Death. Alone and by itself, death is morose. It is unrelentingly dark, unbearably heavy, and unapologetically final. Yet when seen in the larger context of life — not life as in life and death, rather life as in this continuum of “being” which we’re all connected by — death is a mere tombstone, a marker that signifies the end ofsomething, not everything. And it is in this light we look back on six of big wave surfing’s most influential deaths.
In a sport and pursuit like big wave surfing, death is, unfortunately, inevitable. We dowhat we can to protect those who paddle and tow into the monsters, but nature is unpredictable, and no amount of inflatable vests will overcome the power and force of the elements. Not now, not ever. Yet in big wave surfing, death’s inevitability accompanies a sort of passion only the select few who charge these behemoths truly understands. They live to climb these towering peaks, with hopes of summiting, but knowing that failure is, indeed, a very real possibility. This is not to say that anyone — family, friends, fans, or surfers — is necessarily ready for death. This is only to say that death was always in front of them, and they charged regardless, living their lives to what they deemed the fullest. For that, no amount of respect that will ever be enough.
We don’t intend for this to be a celebration of their deaths, but rather a remembrance of their undying passion. Their presence is still felt in every swell.
Our thoughts and well-wishes continue to go out to all those affected. The following are not ranked in an ascending or descending matter, but presented in chronological order, and are limited to those big wave surfers who died in the act – men who took their final breaths while cascading down the face of monstrous ocean waves. This explains the absence of big wave legends Eddie Aikau and Jay Moriarity.
Author’s Note:I invite you to share your remembrances of these men and others who gave their lives while pushing the boundaries of big wave surfing.
Mark Foo. Photo: Encyclopedia of Surfing
Date: December 23, 1994 Place: Maverick’s, Half Moon Bay, California The Moment: Foo drowns during his first session at the recently “discovered” break.
Mark Foo’s death might be surfing’s most wide-reaching national and international mainstream news story to date. Coinciding with the recent “discovery” of Maverick’s, his drowning made front-page headlines around the world, along with the introduction of this break. And instead of a simple introduction of another gnarly destination for surfers to flock to, the headlines brought a sense of awe that not even the longest tall-tales could have instilled.
Foo was, after all, big wave surfing’s biggest personality at the time. The New York Times described him well:
But it was these same Maverick’s that attracted Foo, the 36-year-old surfing legend of Haleiwa, Hawaii. He was known as the Joe Montana of Big Waves, and was a do-it-all: broadcaster, author, businessman, health enthusiast, traveler. He kept hearing about the danger of Pillar Point and wanted to see it. He scaled waves for the same reason rock climbers scaled mountains: because they were there. As recently as September, he wrote an article for Tracks Magazine, comparing his daredevil surfing to space travel.
“What was it like to walk on the moon, Mr. Armstrong?” he wrote.
On December 23, 1994, Foo flew in from Hawaii to surf Maverick’s for the first time. It would also be his last. The details are murky, but he was seen wiping out — and was even photographed doing so — before getting lost at sea. It is commonly believed that his leash became entangled on the rocks, and that the furious current sweeping through the bay held him down and kept him from releasing himself from his board. His body was discovered still tied to the broken tail section of his board over two hours later.
Ultimately, his death went on to symbolize the mystical nature of the break. “We always knew someone would die at Maverick’s,” said Darin Bingham, co-owner of the Aqua Culture surf shop, told the Los Angeles Timesat the time. “We just never thought it would be someone like Mark Foo. It will just add to the lore and legend of this spot.”
The legend will not only be remembered for his own feats of fearlessness, but for further immortalizing Eddie Aikau when he turned to hesitant organizers at the Eddie and responded to their collective reluctance to call the competition for fear that the waves were too dangerous to surf: “Eddie would go.”
Date: December 23, 1995 Place: Waimea Bay, North Shore, Hawaii The Moment: Solomon is caught mid-way up the face of a Waimea bomb and is thrown over, drowning under the wave.
Having grown up surfing Ventura, California, Donnie Solomon was a surefire talent to watch. During an epic session at Waimea Bay, Solomon was sitting in the lineup with Ross Clark-Jones when they both paddled for the first wave of a set. Clark-Jones caught and rode the wave, but Solomon ended up in a terrible position and found himself on the inside. The waves approaching were only getting bigger.
