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In Memoriam: To the Fallen
February 13, 1997
Twenty-five years ago today (February 13, 1997,) The Bay started out as a beautiful day of large (but not giant) clean surf, but around 11 or so in the morning, the waves got a lot bigger. The Bay closed out with a few 25’ plus monsters and things started to get a little crazy. Some of the surfers who had paddled out to relatively mellow, easy Waimea at about 12’-15’ (what the old timers call “Pinballs”) found themselves in the midst of what had suddenly transformed into the Real Deal — Do Or Die, Death Defying Waimea Bay in all its terror and glory. It happens all the time.
From the beach, before I paddled out, I saw some guys (who shall remain unnamed here for now) instantly terrorized and in way over their heads, scratching for their lives over 50’ plus wave faces that shut down the entire Bay. One guy in particular, a tattooed Brazilian, got sucked over and across the Bay toward the infamous, deadly “Coffin Corner,” near the rocks. He had given up. His body language made that apparent as he simply sat on his board helplessly looking out to sea. At this moment I witnessed one of the most daring and impressive water rescues I had ever seen — and to this day it’s the most amazing rescue I’ve seen. Longtime Waimea lifeguard and regular surfer Dave Yester sprinted from the Lifeguard tower to the paddle-out zone near the Kam Highway (on the Northeast side), grabbed the rescue board, hit the shorebreak (which was easy 20’ faces and death-defying in itself), sprint paddled across The Bay (by himself — no jet-ski support or helicopters that day), retrieved the hapless soul, and bravely paddled him back to the paddle-out corner (against a raging rip current) to the beach. Yester saved this guy’s life, to be sure. Just a part of the job.
Anyway, the in-between sets (like the photos here: first shot above is of Greg Russ (RIP) and me,1 second shot below of Clark Abbey and me) throbbed with powerful majesty. It wasn’t even that crowded, just the underground: including (but not necessarily limited to) Owl Chapman, Mel Kinney, Greg Quinn, Blake Reynolds, Paul Moreno, Dave Yester, Chris Owens, etc. We were having a blast! I probably caught 20 set waves that afternoon and made every one of them. I was in the Zone.
Unfortunately, at the same time, about a mile or so down the coast, at Outside Alligators Outer Reef, Todd Chesser — along with Cody Graham and Aaron Lambert — attempted to paddle out just as the surf jumped in size only to get mercilessly caught inside by a giant set. Chesser drown, killed at impact. Aaron and Cody were so traumatized by the tragic experience that they basically quit surfing (not just big waves) after that. The ocean does that to some people for very understandable and altogether rational reasons.
Chesser’s drowning that day was beyond heavy and served as yet another grim milestone (Donnie Solomon had drown at The Bay only two years before in 1995 — I was out surfing that day as well — and Jim Broach had simply disappeared out at Phantoms in 1993 on another massive day in which I was present and partook2) in modern North Shore big wave surfing history. That history can be traced back to 1943, when big-wave pioneers Woody Brown (inventor of the modern catamaran) and Dickie Cross got caught a mile or more outside closed out Sunset Beach and had to paddle three miles down the coast to Waimea Bay (navigating a series of treacherous outer reefs along the way: Outside Pupukea, Third Reef Pipeline, Outside Rock Piles a.k.a. “Jose’s Reef,” Outer Log Cabins) — only to find The Bay itself closed out when they finally got there. Desperate, they tried to catch a wave in just after the sun had set. Woody made it (naked on the empty beach all by himself); Dickie didn’t (no body, no board, nothing). He was Gone.
Anyway, it’s always a fine line between Death and Glory out in the ocean, especially in large surf. This day we (Greg, Clark, Owl, the Brazilian guy, Blake, and the others I surfed with) were lucky, although sadly Todd was not. We all know the risks involved in any event and proceed accordingly. No one should feel too sorry for those who pay the “ultimate price for the ultimate thrill” (quoting another fallen big wave rider: Mark Foo, who drown at Mavericks in 1994), for in the final analysis we are doing precisely what we want and intend. It’s those that survive the fallen that we must have concern for, they suffer the loss of someone they loved. And everyone is some mother’s and father’s child . . . if not also someone’s father, brother, or friend. So it goes.