Surfing’s 4 Worst Wipeouts

Andy Irons Wipeout

“I’m not a dog.”  

I’ve said this many times when asked if I’m going to wear a leash before paddling out for a surf.  I think it’s a cool line.  Kinda dickish, but I still think it’s funny. 

Ho Stevie! Surfboard Leash

Truth be told, I don’t use the line as much anymore.  In my younger days, sure.  But now, nearing the wrong side of my 30s, I rarely use it – because I usually wear a leash.  

Leashes, in both a very literal and metaphorical way, represent something I value now more than ever before: SAFETY.  

Married and the father of a young daughter, the list of things I disapprove of has grown dramatically.  I’m not saying I’m a curmudgeon, but I’ve become curmudgeon-y.  

When I see a zitty gang of angsty teens riding those electric scooters in the road without helmets I snort and mutter under my breath, “Goddamn JDs (short for Juvenile Delinquents).”  

Scooter gang en route to surf.

When drivers don’t use the proper blinkage while turning I give ‘em a quick and agitated two-tapper (beep beep!) to let them know my objection to their actions.

When I’m at the park with my daughter and some rogue rugrat is trying to climb up the winding red slide while she is waiting to go down, I turn and mug that child’s parent with the meanest look I can muster.

My daughter is a bruiser who prefers to be in a diaper with scraped knees chasing our cat, Beetlejuice, around the garden.  When kids are climbing up the slide while she’s waiting to go down – she usually goes.  

She was at the local gymnastics gym this morning with her grandmother and had a head-on collision with another youth on the trampoline.  She hardly noticed.  She can take care of herself. 

My point is that I get so disappointed by the inconsiderate actions of probably well-meaning people.  They’re just oblivious, and that blatant disregard for those around you irks me to my core.  

In fact, I’ve found myself wishing for the power of telekinesis so that when I do spot someone doing something dickish (you didn’t think I was ever going to be able to use that word again, did you?) like change lanes without a blinker or take up two parking spaces or burn someone in the lineup or fling their leash-less board or speak rudely to a waiter or pee in the jacuzzi or walk up the slide when others are waiting to go down, I can hold out a hand, palm facing outwards and lift them up into the air, suspended like laundry in the wind.  

Telekinesis for surfers

There I would hold them until they (or their parents) admitted the errors of their inconsiderate ways.  Or, maybe, I’d set them in a tall tree to think about what they’ve done.  Or, perhaps, I’d just dunk them repeatedly in the ocean like a donut in a cup of coffee until they called uncle and promised to never do it again.  

Just a man with telekinesis teaching lessons.  Lessons about being considerate.  Lessons about being safe.  

That’s saying something to forego both the power of flight and breathing underwater.  That’s some serious curmudgeon-y behavior. 

In surfing, there are plenty of inconsiderations to be had. I believe there are three cardinal sins:

  1. Dropping in on/burning/snaking someone 
  2. Back-paddling 
  3. Blowin’ up the spot 

Cardinal sin of surfing number one.
Photo: OC Register

Not too far behind that is surfing without a leash when you shouldn’t be – especially on a crowded day.

Really, though, as I think about it, everyone should learn how to surf without a leash. That’s how you should start. Leash-less, but not at some crowded wave. Ideally, you’re learning on the inside with a soft top. We have that luxury in this day and age. I don’t know about the crowd-less wave in Southern California, but we definitely have the equipment to aid in a forgiving learning process.

I think surfing without a leash is, in some way, the ultimate test of a surfer.  Some part of me thinks it’s the ultimate way to ride a wave.  There’s no safety net.  The goal is to complete a ride without losing your board.  You have to surf within your skill.  There’s no ridiculous attempts at airs or turns.  You’re forced to surf the wave as it should be surfed by you.  There’s a purity to that.  

Should surfers have to earn the right to wear a leash?  Should you have to prove your competency without a leash, dealing with the consequences of losing your board before you’re awarded one? 

Should we be giving leashes out like belts in karate? 

I don’t know, but the essence of the leash or no leash is this: it’s important to have the right equipment for the each situation.

There’s something primal to be said about being in tune with your gear to take on the elements. 

Having the right and appropriate equipment for each and every surfing occasion, again, is a luxury we have today.  For us laymen, that can be as simple as a bucket hat to protect you from the sun on those small summer days; or a thick wetsuit for those cold winter ones; or just a sturdy leash to keep your stick attached to your leg. 

A good surf leash

Your equipment should be minimal at first, but as skill improves, and the task mounts in consequence, the equipment list also grows.

As we start diving into the progressive equipment in surfing today, I’m baffled by the lengths these professional athletes go to surf the waves they surf.  They’re spending thousands of hours and dollars on research and testing to develop the gear they need to push the envelope.  To ride 100 foot waves (the new season just came out).  

