On December 23rd, 1994, big wave surfer Mark Foo died in California while surfing at Mavericks. He was 36 years old.
Foo was born in Singapore to Chinese-American parents who were photojournalists for the U.S. Information Agency. He didn’t learn to swim, let alone surf, until his family moved from Washington D.C. to Honolulu when he was 10. Once he was introduced to it, he was hooked. Yet Foo’s father was posted to D.C. again two years later, and 12-year-old Foo was stuck in Maryland entertaining oceanic daydreams. When he was 14, he ran away to Florida to surf.
In 1975, Foo and his family moved back to Honolulu, where he graduated from Roosevelt High School a year early; he reportedly skipped the commencement ceremony to surf. Foo pursued what was then the only viable career in surfing: the competitive circuit. Despite early success, he never ranked higher than #66 in the world. He decided to stop contest surfing, focusing his efforts on big waves instead. This was a pioneering decision that paved an alternative career path for future surfers.
Foo’s larger-than-life personality was evident in his style of surfing — he was one of the first to carve up and down monstrous waves as if they were head-high — and it also made him a magnetic photo-opportunist. While living on the mainland, he relied on surf movies and magazines to stay connected with the sport, so he naturally understood the reach and power of such media. He became good friends with surf photographers and landed on the cover of Surfer and Surfing — the two largest magazines in the booming surf industry — more than the world champions who trounced him at contests. This ubiquitous exposure earned him promotional contracts that paid him to be a surfing billboard. Though he never got rich surfing, he was essentially paid to free surf, a dream scenario for wave riders everywhere.
In 1983, Foo surfed Waimea for the first time, and his fearlessness earned the begrudging respect of the North Shore’s old guard. In 1985, he took off on a wave said to be over 60 feet high — a bigger wave than had ever been surfed at the time. Though he didn’t make the drop and had to be rescued by a helicopter, it “cemented his reputation as a big wave demigod,” wrote journalist Jon Krakauer. “If you want the ultimate thrill,” Foo said after the colossal wipeout, “you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price.” This became his mantra, and would come to define his legacy.
That same year, while competing in the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational, Foo would coin one of the most iconic phrases of modern Hawaii. While organizers debated whether the 25-foot waves and howling wind made it safe to hold the contest, Foo told the organizers, “Eddie would go.”
Around the height of Foo’s fame, local surfers in northern California had discovered a new break called Mavericks at Half Moon Bay. It was a thick, heavy, frigid wave, described as “gloomy, isolated, [and] inherently evil” by Surfer magazine. Locals had been raving about it for years, but it failed to gain the world-class prominence they insisted it deserved.
Then, in 1994, Foo and big wave surfers Ken Bradshaw and Brock Little paddled out into the lineup. Photographers lined the beach; the presence of North Shore legends gave credibility to Mavericks. It was Foo’s first time at the break. Bradshaw and Foo had been on Oahu the day before, but after hearing about a once-in-a-lifetime swell, they caught a red eye to San Francisco on December 22nd. When they arrived the next day, however, the surf had gone from glassy 50-footers to 25-foot mush. Foo had certainly surfed bigger, gnarlier sets before, yet on an otherwise ordinary wave, he dropped in, went over the falls, and was never seen alive again. His lifeless body buoyed to the surface.
Foo redefined what was possible as a professional surfer. He showed that big wave surfers were athletes and artists, and that big wave surfing was a viable career path.
On December 30th, 1994, a memorial service was held for Foo at Waimea Bay. More than 700 people attended, 150 of which paddled out into the middle of the bay to pay their respects, hold hands, and cast leis in his honor. His childhood friend Dennis Pang emptied a box of Foo’s ashes into the sea, returning him to the waves he fell in love with.
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