A ride-ending event; usually harmless, but can be dangerous, even deadly. Common forms of the wipeout include pearling (when the board's nose digs into the water), digging a rail (the board's edge catches), spinning out (the tail section loses traction), and the free-fall (board and rider go airborne), along with poorly timed turns and cutbacks, and collisions with other surfers. Wipeouts often look worse than they are; just a tiny percentage of them result in any kind of harm. The crowd appeal of wipeouts, meanwhile, has never been in doubt. "If you can't have a spectacular ride, have a spectacular wipeout," as former world champion Martin Potter said." It's good for the sport'.
Of all surfing expressions, "wipeout" has penetrated furthest into common usage; the Oxford English Dictionary definition for "wipe-out" (the phrase is still occasionally hyphenated) reads: "a fall from one's surfboard, or from a wave. Now also more widely, a fall from a skateboard, bicycle, etc., especially while maneuvering at speed." "Wipeout," along with "stoke," is also one of the very few phrases surfers have used continuously through the decades. Surf lexicon synonyms for wipeout include "taking gas," "eating it," and a number of expressions starting with "getting": "getting worked," "lunched," "hammered," "pounded," "drilled," "nailed," "rooted," "stuffed," "tweaked," or "thrashed."
The origins of "wipeout" are unknown, but it was a surfing expression before crossing over to skiing, skateboarding, and other action sports. "Wipeout" is not found in Tom Blake's 1935 Hawaiian Surfboard book; Blake instead used works like "ducking," or "spill." Same with John "Doc" Ball's California Surfriders, published 11 years later. (Ball's substitutions, however, are more creative than Blake's, and include "smeared," "blasted," "the royal works," and "taste the brine.") It seems likely that "wipeout" came into use in the late '40s or early '50s.
The surf media over the decades have approached the wipeout from a number of angles: as a health and safety issue, with dozens of tips articles on how to make the best of a spill (the cardinal rule is to relax while underwater); as a wellspring for comedy (in articles like "TOADS: Take Off And Die Syndrome," "Altered States," and "Lunch Time!"); as a theme for fashion shoots ("Wipeout in Style"); as poetic muse ("Crisp water," surf publisher John Severson versified in 1965, "Clipping confident boardmen from their mounts"); and as celebrity showcases (each installment of "Greatest Wipeouts," a regular feature on Surfline.com, has a famous surfer recounting his or her worst wipeout). The cinematic wipeout sequence, usually a two- or three-minute montage of casualties, has long been a surf movie staple. Some of the most famous wipeouts through the years include Tommy Lee's cannonball plunge at Waimea in 1962, Greg Noll's 1964 midface vault at Third Reef Pipeline, Titus Kinimaka's femur-breaking wave at Waimea on Christmas morning, 1989, Jay Moriarity's New York Times–published over-the-falls shocker at Maverick's in 1994, and Nathan Fletcher's 2011 atomic explosion at Teahupoo.
Just as spectacular wipeouts often produce virtually no consequences (all the surfers mentioned above were fine), relatively harmless-looking wipeouts can be injurious or even fatal. After slipping from the back of his board while riding a six-footer during the 1983 Pipeline Masters, Steve Massfeller of Florida struck the reef headfirst and suffered a massive skull fracture over his right eye. On December 23, 1994, in what became the world's most famous wipeout, Hawaiian big-wave rider Mark Foo died after taking what appeared to be a routine spill midway down a 15-footer at Maverick's.
As a rule, bad wipeouts generally occur at crowded breaks, as people run into each other, or in shallow-water reefbreaks like Pipeline or Teahupoo. While beginning surfers mostly take what appear to be mild wipeouts, they nonetheless get hurt at a rate equal to or greater than intermediate and advanced surfers, as they haven't yet developed the habit of putting distance between themselves and their board, the bottom, and other surfers.
The wipeout was taken to a newer, more dramatic level in the 1990s, thanks to two converging developments: tow-surfing, which allowed big-wave riders to get into waves twice as big, or more so, as those ridden previously; and the growing popularity of "slab" breaks, in which incoming waves crease and buckle and contort as they hit shallow water. The kinds of wipeout regularly seen by 2014 would have been unimaginable to surfers in the 1980s.
The Surfaris' "Wipe Out," the world's best-known surf song, containing the world's best-known drum solo, went to #2 on the American pop charts in June 1963.
A "Wipeout of the Year" citation is given out each year at the Billabong XXL Awards. The annual SURFER Poll Awards also includes a "Worst Wipeout" category.