death and surfing


There are reasons why surfing has a reputation as a deadly activity. Surfers die in movies (Point Break, In God's Hands) and novels (The Ninth Wave, Dogs of Winter), and the sport often turns up on (non-statistical) "most dangerous" lists online. When Hawaii's Mark Foo drowned while surfing Maverick's in 1994, the story was covered at length in the New York TimesOutside, and Rolling Stone, and was featured on network news. In addition, people who live away from the coast are frequently afraid of the ocean in general, and breaking waves in particular.

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.

In the world of sport and recreation, surfing fatality rates are in fact at the low end of the spectrum. "Deaths from surfing are so rare," Dr. Mark Renneker, founder of the Surfer's Medical Association, wrote after Foo's drowning, "that each one becomes newsworthy." (There are hard numbers to back up the idea that surfing is a relatively safe sport in terms of injury—a 2012 Australian study reported injury rates among recreational surfers as being on par with long-distance runners—but as noted in a 2013 medical handbook,  Adventure and Extreme Sports Injury Rates, "there are no reliable statistics on surfing-related fatality rates.")

A majority of surfing deaths occur after the surfer is knocked unconscious, either by hitting his board (or someone else's board), or from striking the bottom. The surf leash, introduced in the early '70s, is responsible for some small number of deaths as surfers have been held underwater and drowned after their leash snagged on a rock or coral outcropping. Foo almost certainly died this way at Maverick's. But leashes have almost without question saved a greater number of lives, as there are fewer loose boards in the lineup. Big-wave surfers, furthermore, have also on occasion saved themselves after a long wipeout only by climbing their leash to the surface.

The odds of simple drowning, with no other primary cause, go up as the surf gets bigger. Todd Chesser of Hawaii drowned at Outside Alligator Rock on the North Shore of Oahu in 1997 after he was held beneath at least three 20-foot waves, and Sion Milosky, also of Hawaii, drowned in 2011 after wiping out at Mavericks.

Fatal shark attacks make up a small but notorious percentage of surfing deaths.

Other surfing deaths have little or nothing to do with the sport itself: 1986 world amateur champion Mark Sainsbury of Australia suffered a fatal brain aneurysm while paddling through small waves at his home break in 1992. As surf writer Brad Melekian noted in 2011, as the wave-riding population ages, with many if not most surfing-related deaths "the ocean was just a bystander. Mid-fifties types suffering heart attacks that were going to rear up whether the concerned party had been surfing, jogging, or playing tennis."

Hawaii's Pipeline is thought to be the world's most deadly surf break, in part because the wave breaks in shallow water and is enormously powerful and also because of the crowds. Two or three surfers die each decade at Pipeline.

Just a handful of well-known (or even slightly known) surfers have died while surfing, including Hawaiian Dickie Cross at Waimea Bay in 1943, Peru's Joaquin Miroquesada at Pipeline in 1967, California's Donnie Soloman at Waimea in 1995, Tahiti's Malik Joyeux at Pipeline in 2005, and Hawaiian Ace Cool at Waimea in 2015. Waveriding has proven to be less lethal to notable surfers than drug or alcohol abuse (Butch Van Artsdalen, Dewey Weber, Rusty Starr, Bunker Spreckles, Andy Irons), vehicular accidents (Jim Freeman, Greg Tucker, Ronnie Burns, Chris Bystrom), or suicide (Bob Pike, Angus Chater, Jose Angel, Marvin Foster).

A surfer's memorial service will often take place at the deceased's favorite surf break, where friends and family will paddle out and form a circle, then sprinkle the ashes into the water. When Hawaiian surfer Jonah Binkley died in a traffic accident in late 1992, friend Shawn Briley paddled out at Pipeline with Binkley's ashes tied in a pouch around his waist. Briley, then one of the world's best Pipeline riders, released the ashes while riding inside the tube on a 10- foot wave.

Sometime in the 1940s, California bodysurfer and canoe surfer Ron Drummond wrote a poem titled "Death at San Onofre," which begins as follows:

Oh, place me not on a high hillside
With a sweeping view of the country wide,
But bury me close to the clear green sea
Where the crashing waves will spray over me;
Where my soul will rise with the rising sun,
And be surfing still when the day is done.