Few better than Mark Foo incarnated Jack London's apotheosis of the surfer: "Where but the moment before was only the wide desolation and the invincible roar, is now a man, erect, full-statured, not struggling frantically in that wild movement no t buried and crushed and buffeted by those mighty monsters, but standing above them all, calm and superb, poised on the giddy summit, his feet buried in the churning foam, the salt smoke rising to his knees, and all the root of him in the free and flashi ng sunlight, and he is flying through the air, flying forward, flying fast as the surge on which he stands."
Mark Foo was 36. Over the last decade he had established himself as one of the leading figures among the dozen or so big-wave specialists, based on the North Shore of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, who are the high priests of surfing. Eschewing the world professional circuit, these are the few who make a career out of carving down the face of the colossal waves that loom up out of the Pacific in the winter like dinosaurs.
Foo studied for two years at the University of Hawaii before graduating from Pipeline through Sunset to the ultimate arena of the North Shore of Waimea Bay. In the Eighties he singlehandedly changed the image of big-wave riding. He was articulate, good looking, he didn't take drugs and he wasn't a Vietnam vet. He pioneered the tri-fin in preference to the traditional single-fin. His sudden rise ruffled the feathers of the old guard, "the men with beards" as he laughingly referred to them. He was like akarate kid among a band of heavyweight pugilists. He didn't do battle with 30-foot waves, he danced with them, he finessed them.
His reputation was founded in part, ironically, on a glorious failure. On 18 January 1985 he was left all alone in the Bay after a freak wave at least 50ft from base to crest closed out and erased all other contenders. He finally took off on a wave reckoned at 35ft, so concave that he went into free-fall and connected up again 25 feet down, but crashed and survived one of the heaviest wipeouts of all time. That was the Biggest Wave Nearly Ridden and Foo's nerveless attempt won him huge media coverage and sponsorship.
Foo combined what he described as his "calling" with writing, commentating and regular television productions. It was Destination X, a surf movie which he planned should include all his favourite big-wave spots around the world, which took him to Mavericks, at Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco, shortly before Christmas, on the strength of a predicted giant West coast swell.
The night flight must have left him tired. But he was still out surfing at dawn and hungry for waves. He took off on the first wave of a powerful 15-18ft set: it barrelled over his head and he angled his board to get in the tube. But the lip kissed him and he was sucked out of control into the spinning vortex. The footage of his last moments shows him being dragged up the curtain, looped over, and then flung down and stomped on by a liquid piledriver, only to be pounded again and again by the subsequentwaves in the set. He was discovered two hours later, his ankle still leashed to his shattered 9ft Willis Phazer. On top of "salt-water drowning", the coroner's report cited "blunt head trauma", which may have been caused by reef or board.
There were two funerals: one on land, in Honolulu, where he was cremated, and the other on water, at Waimea Bay, where boards were planted in the sand like tombstones and a group of surfers formed a circle out in the channel and sprinkled his ashes, while a whale fluted and vented beyond the line-up. Michael Willis, one half of the Willis Brothers, his board shapers, spoke of Foo's death as an inspiration. "It's made me want to take off on even bigger, meaner, badder waves."
The first time I met Foo on water I was paddling out at Laniakea on the north shore of Oahu and he was riding in. As we passed he expressed his opinion that I was going to die. I had always thought of Foo as immortal, indestructible, like a Buddhist lamawho could choose the moment of his own dying. "He is immortal," Michael Willis insisted. "He blows James Dean and Elvis clean away And it was his choice to die that way."
I was reminded of something Mark Foo once said to me: "To die surfing a monster wave - that would be the ultimate way to go."
Mark Sheldon Foo, surfer: born Singapore 5 February 1958; died Mavericks, San Francisco 23 December 1994.
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