Jay Moriarity's 'Iron Cross' wipeout at Mavericks

Stu Nettle
The Rearview Mirror

Twenty-five years ago today, Jay Moriarity paddled out to Mavericks and leapt into oblivion. It was midway through the best run of swell since the Northern Californian big wave spot was unveiled to the public in now legendary circumstances.

The wipeout launched Moriartity's star into orbit, leading to a successful - although brief - big wave career, and in 2012 a Hollywood biopic, Chasing Mavericks.

At the time it was considered one of the worst wipeouts in history, on par with Brock Little's forced dismount at the '91 Eddie, and it happened fifteen years before the first generation of inflatable vests were available to big wave surfers.

Four days later, Ken Bradsshaw and Mark Foo caught the red eye from Honolulu, each of them paddling out at Mavericks for the first time. Moriarity was in the lineup when the Hawaiians arrived. Foo caught three waves that morning, but didn't surface on the third. An hour later his lifeless body was pulled from the water near the harbour mouth.

Foo's death was the first in a string of big waves deaths, including Donny Solomon and Jim Brough, that by way of safety helped usher in tow surfing.

Moriarity also died in the ocean, however he was freediving not surfing. The accident happened in the Maldives when Moriarity was 22-years-old - a day before he was to turn 23.

In 2000, Matt Warshaw wrote at length about Moriarty's wipeout in 'Mavericks: The Story of Big Wave Surfing'. An excerpt is provided here:

Jay Moriarity had a different feeling inside - not so wonderful - as he lifted off the face of his giant wave, spread his arms, and hung like a marionette just ahead of the crest.

Ten minutes earlier Moriarity had paddle without hesitation from the starboard side of Lizzie-Lynn to the Mavericks lineup smiling and calling out “Hey!” to three or four surfers. He offered a curious, irony-free greeting to Evan Slater who returned from his awful wipeout just a few minutes earlier: “Evan! Fun out here, huh?” 

Then another set lifted into view, prompting a few moments of lineup shuffling and repositioning, and by luck or design Moriarity was on the spot for the first wave. Nothing but reflex now as he spun his board and began paddling, eyes nearly shut against the wind, barely conscious of the shouts of nearby surfers - one voice yelled “Go, Jay, go!” or, “No, Jay, no!”; he later couldn't remember which - all of whom were freaking at the growing size of Moriarity’s wave as he got to his feet.

Moriarty, thirty feet above the trough, levitated for a little more than a second. The wind then flipped his board back over the top of the wave, and the curl, distended and grossly thick, pitched forward and blotted Moriarity from view. For a half-beat, the wave poured forward, untouched and unmarked then Moriarity’s surfboard reappeared from the wave’s backslope and was swiftly pulled forward over the falls into the growing thundercloud of whitewater - a bad sign. Moriarity’s board was tethered to his ankle by a fifteen-foot, nearly half-inch thick urethane leash, and the only way it could have been brought back into play was if Moriarity himself, deep and unseen inside the wave, had been dragged down into Mavericks aptly named Pit.

(Bob Barbour/JLLSY)

The wave was now a thirty-foot levee of whitewater crowned by fifty-feet of swirling mist and vapour. Below the surface, energy and mass burst downward, creating a field of vertical flushing gyratory columns and Moriarity, trapped inside one of these columns, spun end-over-end until his back and shoulders were fixed against the ocean floor. He clenched and a bubble of oxygen rushed passed his teeth. Mavericks was a deep water break, he'd been told; nobody ever hit the bottom. The next wave would be overhead in another ten or twelve seconds and Moriarity wondered, if from this depth, he could get to the surface - to air - before it arrived. A two-wave hold down put a surfer one big step closer to drowning, and Moriarity had used this grim fact to inspire his training, but never had he imagined himself pinned to the rocks like an entomological display, trying to figure out if the overhead Neptunian rumble was from the diminishing first wave or the oncoming second.

He at least had his bearings. The trip down was disorienting, the water now dark, but Moriarity didn't have to pause to figure out which way to swim. Navigation is often a problem during a big wave wipeout. Underwater flips and turns can disable a surfer’s internal compass to the point where he might begin swimming for the surface only to bang head-first into the reef.