Attempting to paddle outside, he once again didn’t make it— he was two-thirds up the face when the wave decided to break, throwing Solomon over with the lip. There was no reviving him once he resurfaced.
An avid supporter of the Red Cross, Solomon would stop by local chapters while tracking swells and competing on the WQS, encouraging other surfers to do the same. He was big on lifeguarding and safety training in first aid and CPR and considered it a necessity among watermen, especially the youth.
Sean Hayes once told Surfing: “There is a reason why people come together as friends and one of the best ones I’ve ever known was Donnie Solomon. He was the type of person who not only made you think about your life, but made you laugh about it… hysterically. When Donnie passed away at Waimea Bay in 1995 it took the wind out of a sea of sails and I was just one of the many ships set adrift, wondering what life would be like without a gale wind like Donnie. He was a staple in his peer’s lives and we knew we would do our best not to forget him.”
Date: February 13, 1997 Place: Alligator Rocks, North Shore, Hawaii The Moment: Caught inside at Outside Alligators, an outer reef with 20- to 25-foot waves (with 50-foot faces), Chesser was found tangled in the rocks near Waimea.
Once described by Surfer as “the greatest non-rated surfer in the world,” Todd Chesser tore through the scene in the nineties. Born in Florida but raised in Hawaii, Chesser followed in his accomplished mother Jeannie’s footsteps and became one of the island’s top-rated amateur surfers (like his mom was in the seventies). Despite finishing fourth in the 1990 Professional Surfing Association of America tour, Chesser decided his time was better spent chasing swells as a big wave surfer. A frequent contributor to Surfer, Chesser proclaimed in a piece about the dangers of big-wave surfing: “If you know the basics, the danger is minimal.”
Like Foo before him, Chesser was one of big wave’s bigger personalities, and his skill and drive had him scheduled to act as a stunt surfer in In God’s Hands. But the morning he was supposed to fly out to Maui, the surf was too good in Oahu to pass on, so he decided to stay at home. According to the Los Angeles Times, Chesser was paddling outer Alligator with two friends when he got caught insight, reportedly standing on his board before diving down to make it under one of the waves. Held under, he resurfaced in a semiconscious or unconscious state. His companions quickly converged to help, but another set rolled through, sending each surfer in their own direction. When the waves had cleared, Chesser was nowhere in sight. Hours later they found him tangled in the rocks near Waimea, unable to be revived.
He became the third big wave surfer to die surfing in just over two years. Leaving behind a fiance mere days before his 29th birthday, his close-knit community in Hawaii came together to mourn the loss of their spirited charger.
“I’m still having a hard time believing he’s gone,” Ron Hill told the Star-Bulletin when the news broke. “We called him Cheese, he always had a smile for you. He was such a gutsy surfer but a very caring person who always remembered to send a postcard to my wife when he was away.”
Joyeaux on the last wave he rode before the fateful one he would catch next. Photo: Sean Davey
Date: December 2, 2005 Place: Pipeline, North Shore, Hawaii The Moment: Hit over the head by a thunderous lip, Joyeux is knocked unconscious and drowns at Pipeline.
Malik Joyeux was one of Tahiti’s best known professional surfers, even featured on the cover of Surfer‘s 2004 “Big Issue.” Coming to fame as the “petit prince” who charged Teahupoo, the goofy-footer was awarded the Billabong XXL 2003 Tube of the Year for riding one of the biggest waves ever.
On December 2, 2005, Joyeux took off deep on an eight-foot wave (Hawaiian) at Pipeline. Joyeux reportedly barely made the wave, with the nose of his board sinking into the face, disastrously slowing him down. Attempting to regain his pacing, he wasn’t able to pick up speed fast enough, and was he slammed by a heavy lip, instantly breaking his board and sending him under. Aamion Goodwin, riding the next wave, would later mention that the leash of his board was completely intact and still attached to the board; but with no leash, Joyeaux was impossible to locate.
“About half the lineup cleared out,” Greg Long, who was sitting on the Backdoor side of the peak when Malik took off, told Surfline. “And a bunch of guys came up from the beach too, everyone yelling ‘Malik’s down!’ We all formed a line and were looking around the reef underwater between sets for any sign of color.”
Fifteen minutes later, another surfer, Myles Padaca, found him at Pupukea beach break, to the right of Pipeline. Lifeguards and paramedics attempted to resuscitate him but failed to do so. An autopsy revealed that he had likely been instantly knocked unconscious when the board came up and hit him in the head.
