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 20 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 at Maverick’s at Pillar Point, on December 23, 1994. Well-known surfers had died in pursuit of their passion before, but the “normalcy” of this particular wave (by Maverick’s standards) 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.
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 Maverick’s 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 people acknowledging two important points: Foo was exhausted from an overnight flight, and any fall at Mavericks can be substantial.
Digging into his life with more vigor, Foo seemed to be almost universally well-liked, or at minimum, 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. (Today, his family runs the business, under the name, “Backpacker’s Vacation Inn and Hostel”.)
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, though he never achieved the strong 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. Next, he diversified his surfing resumÃ©. 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 Maverick’s 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 very first ride at Maverick’s that would prove to be his last.
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 Pillar Point. 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.”
Twenty years later, Mark Foo’s death still counts as one of the most shocking in surfing. While his death has been at the center of many conversations, it’s clear that his love, talent, and promotion for the sport deserves equal – or greater – billing in the story of his life.
Photos by Tom Servais