Moriarity pushed off and took a huge, sweeping breaststroke. He opened his eyes to near-opaque blackness. Four more strokes, five, legs in a flutter kick, exhaling slowly, eyes staring upward, stroke, the light becoming a diffuse grey-green, stroke, throat clamped shut, then one last thrust to break the surface - and he threw his head back, mouth stretched open. He'd been down for just over twenty seconds, but he'd beat the second wave - barely. Two quick breaths, and he hunched over defensively as the whitewater roared over, sending him on another underwater loop, shorter but just as violent. Pinpoints of light were zipping across his field of vision by the time he resurfaced.

Moriarity’s breath was deep and ragged. There was no third wave. His respiratory rate eased, and as his eyes refocused, he saw that his surfboard was broken in half: the smaller piece - the tail section - was still attached to his leash; the rest floated nearby. Evan Slater suddenly appeared, looking concerned. Did he need any help? Moriarity shook his head. No, he'd be okay. He swam over to the front half of the surfboard, hoisted himself on deck, and began slowly paddling back to Lizzie-Lynn.

In the late eighties, a surf magazine writer theorized that the essential requirement for big wave riding is not courage, or daring, or fitness, but a nonarousable imagination. Where an ordinary surfer, taking full measure of a wave like Mavericks will lose himself in one of the endless number of death-by-misadventure scenarios, the big-wave surfer, fantasy-free, paddles out with some degree of aplomb. And as the untroubled imagination reduces fear and anxiety beforehand, they also smooth things out afterward. Jay Moriarity, a week later, couldn't do much more than sketch out in the most obvious terms the big-wave vignette - generally described as the worst wipeout, or at least the worst looking wipeout, in surfing history - that soon appeared on the cover of Surfer and the front section of The New York Times magazine. “I started to stand up,” he told Surfer, “and thought, ‘This will be a cool wave.’ Then the whole thing ledged out and I had time to think, ‘Oh shit. This is not good.'”

But maybe that's unfair. Moriarity's banal reaction may have had less to do with a deficient imagination than with the general inarticulateness of sixteen-year-olds, or perhaps he was just following the form of big wave protocol that says, play it down, play it cool.

Either way, there was nothing banal about what Moriarity did for an encore that morning. After tossing the pieces of his broken board onto the deck of Lizzie Lynn, he took a short breather, grabbed his reserve board, ran a bar of sticky wax across the top for traction, and paddled back into the lineup.

Forty-five minutes later he caught another wave, nearly as big as the first one, and made it. In the next five hours he caught eight more waves - and made them all.

Watch Jay's wave in full, with the wipeout beginning at the thirty second mark

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Comments

channel-bottom's picture
channel-bottom's picture
channel-bottom Thursday, 19 Dec 2019 at 1:58pm

Surf stories from writers like Warshaw are epic. I can't imagine tennis, cricket or any other activity having such great stories like this.

loungelizard's picture
loungelizard's picture
loungelizard Thursday, 19 Dec 2019 at 3:56pm

first chapter of andre agassi's autobiography describing a match with player whose name i cant remember (not a top 4 ) is incredible writing and worth searching for. the rest of the book also excellent until he meets steffi graf half-way through. (but agree theres nothing like a wipeout tale.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Thursday, 19 Dec 2019 at 4:07pm

Each sport to their own, but some of Jon Krakouer's climbing stuff is epic, I've also read great tennis journalism - especially about the Federer, Nadal, Djokovic rivalry - in the heavy-hitting US literary periodicals like the New Yorker, and you don't have to be a fan to appreciate CLR James' 'Beyond a Boundary' about the sociology of sport - in that case cricket.

Jono's picture
Jono's picture
Jono Thursday, 19 Dec 2019 at 4:17pm

Borg vs McEnroe was a movie that flew under the radar last year. Decent flick about a very interesting 80's tennis rivalry that I didn't know much about.

shoredump's picture
shoredump's picture
shoredump Thursday, 19 Dec 2019 at 4:25pm

Jon Krakouer agree on that for sure

channel-bottom's picture
channel-bottom's picture
channel-bottom Thursday, 19 Dec 2019 at 5:31pm

Thanks for the tips, will search out Krakouer's stuff.

Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean Friday, 20 Dec 2019 at 1:48am

Into thin air......

ojackojacko's picture
ojackojacko's picture
ojackojacko Saturday, 21 Dec 2019 at 8:22am

hey cb. there are some very good cricket writers- they are talented authors and write up particular innings, matches, careers as epic challenges and events. and cricket has the time for good story material to unfold (a bit like a lot of surfing is sitting and waiting in the lineup). u get time for chat, interaction, drama to build. i love cricket but i agree with you that the subject matter that cricket authors have to work with cannot compare to big wave wipeouts (or other heavy stories about the ocean)

web-cams-save-me-petrol's picture
web-cams-save-me-petrol's picture
web-cams-save-m... Saturday, 21 Dec 2019 at 1:23pm

Mountaineering has a few classic stories that match this great one. Touching the Void springs to mind.

jacksprat's picture
jacksprat's picture
jacksprat Sunday, 22 Dec 2019 at 10:39am

Many pastimes have such adventure and writing done about the experience. Read biographies about Reinhold Messner, Nikki Lauda or more directly Bodyline, Lillee/Thomson, John Newcombe, Rod Laver just to name just a few.

sleekit's picture
sleekit's picture
sleekit Monday, 23 Dec 2019 at 9:39am

Completely agree, as ocean dwellers a good surf yarn will always take some beating. If you are keen to see how well it can be done for other sports, ask your Mrs to get you David Foster Wallace’s Sting Theory for Christmas.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Thursday, 19 Dec 2019 at 2:34pm

One other thing, not so much about the wipeout but the media coverage:

Jay's wipeout was on 19th December, 1994, the Surfer magazine is May, 1995.

I lived through it but the change of pace still shocks me. Today that wave would be on Instagram in, what, five minutes? Ten, maybe?

Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean Thursday, 19 Dec 2019 at 3:32pm

I had that issue.
Definately took some inspiration from that article.
Heavy water.
What happened free diving?
They say people stay down too long free diving and when they get to the surface their body forgets to breath.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Thursday, 19 Dec 2019 at 3:45pm

Shallow-water blackout.

jimmy-dell's picture
jimmy-dell's picture
jimmy-dell Thursday, 19 Dec 2019 at 2:37pm

I was a similar age at the time this event happened and it was formative moment for me. It certainly provided a backdrop for how I'd approach bigger surf into the future. I figured if Jay, at 16, could survive such a thrashing, so could I. Ah the brash confidence, (and fitness driven ego!) of Youth.

monkeyboy's picture
monkeyboy's picture
monkeyboy Thursday, 19 Dec 2019 at 3:09pm

vale Jay.

boxright's picture
boxright's picture
boxright Thursday, 19 Dec 2019 at 3:28pm

Heres another really good photo of Jay. Look how much (how little) of his board is in the water.

simba's picture
simba's picture
simba Thursday, 19 Dec 2019 at 3:38pm

Jay died at Lohis in the maldives doing a breath hold,must have suffered shallow water blackout.

blower's picture
blower's picture
blower Thursday, 19 Dec 2019 at 7:31pm

In my mid twenties at the time and surfing a few waves we thought were pretty heavy then saw this cover photo and the ensuing coverage... put plenty of perspective on our tiddly winks.

mysto83's picture
mysto83's picture
mysto83 Thursday, 19 Dec 2019 at 8:04pm

Remember that Surfer mag cover vividly. Nightmarish vision to my grom self. Think that is Chris Brown in foreground of cover shot. RIP Jay and CB

Distracted's picture
Distracted's picture
Distracted Thursday, 19 Dec 2019 at 10:05pm

Talking about iconic photo shots. Had this one up on my wall for a while.

D-Rex's picture
D-Rex's picture
D-Rex Friday, 20 Dec 2019 at 10:33pm

Fantastic read and oh so sad that Jay met his maker so prematurely. None of these pics is 'the iron cross' pic however. My recollection was of Jay's body hidden from view behind his vertical board and only his outstretched arms visible.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Saturday, 21 Dec 2019 at 7:18am

You can see it in the video. Next shot in the sequence.

Remigogo's picture
Remigogo's picture
Remigogo Saturday, 21 Dec 2019 at 8:28am

Blew my mind at the time to think that a fella of such a young age would ride waves so bloody big. Seemingly without fear.

Must be common place nowadays?

Shaggydagz's picture
Shaggydagz's picture
Shaggydagz Saturday, 21 Dec 2019 at 10:27am

I had the t-shirt.. A big print on the front of the iconic photo

D-Rex's picture
D-Rex's picture
D-Rex Sunday, 22 Dec 2019 at 8:43pm