I feel bad writing this, but when my thoughts turn to Jay Moriarity, I always, incorrectly, think he died during that horrible “Iron Cross” wipeout he took at Mavs, 20 years ago today. Take a minute and click over to Jay’s Encyclopedia of Surfing entry and watch the clip. I would be stressed getting pitched like that on a wave that’s merely as big as the lip of Jay’s wave. And I’m a grown man. Jay was only 16 years old. I’d like you to imagine your mental state if as a teenager you paddled out to full-throated Mavericks and merely sat in the channel. Now imagine talking yourself into paddling over a little bit to maybe, maybe, poach a shoulder. You know what you’d be doing? You’d be soiling your 5/4. I won’t even ask you to imagine nutting up to the point where you’d scratch into a 30-foot monster, only to be held up by a stiff offshore wind, get blown off your board, and driven with the lip to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. I won’t ask because if you thought about it long enough, you might never surf again.That was worst-case-scenario bad right there, it happened to a 16-year-old kid, and he surfaced and paddled right back out.
But Jay? He was fine. Surfaced. Took a few minutes to himself. Paddled back out with a smile. Makes me feel like an impostor for even calling myself a surfer.
What’s truly amazing is not that Jay survived, but that two decades later his wipeout is still one of the heaviest falls anybody has ever taken. Jay’s Mavericks adventure came at the dawn of the tow-surfing age and the worldwide search for super-big surf. A few years later Ken Bradshaw got whipped into a 50, or 60, or hell, maybe 70-foot wave on Oahu. Then Laird got his Millennium Wave at Teahupoo. Big, giant surf at Cortes Bank was tackled in 2001. By the mid-2000s, the paddle-in brigade were throwing themselves over the ledge at Jaws, and in 2012, the jet skis sat idle while paddling hellmen attacked huge, freaky-perfect surf at Cloudbreak during a lay day at the Fiji Pro.
These sessions have spawned plenty of horrifying moments—Niagara-like trips over the falls, mid-slab spinouts, imploding black-hole tuberides—but none have equaled Jay’s Iron Cross for sheer drama. That’s partly because, way back in 1994, we didn’t know you could survive a fall like that. That was worst-case-scenario bad right there, it happened to a 16-year-old kid, and he surfaced and paddled right back out. Grizzled big-wave vets saw Jay’s wipeout, saw him shrug it off, and pushed themselves a little deeper. And the risk factor didn’t seem to go up all that much. So we go all pop-eyed as Nathan Fletcher gets atomized on a massive wave at Teahupoo, but we no longer spend much time pondering how it’s possible that he’s still among the living. Guys (and girls) suffer incredible wipeouts all the time, and a week later they’re on YouTube chatting all about it.
Jay went on to have a nice big-wave surfing career, then drowned in a free-diving accident while vacationing in the Maldives. And maybe it isn’t fair to remember him this way, but to me, he’ll always be that teenager free-falling into oblivion, giving the big-wave surf community a glimpse into a future that was more nightmarish than anybody could imagine—but at the same time, safer than they could imagine too.
Screenshot: Eric Nelson