragic outcomes.

Then, there’s the fact that surfers put themselves at risk seemingly for the sake of it – and not even just to go surfing! In Gerry Lopez’s famous autobiographical book Surf Is Where You Find It, Lopez reminisces about Flippy Hoffman, writing: “on days when the lifeguards had closed the beach at Sunset because of high surf, [Flippy] would frolic in the punishing surf like an otter having fun, giving the guards on the beach fits when they noticed the lone swimmer.” And the thing about this kind of behavior is… people who swim out at masking Sunset or anywhere else really do find it fun. There is no financial gain to be had, nothing to be proven, and no videos to be made from doing it. Some people really just love the ocean and enjoy taking risks.

The other inkling pointing to the idea that it’s something about surfers themselves that makes them seek out danger is the presence of the Fletcher family. Herbie, Christian, and Nathan all have their own wild behavior that is just too far out to not be (at least somewhat) genetic. Most modern day surfers are familiar with Nate’s big wave charging and Christian’s unbelievably progressive aerials. But what they may not be familiar with is their dad, Herbie. On at least one occasion, Herbie surfed minimum 20-foot-tall waves at Waimea… on a Jet Ski. (He also rode the Ski at Outer Pipe, which sounds equally gnarly.)


And doing these kinds of feats takes an insane amount of confidence. Maybe you’ve heard people talk about how “making” barrels comes down to believing you’ll make it. Or how Teahupo’o is more of a mental game than a physical one, in some ways. This boils down to believing things are possible even when the odds may say otherwise. Again, a sign of engaging in risky behavior and, ultimately, putting oneself at a higher risk of seeing a premature death.

But okay, so a lot of surfers are adrenaline junkies. We more or less knew that. There are also other personality traits I believe contribute to the curious number of deaths in surfing. While some people call it “mysto,” being secretive is a trait associated with surfers – no one wants to share where they’re going, which spots they scored, when the swell’s going to light up a reef break. But this trait also raises the stakes when doing already slightly dangerous activities. Swimming in the ocean isn’t dangerous, per se, but doing it alone and telling not a soul you’re in the water ups the risk factor tremendously. And people who are struggling may not reach out for fear of being seen as weak.

Surf culture also nurtures the desire to seem risky, perhaps leading to chances being taken that don’t need to be, in some cases. Matt Warshaw points to this embracing of the image of danger in the Encyclopedia of Surfing entry literally titled “death and surfing,” writing: “Surfers themselves will often use the notion of surfing mortality to dramatic effect. ‘There were three sure ways to get killed out there,’ surf journalist Drew Kampion wrote, looking out at the huge morning surf at Makaha in late 1969. ‘If you got caught inside, you were dead. If you took off too late, you were dead. Or if you tried to turn at the bottom of the wave, you were dead.’ A dozen surfers rode Makaha that morning; none died.”

Some surfers have been known to go to great lengths to pursue their passion: like it or not, drug smuggling is laced into surfing’s history. No one would bat an eye if someone posited that drug smugglers die at higher rates than the average person… they live more dangerous lives! Obviously, the majority of surfers are not drug smugglers, but surfing seriously impacts people’s ranking of most and least important activities in life. People will throw it all away to get one more wave, a mindset that goes hand in hand with potentially making poor choices out of the water.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the “curiosity killed the cat” aspect of things. Surfers are pioneers, travelers, new-wave-seekers… always looking for the next thing. Perfection isn’t enough: it has to be new, it has to be rewarding, and it has to take effort. Going into new and unfamiliar situations always ups the risk factor, and add into the mix the desire for danger, and now you have quite the concoction. Curiosity is good: it’s what led people like George Greenough to watch dolphins and design hydrodynamic fins, people like Kevin Naughton and Craig Anderson to take a car down the Baja in high school and document it, and people like Dick Brewer to cut the tails off surfboards to push surfing to what we know it as today.

The great unknown is more appealing to many surfers than the same, familiar comforts. But the great unknown often comes at a price, and occasionally, that price is the surfer’s life. Pushing the limits is at the core of surfing: new board designs, new ways to express the beauty of wave riding to the world, new waves to conquer… but when people start pushing the limits in life, a few of those people are going to find out where that limit is.


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