Tragedy seems easier to digest the further away it is in the past, but this doesn’t seem to be the case with the drowning death of surfing legend Mark Foo. Foo died in 1994, more than 25 years ago, and the wounds in the surfing community still rub raw.
Foo’s oft-repeated quote was: “To get the ultimate thrill, you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price.” Sadly, that is exactly what happened when he died surfing at Mavericks on December 23, 1994. At the time the big-wave spot near the sleepy California town of Half Moon Bay was relatively new to the wider surf scene, having been ridden at first only by local surfer Jeff Clark, then a handful of hellmen from the surrounding central and Northern California surf communities. A few well-known surfers had died in pursuit of their passion before, but the relative modest-size of the particular wave that killed Foo (about 15 feet, big enough to freak out most surfers, but a medium-small day at Mavericks) and Foo’s particular wipeout have left lingering questions as to whether the price he paid was commensurate with the “thrill” of that particular ride. Plus, despite it looking deadly, big-wave surfing rarely killed, let alone harmed, surfers.
Most obituaries are mini-biographies of a person’s life, loves, and accomplishments. The many obituaries and articles about Foo – including one in the national paper of record, The New York Times – focused almost exclusively on the way he died. The surf community seemed confounded by how an accomplished surfer could die on such an underwhelming wave (again, by Mavericks’ standards). There were heated arguments of the safety of surfboard leashes, of the suitability of newly popular Mavericks as a surf spot, and of how no one in the lineup realized Foo was missing for nearly 90 minutes.
Thankfully, the tragedy didn’t seem to degenerate to finger pointing toward any one of the surfers present that day, with most surfers acknowledging three important points: Foo was exhausted from an overnight flight; any fall at Mavericks can be substantial; and big-wave surfing might require more calculated safety measures. The latter has effectively become the legacy of that tragic day. Surfers now challenging waves like Mavericks often do so only while wearing flotation vests, with rescue personnel aboard PWCs in the lineup and a careful plan for extraction.
Digging into his life with more vigor, Foo was almost universally well-liked and well-respected, though some noted that Foo was more, um, discerning in his warmth toward others. He either liked you or he didn’t and there was no in between. As the owner of one of the first ad-hoc surf hostels on Oahu’s North Shore, Foo may have simply had less tolerance for certain houseguests. His house/hostel didn’t earn the nickname “Foo’s Zoo” without merit.
Foo’s family first moved to Oahu, Hawaii, when he was a small child. It took him a few years to be drawn to the lure of the ocean. By the time he was 10, he had learned how to surf, and he was hooked. He moved to the mainland for a few teenaged years, then returned to Oahu in time to finish high school and commit to a life in the water.
By 1977, he was competing on the International Professional Surfers World Tour, precursor to the Association of Surfing Professionals which has grown into today’s World Surf League, though he never achieved the competitive results he sought. He stayed with the tour into the early 1980s, when his interest in big wave surfing outgrew his drive to compete.
He settled on the North Shore at Waimea Bay, where Greg Noll, Buzzy Trent, and the inimitable Eddie Aikau had cut their teeth in big wave surfing. Foo’s street cred and spirit helped to reinvigorate interest in Waimea and in big wave surfing overall, which had waned in the 80s, as flashy small-wave performance took hold of the surfing zeitgeist. Next, he diversified his surfing resumé. Through what some claimed was relentless self-promotion – genius or shameless – Foo quickly established himself as one of the prominent faces of the sport. He opened the hostel, announced contests, narrated movies, and even co-hosted a surf show on television, called H20.
Foo’s financial success never eclipsed his love of the water and his efficient, clean style continually earned the respect of his peers. Whether noble or self-righteous, Foo’s self-marketing provided him with a comfortable enough living to travel the world to surf. That is why he was able to fly to Mavericks on a moment’s notice in December 1994, when word spread that it was about to go off. By most reports, it was Foo’s first ride at Mavericks that would prove to be his last.
Matt Warshaw, founder of the Encyclopedia of Surfing, one-time San Francisco surfing stalwart, de facto historian of the sport, surfed Mavericks the day Foo died and had been his friend. He wrote the following, years later, of his disgust at the narrative that emerged following Foo’s death, constructed by local surfers and people who didn’t understand Foo’s careful approach.
“Around 12:30, Brock [Little] (the late big-wave star) and I were walking from my car along the trail back to the beach, to say goodbye to everybody, when Jeff Clark suddenly appeared to say that Foo’s body had just been pulled out of the water and brought to the dock. Clark and few others ran toward the harbor. Brock and I stood there on the trail, stunned. We decided not to join the crowd. Drove instead to a North Beach bar and started drinking. Eventually I found a pay phone, called Renneker; everybody was hanging out there. This was around sunset. Brock and I finished our beers and drove over.
Not long after we arrived, I began to realize that all the surfers in the room had already formed the above-mentioned consensus view as to how and why Mark had died. My thoughts kind of locked up. These were nice people, hardcore surfers, good guys. Never once in my four years of living in SF had I gotten into an argument with any of them. Furthermore, I was by far the least-experienced Mavs surfer in the room—actually I wasn’t a Mavs surfer at all; I’d surfed the place just three times. In any event, I didn’t have the will or the seniority to launch a counterargument. Brock went quiet too. It was his first time in San Francisco, and he wasn’t going to mix it up. A quick exit seemed the best course of action. I caught Brock’s eye, and we left. The next morning he flew back to Hawaii.
What those guys were doing, literally blaming the victim, was both self-serving and disrespectful. Absolutely. And flat-out wrong, too. Foo was a calculating big-wave rider. He stayed within himself—even that crazy Waimea suckout he went for in ’85, the freefall wipeout that made his big-wave reputation, wasn’t actually all that left-field; there was a helicopter standing by to pick him up.
Foo’s death was a fluke. A fatal piece of bad luck. Could have happened to any of those guys sitting around pulling on their beers over at Renneker’s. Which in fact was exactly why they had to construct that fortress of bullshit. Mavs had just taken out one of the world’s best big-wave riders. Renneker and Brock excepted, these were all very new, very provincial big-wave surfers. To accept the randomness of this terrifying event meant adding a lot of weight to their barely-tested big-wave commitment—more weight then any of them were at that stage ready to bear. Brock had long ago made his peace with the mercurial nature of the game, and knew that Foo’s death was just a snake-eyes roll of the dice; knew if from the moment Jeff Clark delivered the news. But these guys needed to believe that local knowledge could be worn around them like an invincibility cape. They were was scared shitless, and doing what they had to do to calm down, regain control.
My own anger was coming from the same place, for that matter. I was shocked by what happened, and as scared as anybody. More scared—I never surfed Mavs again. What I hadn’t yet done was feel any grief. Walking out of Renneker’s with a head full of righteous anger allowed me to not think about the fact that my friend was in the Half Moon Bay morgue, about to fly back home in a box. Better to quietly rage at my friends than to cry.”
Tragedy doesn’t become less severe over time; it simply becomes easier to place in the course of a full life. Foo himself said, “It is not tragic to die doing something you love.” For his family and friends, the way he lived his life will always take precedence over the way he died. His sister was quoted in the aforementioned 1994 New York Times story on his death, “I have no feeling that I should have talked him out of going to [Mavericks]. Because I accept him for who he was and what he lived for. He was not a thrill seeker in general. He did not drive fast, didn’t try to climb mountains. Only surfing, only surfing.”