If we keep digging far enough through gear development and wave riding history – especially big wave riding – we inevitably come to a man they called “Da Bull”.  Greg Noll. 

Greg Noll reminds me of the cantankerous uncle who’s always near the barbecue with a ciggy and a beer, ready to share old, dirty stories that seem so distant they can’t possibly be true.

There’s a famous story about Noll, told beautifully by Matt Warsaw in his History of Surfing, that tells of a time when one of Noll’s employees sawed off his thumb at his surfboard factory. 

When the doctors said they couldn’t sew the thumb back on, Noll swiped it from one of the nurses, went back to his shop, dropped the thumb in some resin, and turned it into his new paperweight. 

Here’s a great article on Da Bull after his passing in 2021. 

Greg Noll eyeing Pipeline.
Photo: John Severson, 1964

It’s hard to imagine these old dogs paddling out to third reef Pipeline on eleven-foot boards weighing nearly fifty pounds.  No leashes.  No backup.  No vests.  No matter.  Still going.  

Greg Noll was one of the first to surf third reef Pipeline and there’s footage of it in an old film by Milton Blair called Blue Surf-ari.  

It’s wonderfully narrated by Hal Buckley, who starts the clip with, “For once, the weather bureau accurately prognosticated the storm surf.  A pot of gold is waiting for anyone crazy enough to meet the challenge.”

The clip from the film shows Ricky Griggs, Greg Noll, Mike Stang, and Charlie Galanto paddling out in huge surf for a chance at riding third reef for (what I believe to be) one of the first times ever.  

While the others stayed busy, Noll waited out the back for five hours.  He was known for that – his willingness to wait.  Finally, he caught one and rode it as far as he could before being clipped by the falling cascade of furious lip, sending his board skyhigh.  

Hal Buckley describes the ride masterfully, “Greg, with his feet far apart for maximum stability is driving far ahead of the giant comber.  He wants out, but there is no out.  The feathering top lip of the wave has entrapped him down inside. In spite of his fantastic speed the whole world is closing in on him.  Just up ahead, the steep upthrust catapults Greg into space. There!  And the green monster eats him alive.  Follow his board now as it reverses course up the wave and goes into orbit.  A fifty-pound elephant gun floating through space like a feather.” 


Noll touches on his patience and willingness to wait for a beast worthy of him swinging his elephant gun (colloquial for a board used to ride waves bigger than an elephant) into action in Legends of Surfing, where he recounts the infamous day at Makaha during the monster winter swell of 1969:

“By this time, the crowd in the water had thinned way down. I paddled about fifty yards away from the other guys to sit and do some more thinking. That’s my whole deal. I can wait. Like Peter Cole and Pat Curren, I’ve always been willing to wait for the bigger sets. I always preferred to wait it out, catch fewer waves but, I hoped, bigger ones…”

After letting the first wave of the set go, Noll turned and paddled hard into the second, which was even bigger.  

“You could have stacked two eighteen-wheel semis on top of each other against the face of that wave and still have had room left over to ride it,” Da Bull recalls. 

After screaming down the face, the massive section in front of him started to close out.  Noll pulled in and found himself in the coveted green room, though this one was less a room and more like a cave of despair.  He hoped he could punch out the backside of the wave as he was swallowed whole, but there was too much power and he was swept up in the angry flood of whitewater. 

He notes how intense the pressure was.  He thought his eardrums might pop out of his head.  When he finally did surface there were several more walls approaching.  In a wild turn, Da Bull then notes that he’s never been a very strong swimmer!  

Once he was clear of the impact zone, the waves had pushed him about three-hundred yards towards the rocky beach, and he still had another hundred yards to go.  At Makaha, if you don’t make the beach before the point, you’re lost in a minefield of rocks with no way to get in. 

As the current pulled him towards the rocks, Noll swam (again, not his strong suit!) hard for the shore.  He saw his good friend and chief lifeguard, the mayor of Makaha, Buffalo Keaulana, in his Jeep following him on the beach.  

Within fifty feet of the rocks, Noll finally flopped onto the sand.  Buffalo came up to him with two beers. He handed one to Noll and said, and I quote again from Noll’s tale in Legends of Surfing, “Good ting you wen make’em, Brudda. ‘Cause no way I was comin’ in afta you. I was just goin’ wave goodbye and say ‘Alooo-ha.’”

Buffalo and Da Bull sitting on the beach enjoying a cold one after one of them just experienced one of the worst wipeouts in surfing history.  It speaks to the mentality of hard-charging surfers.  There’s a screw loose there, and thank God it was – and continues to be so in surfers today who take on these waves. 

As an ode to those loose screws, I’ve compiled a few of the worst wipeouts in surfing over the years. 

