High-profile big-wave rider from the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, whose 1994 death at Maverick's became one of surfing's biggest national and international news stories. Foo was born (1958) in Singapore, the son of a Chinese-American photojournalist who worked for the U.S. Foreign Service. He moved with his family to Honolulu at age four, didn't learn to swim until 10, began surfing the following year, then moved to Rockville, Maryland. Foo later spent two years living with a friend in Pensacola, Florida, then reunited with his family in Honolulu; he moved to the North Shore in 1975, after graduating from high school, looking for a career as a pro surfer.
Frustrated on the world pro tour—his best year-end rating was 66th in 1979—Foo diversified: he wrote articles for surf magazines, opened a North Shore bed-and-breakfast catering to surfers, and did voice-overs for surf movies and on-site announcing at surf contests. He hosted a surfing radio show, then teamed up with fellow North Shore surfer/journalist Mike Latronic to cohost a surfing cable television show called H2O.
Foo's wave-riding improved steadily. He tucked his compact 5' 8", 135-pound frame into a low crouch, and dissected the powerful Hawaiian surf with tidy, efficient lines. He also worked closely with the top surf photographers, and became one of the sport's most visible figures; he made the cover of Surfer and Surfing magazines in 1978, and was often featured in surf movies, including Fantasea (1978), Follow the Sun (1982), and Totally Committed (1984). All of it contributed to what Foo, in his four-color glossy-stock résumé, called a "multifaceted professional profile." (In the same résumé, Foo immodestly referred to himself as "surfing's consummate living legend.") Intelligent, driven, and dependable, well versed in the language of marketing, Foo became one of the first surfers to be sponsored by a nonsurfing corporation, signing a modest deal with the Anheuser-Busch brewery in mid-1981.
If Foo was at times opportunistic, even crass, he also had a great appreciation of surfing's mystery, power, and beauty. "How can you describe the feeling of looking into a 30-foot tube, like a hole in the ocean?" Foo rhetorically asked in a surf magazine article. "How do I convey the sights, sounds and sensations that just a handful of humans out of the billions of humans past, present and future will ever experience? What's it like to walk on the moon, Mr. Armstrong?"
Foo gained notice as a big-wave rider on January 18, 1985, when he paddled into the teeth of a 50-foot Waimea closeout set, and shortly after, with hundreds of people on the beach watching, tried to ride a 30-footer. He didn't make the wave, but wrote about the experience for the surf press, and would later memorably describe the waves he'd seen that day at Waimea as belonging to "the unridden realm." A feud had meanwhile developed between Foo and Texas-born big-wave rider Ken Bradshaw, and in 1988 the two were profiled in an Outside magazine feature titled "The Divided Rulers of Waimea Bay." In that article, and in dozens of private and public conversations, Foo talked about the possibility of dying in big surf, telling one TV interviewer that "it would be a glamorous way to go, a great way to go; I mean, that's how I'd like to go out."
Foo also acknowledged that he was an unlikely big-wave rider, as he was afraid of heights and speed, and didn't think of himself as athletically inclined. Foo was the first to ride a tri-fin surfboard at Waimea, and was the first to use a leash in big surf. In 1986, he finished runner-up to Clyde Aikau in the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau contest at Waimea; he also competed in the 1990 Quiksilver/Aikau event.
Foo visited Maverick's for the first time on December 23, 1994, flying over from Hawaii with rival-turned-friend Ken Bradshaw, and died after wiping out on a 15-foot wave; the evidence wasn't conclusive, but he was probably driven to the bottom, where his leash or surfboard snagged on an outcrop of rock, and he drowned. He was engaged to be married.
Along with lengthy write-ups in the surf press, Foo's death was covered by the network news, MTV, the New York Times (who described him in a detailed obituary as "the Joe Montana of big waves"), the Los Angeles Times, Outside, Rolling Stone, Spin, and Paris Match magazines. Foo is the central character in the 2000-published Maverick's: The Story of Big-Wave Surfing. Foo's rivalry with Bradshaw is chronicled Andy Martin's 2007 book Stealing the Wave: The Epic Struggle Between Ken Bradshaw and Mark Foo (Bloomsbury).