Mark Foo and 'The Unridden Realm'
It's hard to imagine now, but back in the early-1980's big wave surfing had become an ignored and often overlooked pasttime. A forgotten backwater of a larger current, big waves were being pursued by just a handful of surfers away from cameras and media glare.
At the time the pro tour was making huge corporate strides and the 'bums on seats' rule applied to surf contests. The ASP ran approximately 20 contests each year (as opposed 12 WT's now) and they were mostly held at popular urban beaches, such as Bondi and Huntington, in small, unspectacular waves.
Then, toward the mid-1980's, the attention began to refocus on Hawaii. There was a corporate element to this; the Hawaiian Billabong Pro and the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau both began during these years.
A developing rivalry between the world's top two big wave surfers – Ken Bradshaw and Mark Foo – also helped to reignite interest in big wave riding. Waimea Bay was their arena, as it held the biggest known waves. On this day 26 years ago, January 18th 1985, the 'largest waves ever encountered by surfers' came to the Bay.
It was a defining day for each surfer; Bradshaw was the only person to successfully ride a wave and he also swam two full laps of the Bay trying to get in, Foo went under a 50 foot close out and attempted to take off on a 25 footer.
That night, Foo penned a famous article, The Unridden Realm, that was printed in surf magazines around the world. Bradshaw was incensed at Foo's shameless glory hunting and their rivalry deepened. For the full story, seek out Andy Martin's excellent book 'Stealing the Wave'.
The following are extracts from The Unridden Realm. After Bradshaw has swum in the Bay is empty for a time till James 'Booby' Jones, Alec 'Ace Cool' Cooke, and JP Patterson paddle out. The surf is rising and Foo joins them...
'The interval between big sets is now under ten minutes. Another set appears and this one wave's a full on 30 feet and has us all scratching up the face and looking into the pit of this thing. It was a moment I will never forget. The thing about Waimea, besides the sheer size and steepness, is its massiveness and the volume of moving water. So this monster is pitching up and out and turns into the biggest tube I've never imagined. It looks like a huge cavern with half the ocean as its roof and sides. With so much power the water no longer seemed liquid, it looked and felt solid, like steel. At that instant I came to realise that there is no way to ride such a wave, no matter how long a board, no matter how early you get in, there is just too much energy and water moving and the impact would have surely killed.'
None of the surfers have yet ridden a wave and realise that the opportunity to do so is getting away from them. The surf just keeps getting bigger...
'I can hear screaming from the people on the point, but still can't see the next wave. I'm the furthest over and inside and make it over the top last to see this beast of a wave fill the entire horizon. I've just been looking at waves in the 25-30 foot range, which is as big as I've ever seen. This thing, or wave, or tsunami, is clearly twice as big as anything I've ever encountered. Easily. It's already standing and feathering a good 200 metres outside and all there is to see is this towering wall of water. Booby, who saw it first, is already digging out, but there is no way he or any of us will be able to get far enough out, so I decide to bolt for the other side of the Bay as far into the channel as possible. Of course I didn't think it would turn out to be a monstrous left which started from outside the Bay and ended up freight-training and pitching top to bottom all the way across the entire Bay. So here I am, I've paddled into the worst place, right into the highest peak, and all the other guys are diving for the bottom as the wave transforms into an avalanche of whitewater. Truly awesome.'
The Waimea lifeguards call the rescue helicopter as soon as they see the wave and begin to pick the surfers out. Booby gets in the basket first. Next is Ace Cool who gets lifted just before he 'became hamburger mince on the rocks'. Last is JP Patterson. The helicopter comes for Foo but he waves it away. He wants to ride a wave in and, after dodging a few close outs sets, races inside to pick off a 25 footer. He paddles into it...
'Technically and mentally I keep it all together as I freefall vertically a good 25 feet on my board, but the flight is too long and the wave too concave and I crash upon impact. This time I hit so hard I see stars and start bouncing down the face as a good portion of the Pacific starts bearing down on me. I feel the explosion of the lip, I hear my cherished 9'0", three-stringer, Lundy thruster snap and I feel my watch break away from my wrist. I feel myself getting sucked up and over for another thrashing. Things turn pretty gray for the rest, and when I resurface the helicopter is waiting. I gave it my best shot, the Bay was whitewater from end to end, so I jumped right in the basket for the ride home.'
In 1994 Mark Foo passed away while surfing 15-20 foot Mavericks in Northern California. He'd travelled there with Bradshaw, the two having buried the hatchet and become big wave partners. Foo's 'unridden realm' was destroyed by the game-changing advent of tow surfing. However, the wave that Foo, Cooke, Pattersen and Jones went under on January 18th 1985 is still the largest wave ever encountered by paddle surfers.
(The Unridden Realm was published in the Tracks Book of Big Surf, 1985)