Rescue helicopter.
A rescue helicopter searches for Kirk Passmore. Photo: Brent Bielmann

Late in the morning on Wednesday, Kirk Passmore fell on a set wave at one of Oahu's outer reefs and never came up. Along with some of the best surfers in the world, former big wave world champ Jamie Sterling was surfing with Passmore when he took off on that wave. We spoke with Jamie a few hours after the incident, while search and rescue were still looking for for Passmore. While not confirmed, considering the state in which Passmore was last seen, the time since the accident and the size of the surf, the interview was conducted with the assumption that Passmore had in fact died.

Interview by Taylor Paul

SURFING: Can you tell us what happened?
Jamie Sterling: Kirk paddled down with some of the gang from Waimea. Shortly thereafter, he took off on one of the biggest sets of the day with Pat Gudauskas. Kirk was a little deeper than Pat and he made the drop but had too much forward momentum at the bottom and just went over the handlebars. And then — I mean, we're just making assumptions at this point — when he surfaced it looked like he had broken his eardrum or maybe his neck because his feet popped up and he was facing down. He may have had vertigo, or lost his equilibrium. But I don't think his head broke the surface, and at that point the next wave passed over him and his board broke. So he wasn't attached to his board anymore and he wasn't wearing a vest or any floatation or anything. It's pretty hard to recover somebody even with a vest and…

Who was on water safety?
Kohl Christensen was taking turns with Danilo [Cuoto] on Kohl's Ski. When Kurt went down, Kohl was on the Ski and started searching for him right away. There was also Kiron Jabour's dad, João, another Brazilian guy and Hank Foto and Larry Haines on Skis. Right away, four Skis were searching for him.

I caught a wave on the next set, which came really quickly — like a minute after Kirk’s wave — and I ended up in the zone where everyone was looking and I tried to look too. But I felt pretty helpless looking for someone on a board with so much water moving around. At that point, about half the surfers disengaged from their session and started looking for him on their boards.

Who else was surfing?
Danilo, Ben Wilkinson, all three of the Florence brothers, Koa Rothman, Eli Olson, Jamie Mitchel, Nathan Fletcher, Pat and Tanner Gudauskas, Damien Hobgood. It was a pretty standout crew, along with three or four more underground guys, Kirk being one of them.

Was Kirk pretty experienced in big waves?
Yeah, he was an experienced big-wave surfer but he could have been more prepared. You know, nowadays there are flotation vests and other safety devices that we utilize. And when someone's unconscious and they're sinking, they need some flotation so that we can find them. But it's so unfortunate because with Kirk, he just disappeared.