Photo: Brent Bielmann
I’ve never died before. Maybe that makes this piece naïve, but I’m going to give it a shot anyway.
Over the course of the past week, I’ve heard of three people dying while surfing. Two of those deaths occurred in my adopted home of San Diego. One of the departed was Kenny Mann, a local glasser who, by all accounts, had a big smile and an even bigger carve. Kenny went surfing alone one night — as he often did — and was found dead on the beach in the morning. Days later, Joy Ann Froding was surfing that same reef when a serious medical condition reared its hideous face. She was assisted out of the water and pronounced dead at a hospital shortly thereafter.
The third death occurred on the North Shore. Like Kenny Mann, Alec ‘Ace Cool’ Cooke paddled out at Waimea Bay just as night began to fall. As hours passed, dew thickened windows of his vacant truck and his dog roamed the beach in distress. His board eventually washed to shore. After a few days of looking for his body, the Coast Guard called off the search without a trace.
Each of those individuals have stories worth listening to and lived lives worth celebrating. Read more about Kenny’s here, Joy’s here and Alec’s here. But the intent of this piece isn’t to tell those stories. The idea here is to ruminate on death and surfing.
I think it comes down to two big questions.
1) Is surfing worth the risk of death?
2) Is surfing a good way to die?
2) Is surfing a good way to die?
The first one, in my mind, isn’t a real question. Yes, surfing is worth the often blurry possibility of death. Anybody with an elementary understanding of the sport would have to agree. I’m sure there are folks on the fringe that read headlines and think otherwise, believing that something like surfing is risk-taking for risk-taking’s sake. (That sentiment would certainly be magnified in big waves, like the ones that killed Ace Cool.) They’d question whether it’s worth the risk of leaving your family and friends in anguish just because you felt like riding a wall of salt water energy on an encapsulated chunk of fiberglass.
Surfing, especially in big waves, is a calculated madness. More than that, it is a source of tremendous joy. Tremendous joy is integral to human life. There are a million different ways to find it — some people get it out of playing chess, some get it out of raising a family, some get it out of surfing Waimea at night — but if you’re not finding it in some form, you might as well hand in your heart and tuck into a coffin.
So, yes. It’s worth it.
But the second question is more complex.
There’s a saying — or a canned phrase — that you hear around certain deaths. At least they died doing what they love. I’m not so quick to accept that. If you were able to choose the way you die, would you choose surfing?
It’s always unforeseeable, and imagine what your mind would conceive in its last conscious moments if you were to die in the ocean. Probably, it’d be questioning the decisions that put you in this suddenly life-ending predicament. It’d be helplessly wondering why you had to paddle out here, why you had to go for that wave. It’d be wishing you went to the gym instead. Or watched the game. Or did anything besides surfing. Mostly, it’d be begging for a way back to the beach one last time.
Regardless of whether or not drowning is a peaceful way to go, I’d rather not die surfing. I’d like to end my the last surf session of my life happily, with a stalefish on the way in. Then I could go die someplace else — possibly a field somewhere. Or a knoll. A knoll sounds pretty nice.
Maybe it’s more important (and actually in our control) to live surfing than it is to die surfing. And when I say live surfing, I don’t mean growing your hair long, putting stickers on the back of your station wagon and going shoeless in the supermarket. I mean doing it all the time, committing yourself to it. Splurge on surf trips — you have a credit card, right? Lie to your boss and leave work early to surf. Find excuses, find time, find the joy that makes it all worth the risk.
In the cases of Kenny, Joy and Ace, I suppose the fact that they died surfing makes it very likely that they lived surfing. I can’t say whether or not it was a good way to go for them. But I can say that it was a great way to get there. —Brendan Buckle