Stab Magazine | How has no one died at Jaws?

How has no one died at Jaws?

Words by Craig Jarvis  Progression in our sport is rampant. Ten years ago Jaws was only being ridden to any success by Laird Hamilton and Buzzy Kerbox, who’d get towed in so far on the shoulder that their first moves were always cutting back. It went in leaps and bounds, and in 2012 the world’s best […]

news // Mar 8, 2016
Words by stab
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Words by Craig Jarvis 

Progression in our sport is rampant. Ten years ago Jaws was only being ridden to any success by Laird Hamilton and Buzzy Kerbox, who’d get towed in so far on the shoulder that their first moves were always cutting back.

It went in leaps and bounds, and in 2012 the world’s best surfers were out there and paddling. The tow-in game was discarded, it was paddle power only. Game on.

In the meantime, however, there had been a few big wave surfing deaths. Peter Davi, Ghost Trees, 2007, Sion Milosky, Mavericks 2011, Kirk Passmore, Alligators, Hawaii 2013, Alec Cook, Hawaii, November 2015.

Then the big wave surfing scene had another giant leap when the Big Wave Tour held their most impressive and spectacular event at Jaws, the Pe’ahi Challenge. Billy Kemper won it, and apart from one tragic wipeout and subsequent shoulder separation to Mark Matthews there were no real injuries.


Right hand drag to the exact right view. Photo: Tom Servais

Over the last week or so, another great swell rumbled though and the best surfers in the world were on it. They charged. They fell from the sky, some with their boards and some without, in a vulgar display of possibly the worst wipeouts in the history of the sport.

Despite so many people saying to themselves, ‘jesusfuckenchrist there is no way anybody could survive that’ as they watched it all go down, no one died.

To take it one step further, there were surfers out there who were not the best big wave surfers in the world. There were surfers out there way beyond their prime, who had extra poundage around their waists, who hadn’t seen the inside of a gym or a sauna in years. These fitness-challenged folk also charged, took poundings and came up for air with desperate looks on their faces.

Is Jaws soft? Is it the metrosexual younger brother of the big wave family? Does it lack in throb compared to its more robust brothers like Mavericks and Escondido? Why does nobody die when it looks like they should? Is this big wave surfing thing a bit of a farce, a bloated combination of subtle Photoshop polishes and clever video angles?

Here’s how Albee Layer and Shane Dorian see it.

On dying at Pe’ahi:
Albee: There are two key elements to having people not die at Jaws. The fact it’s warm water is huge, it really helps people not to panic. Another is that instead of emptying to deep water, Jaws gets shallower. What tends to happen, if you’re lucky, is that you get pushed really far in on the first wave which means you get held down very long but once you make it to the surface the second or third wave should be a bit smaller. Make no mistake, a lot of the reason why none of us have died out there is good luck because it could easily take a life.

Shane: All the deaths were before inflatable safety suits, or people who were not wearing them, not even foam flotation. Most deaths are from being under water and not being found for too long. If your suit is inflated you can’t really be under longer than a minute and as soon as you resurface you’re much easier to find by water safety. So even though bigger waves than ever are being ridden, it’s not as dangerous as it used to be.


No one likes feeling like a hotdog in a hallway, some just can’t help it. Photo: Tom Servais

On Jaws power:
Albee: It’s more turbulent and a more violent beating than I’ve found anywhere else on the planet. Thing is, sometimes it’s so turbulent that when you’re getting cycled through it, you find your way to the surface for a random breath before going back down.

Shane: When I get caught inside in warm water it’s a brutal beating but I can usually paddle back out and surf normally. But when I get beat down in a wetsuit and have to fight to get to the surface in a wetsuit, it drains me to the point where I don’t want to surf anymore.

On the safety team:
Albee: Despite their incredible skills, if you’re going to drown most time the safety team will be helpless because you’ll just stay under water.

On comparisons:
Shane: Jaws is super heavy, and one of the scariest when it’s really flexing. On those 15-18 foot sunny glassy days it’s not too heavy but neither is Mavericks when it’s like that.

I prefer Jaws because I like the large lineup; everyone is more spread out and not huddled together. I also like that it’s not cold and you’re not wearing a full suit and booties and a hood. It is a bit more predictable than say Mavericks. If it looks hollow at Mavericks it’ll probably clamp, but if it looks like a hollow one at Jaws it’ll probably spit its guts out.

On life-and-death situations:
Albee: There are several life-threatening situations every swell but the stories go untold because they aren’t the household name guys most the time. Two incidents really stand out this year. One with this guy, I’m not sure of his name but he was under for two waves, barely got a breath before the third and the water safety had to jump off and get him because he didn’t have enough strength to pull himself up on the sled. Another was James Taylor, who’s a great surfer. He fell on the last really big wave of the evening and pulled his vest, got pinned to the bottom, popped his vest, blew his eardrum and then his leash broke. Absolute worse case scenario, he had no way of knowing which way was up or how to get there. He came up in between two waves and was swimming diagonally, totally lost, and after three waves in a row I have no idea how he kept finding the surface. His unborn child will have super human strengh, I think…


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