On the morning of January 6, a day when the political drama currently unfolding in the U.S. House of Representatives dominated the news cycle, CNN ran this bold banner headline: “’Mad Dog’ Surfer Dies Riding Giant Waves In Nazarè, Portugal.” Similar stories could be found on sites of The New York Times, BBC News and The Guardian, the features reporting on the unfortunate death of Brazilian big wave surfer Marcio Freire, who apparently drowned following a wipeout at Nazarè’s notorious Praia do Norte.
Even as the global big wave community grieved, processing the loss of this popular, though largely unheralded, fellow heavy water devotee, the level of international coverage of Freire’s passing serves to highlight two related realizations, one relatively new, the other quite old. First, that giant wave surfing has really pushed itself to the forefront of broader society’s awareness (seen any CNN stories about Filipe Toledo’s choice of boards at Lowers lately?), with coverage of intrepid male and female surfers apparently cheating death while riding mountainous waves at spots like Praia do Norte, captivating civilians and capturing headlines like no other time in our sport’s history. The second — and this realization has been with us since earliest days — is that despite how absolutely catastrophic big wave wipeouts appear, surfers very rarely die while surfing giant waves. Which raises the question: just how dangerous is big wave surfing today?
This isn’t the first time the question has been raised, not by a long shot. On a 1965 issue of SURFER magazine the neon cover blurb read: “Big Wave Danger — A Hoax!” In the related feature Peter Van Dyke, brother of big wave pioneer Fred Van Dyke and an experienced waterman in his own right, wrote:
“I’m awfully tired of all the phony talk about big surf with descriptions of death-defying surfers and those lousy Hollywood movies with all the dramatic background music for the rolling, tumbling surf and bone-breaking dialogue. Big wave surfing is a hoax! Why? Because riding big waves isn’t perilous, dangerous or as hairy as it’s cracked up to be. In short, riding big waves is overrated.”
While Van Dyke certainly was entitled to his opinion, and the exact meaning of “hairy” can be left up to personal interpretation, the term “danger” can be defined, and often is, as “exposure or liability to injury, pain, harm or loss.” The apex of these eventualities, of course, being death. But if danger means simply to run the risk of the worst happening, then the only way to accurately measure danger is with statistics. Viewed in this light, using number of deaths and serious injury per participants total over, say, a 60-year period, the analysis of existing data would indicate that big wave surfing isn’t all that dangerous. In all those years, for example, less than a dozen surfers have reportedly been killed riding big waves [read: 25 feet and over.]
So with this being the case, and vastly more surfers being hurt, seriously injured and even killed in smaller surf conditions, why aren’t we all slipping on our inflation vests and waxing up our 10-footers during the next XXL swell? The answer to that question could be because of what big wave surfing has in excess, in lieu of statistical danger: fear.
Ask “Why?” of just about any big wave surfer and the topic of fear will inevitably come up, most commonly framed in context of using fear, recognizing fear, controlling fear…making a friend of fear. Lots of fear talk. Which is perfectly natural, and no mere rationalization. Because while for most other extreme athletes, death could result from a mistake, as soon as a big wave surfer’s head goes underwater, they’re dying. Which is why just about any wipeout is traumatic, and big wave wipeouts exponentially so. Peruse any list of the five phases of drowning and phase number one may surprise you:
In this stage the victim recognizes danger and becomes afraid.
Small wonder, when those who study this sort of thing report that “…the physiology of submersion includes chilling items like fear of drowning, diving response, autonomic conflict, upper airway reflexes, water aspiration and swallowing, not to mention emesis and electrolyte disorders.” Recognizing the terms or not, that’s a lot to have running through your head while experiencing a two-wave hold-down at Maverick’s. Which is why big wave surfing, while it might not be statistically dangerous, is extremely, viscerally, scary as hell.
And yet this sort of trauma is something big wave surfers find themselves experiencing on a regular basis…and still going back for more. In 2012, for example, San Clemente’s Greg Long was pulled from the water after a three-wave hold-down at Cortes Bank, unconscious and near death, but then was one of the chargers out in max-sized Todos Santos during last week’s mega-swell; in 2013, Brazil’s Maya Gabeira’s lifeless body was dragged from the Nazarè shorebreak and revived with CPR, yet in 2020 she entered the Guinness Book of World Record riding a 73.5-foot giant at the same fearsome break.
There’s no question that today’s big wave surfing is decidedly less dangerous — and maybe just a little bit less scary — than ever before, what with rescue teams, inflatable vests, heavy-water training and emergency protocols in place. And still Marcio Freire, an experienced surfer wearing a flotation vest, surfing in a lineup patrolled by a number of PWC teams, tragically died at Nazarè. A stark reminder that while death in big waves is not probable, it is still possible. Those rare surfers are the ones who have accepted those conditions, judged that the reward is worth the risk, and move toward the sound of thunder, while the rest of us watch from the safety of shore.