Best Worst Wipeouts

1. Jay Moriarity’s Iron Cross at Mavericks (Half Moon Bay, California, 1994)

At just 16 years old, Jay Moriarity made a name for himself with this horrifying wipeout at Mavericks in the cold waters of Northern California.  The image made the cover of Surfer magazine. 

An accomplished waterman and angler, Jay began surfing Mavericks at age 15 under the guidance of his mentor Frosty Hesson.  Jay’s career was successful but short lived after passing away in a free diving accident in the Maldives a day before his 23rd birthday.  The film Chasing Mavericks released in 2012 chronicles Jay’s life.

2. Niccolo Porcella Over the Falls at Teahupo’o (Tahiti, French Polynesia, 2015).

Niccolo Porcella was born in Maui, grew up in Italy, then moved back to Maui to pursue a career as a professional kite surfer.  At a code orange swell in 2015, Porcella was towed into a mutant slab at the famed break. 

As you can see in the video, Porcella doesn’t have enough speed, digs a rail, and is instantly sucked over the falls and smashed into the reef.  Some of the headlines at the time: “Biggest Wipeout Ever,” “Heaviest Wipeout In Surfing History,” and “Man Escapes Death in Tahiti.” 

Porcella from an interview in 2015: “The beating that followed was the most violent thing I have ever felt in my life. It instantly tore apart my wetsuit and life vest. I hit the reef five times, got held under for a bit, popped up, and fought for a breath before the next wave landed on top of me. That second wave sent me straight into the reef on my back. Then there were two or three more before I finally washed into the lagoon.”

Remarkably, Porcella escaped with no serious injuries. 

Andrew Cotton’s Broken Back at Nazaré (Nazaré, Portugal, 2017)

At first, you almost think Cotton of the UK is going to outrun the wave and be just fine, but it then jacks up like an angry Titan and crashes on him right as he reaches the bottom.

He jumps from his board just before impact, but the explosion then launches a rag-doll Cotton some thirty feet in the air, before he smashes into the flats in front of the wave.  It engulfs him.  He surfaces and then has to take another fierce avalanche of water on the head before the ski can reach him, but that’s not the end of the trouble. 

In the soupy mess on the inside, the ski tries to take on a wall of whitewater but is turned around and flipped, ejecting both Cotton and the driver.  All three wash up on shore.  Cotton lays on the sand, clearly hurt and being tended to by the medical team. 

This all happens in a matter of minutes.  Cotton broke his back in the exchange.  For his daring, he was awarded WSL “Wipeout of the Year” at the Big Wave Awards in 2017/18.  He had this to say from his hospital bed: “Thanks to everyone who helped this morning,” he said. “Everyone was really calm, you guys really saved my back, which unfortunately is broken but definitely could be worse, so thank you.”

4. Andy. Irons at Pipeline (North Shore, Oahu, 1998)

“It was by far the worst wipeout I’ve ever had in my life.” – AI

So far we’ve seen wipeouts from some incredibly talented and accomplished big wave surfers, but there’s something different about seeing the absolute best and most talented World Tour surfers taking a pounding like AI does on this wave at Pipe. 

It should put it all into perspective if it hasn’t already.  This man is, arguably, the only person to knock the greatest of all time, Kelly Slater, on his heels.  Andy Irons won three consecutive world titles (2002, 2003, 2004).  Kelly was runner-up in 2003 and third in 2004.  Their rivalry was intense, and one of the most dynamic, enthralling chapters in professional surfing history. 

Andy can probably be credited with reigniting Slater’s fire for competitive surfing, and for three years Andy gave a highly motivated and in-tune Kelly all the smoke he could handle.  It was magic.  

Check out A Fly in the Champagne

On this wave at the Pipeline Masters in 1998 Andy, in his first year on tour, gets caught at the top of this chiropractor’s wet dream of a wave (so said because it’ll ya crack ya’ wide open!).  He tries to jump under the lip but the wave “jackknifes” and AI gets grabbed and sucked back over the falls. 

In the clip, we can hear both the nonchalance and excitement with which AI remembers the fall.  A fall that would kill most of us. 

Andy just saw things differently.  He did things differently.  He was a character and one of the best to ever do it.  We could use a little injection of him on the tour today, which, unless Slater is surfing, has become an oft bland and underwhelming product.

Kelly Slater and Pam Anderson on a walk.
“One more year!”

So what have I learned by exploring all of this? The history, the thumbs, the wipeouts, my curmudgeon-y behavior, all of it.  I’m not exactly sure, but I know that I do feel smaller than I did at the top of it. 

Even just reading the stories and watching the old clips of the wipeouts, I always feel humbled – and inadequate – yet motivated.  

I’m going to go swim some laps now.  I’ve got to get in shape. 

Father, surfer, poet.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here