His death exemplified the everyday hazards these surfers encounter. “I was paddling for the same wave,” Randall Paulson, a lifelong Pipeline local, told the New York Times. “I pulled back and let him go. I just wanted to see my friend get a good wave. That was the last time I saw him alive.”
At his home in Tahiti, he was an avid proponent of the “No Ice in Paradise” anti-drug campaign.
Peter Davi Date: December 4, 2007 Place: Ghost Trees, Pebble Beach, California The Moment: Davi is thrown off his board and dies attempting to swim in from the break.
A third generation commercial fisherman from Monterey, Peter Davi knew the coastline like the back of hishand. More than anyone, he was Pebble Beach surf.
On December 4, 2007, Peter Davi and Anthony Tashnick took their ten-foot guns out from Stillwater Cove. The lineup was packed with tow teams and photographers there to catch a swell that was ranging from 30 to 50 feet. Hoping to avoid the crowd, the two of them first sat on the shoulder, but while Tashnick snagged a couple, Davi wasn’t able to grab any and soon paddled into the thick of the lineup where he was hell-bent on getting a wave.
Randy Reyes and Anthony Ruffo offered to tow Davi into a couple, and after catching one, Davi decided it was time to paddle in as a helicopter arrived and he really wasn’t one for the media circus. Paddling in towards the inside, it is unclear what exactly happened, but he was either caught on the inside or wiped out riding one last wave when his leash snapped and he ended up swimming without a board. According to onlookers, he made it a couple hundred feet, but was soon lost amid the whitewash and rocks. They later found him lying down in a patch of kelp, apparently there for awhile.
An autopsy would later reveal troubling insights into the death. As reported by the Monterey Herald, “Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Richards said toxicology results show that Davi had a methamphetamine level of 0.75 milligrams per liter in his system at the time of his death. The level for potential toxicity is between 0.2 to 0.5 milligrams per liter.”
In the surfing community around Monterey and Big Sur, Davi was regarded by many as a kind of unofficial mayor. At 6 feet 3 inches and 240 pounds, his duties sometimes included maintaining order and safety in the surf. With a combination of intimidating size and charisma, he seldom had to do more than ask people politely to behave.
But Davi was also respected for his courage and his skill in riding big waves. In the early 1990s, he was among a clutch of surfers to ride regularly at a treacherous spot called Mavericks, 100 miles north of Monterey at Half Moon Bay. He gained prominence at big-wave spots on the North Shore of Oahu, including Banzai Pipeline, where respect is hard won from local Hawaiians. And he was among the first to ride at Ghost Trees, where he died.
“Pete was well-loved and well-respected worldwide,” Ruffo told SFGate.com. “People from everywhere are calling. He’ll be so missed. He’s the diplomat of surfing. He was an anchor and a bridge between Santa Cruz and Monterey surfers.”
Date: March 16, 2011 Place: Maverick’s, Half Moon Bay, California The Moment: Milosky is caught under a two-wave hold down which he wouldn’t come up from.
At 50 to 60 feet, the waves were big even for Maverick’s. And Sion Milosky was having quite the session, catching at least six waves. But then the seventh or eighth or ninth came in. Riding the wave, the lip collapsed down on him. What made it worse was that it happened during low tide, when water depths were only 15 to 20 feet. As his board tombstoned, another wave crashed on top of Milosky. The two-wave hold down would get the best of him.
Nathan Fletcher went looking for Milosky by ski, but wouldn’t find him for 20 minutes when he finally located Milosky floating at the Pillar Point Harbor mouth, about a mile from the break.
Milosky had recently been named North Shore Underground Surfer of the Year the month before and was keeping momentum at Maverick’s. “Sion was dominating it. He was out there catching so many waves, he was so good,” said Ken “Skindog” Collins told the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “Everybody was like, ‘Who is that? What are you doing letting Hawaiians take over your wave?’ That’s what blows my mind the most is that he was doing all that, and then he drowned.”
Hawaiian Sean Moody also remembered him well, posting to Twitter: “I don’t even know what to say. One of the best humans I’ve ever met. RIP Sion.”
Starting his professional career as a longboard, Milosky quickly rose the ranks as a big wave surfer willing to paddle some of the biggest waves ever.