Since long before tow-in lunatics began their assault at Mavericks and Teahupoo, Pipeline has held the reputation of being the deadliest wave in the surfing world. Sadly, that reputation was further confirmed this last Friday as Pipe claimed a victim, Japanese surfer Moto Watanabe. Watanabe, an aspiring pro with limited Pipe experience, suffered severe injuries to the head and neck while surfing in particularly nasty conditions on January 19th.

The swell that Monday morning was still running at 8-12 feet as it had the day before, but the conditions had deteriorated as the swell turned more north and a weird bumpiness set in. Without a spot in the tight Pipeline pecking order, a zealous Watanabe was forced to compete tooth and nail for the undesirable scrap waves. According to East Coast ripper and self-described Pipe “scrapper” Jesse Hines, who had been chatting with Watanabe just seconds before the fateful eight-footer loomed, “the wave looked good at first, but just transformed into a monster. Even a boogie-boarder couldn’t have made that drop.” Watanabe grabbed his rail and tried to power his way backside into the left, but the wave hurled itself outward, the lip seemingly thicker than the wave was tall. He was wiped out in the lip by a bump and was driven head-first into his board in only three feet of water. Ironically, this was the first season at Pipe that he had chosen not to wear a helmet.

No one saw him for over five minutes. Finally, a group of surfers who were caught inside, including Floridians Matt Beacham, Will Tant, and Noah Snyder, spotted him and put their own safety at risk to pull an unconscious Watanabe to shore. As paramedics struggled to treat and stabilize him, those in the lineup watched in heavy silence. He stopped breathing and then slipped into a coma during the ambulance ride to the emergency room.

Watanabe’s parents flew from Japan to be at his bedside along with his girlfriend, and several of the brave surfers who had helped rescue him made visits to the hospital to offer their prayers for his recovery. But after 11 days and the doctor’s grim prognosis, his parents made the difficult decision to end his life support. He passed that night, January 29th.

For those who witnessed the wipeout and the aftermath like Hines and Snyder, the accident has brought the danger of surfing Pipe back into perspective. Says Hines, “None of us had ever been that close to death before…it was sobering to be talking with this healthy young guy one minute, and to see him unconscious and foaming on the beach the next.”