Grieving in Wake of Fatality at Pipeline

Times Staff Writer

The swell that delivered large and powerful waves to Hawaii’s north-facing beaches Friday began to subside as hundreds of surfers awoke Saturday in mourning.

The death Friday of popular surfer Malik Joyeux at Banzai Pipeline cast a pall over the islands. But it was especially evident along Oahu’s North Shore, often called the seven-mile miracle because of steady wintertime waves that lure surfers from around the world.

“Everybody around here, from surfers to lifeguards to friends of his ... are really grieving right now,” said Pat Kelly, a lifeguard lieutenant with Hawaii’s Ocean Safety Division. “It just shows that this can happen to anybody.”


The demise of a pro surfer known for his prowess on big waves underscores the danger associated with a sport in which athletes do not generally wear helmets or flotation vests.

At Pipeline, where hollow waves break thunderously over a shallow coral reef, increasing crowds in recent years have made surfing there even more dangerous because surfers, who constantly jockey for prime position, are taking off deeper on the shoulder than they otherwise would.

“The wave is intimidating enough, and with all those people in the way it can distract from your focus,” Kelly said.

Nobody knows exactly what happened to Joyeux, who lived on Moorea in French Polynesia, in the moments after what witnesses described as a violent wipeout.

Joyeux, 25, who had hoped to compete in the upcoming Rip Curl Pro Pipeline Masters, was one of about 60 surfers scrambling to catch six- to eight-foot waves -- whose faces measured nearly 15 feet -- breaking over Pipeline’s first reef.

He took off deep on one of the larger waves and the thick lip of water, throwing out over the reef, pounded the surfer as he was attempting a bottom turn. Its force broke Joyeux’s board in two and tore his leash from his ankle.

He failed to surface and a widespread rescue attempt was launched by lifeguards, surfers and scores of people watching from the beach. Many of them swam out and drifted in the current, probing with their feet. About 10 minutes passed before one of them discovered Joyeux’s body underwater, 200 yards east of the surf break.

Efforts to revive him failed. His death was the second this year at Pipeline. The other, in February, involved photographer Jon Mozo.

“All I know is that he was an insane brother,” Raimana Van Bastolaer said of his close friend. Van Bastolaer and Joyeux had gained fame using Jet Skis and boards with foot straps to “tow-surf” into waves at Teahupoo in Tahiti.

Kelly, a North Shore lifeguard for 25 years, said there “have been only a few” fatalities during his time at Pipeline, where only paddle surfing is allowed. “But we’ve brought many people back to life that have been underwater for long periods,” he added. “And there have been lots of serious injuries.”

Laird Hamilton, perhaps the world’s preeminent big-wave surfer, described Joyeux as “a very positive and happy person, always stoked.” Hamilton, who now lives on Maui, grew up on Oahu surfing Pipeline and said he was not shocked that a top-caliber surfer had lost his life there.

“It’s a bone crusher,” he said of a wave that jacks up so suddenly and steeply that surfers often get hung up on the face and are sent with the lip over the falls and onto the reef.

“I saw guys carried out of Pipeline daily,” Hamilton said. “I saw one guy who had the top of his scalp torn off like a boiled egg after it’s been cut with a knife. I’ve seen guys with broken arms, broken backs and even broken necks. I once went over [the falls] and landed on my board and split my head open like it was tomahawked.

“Now with the crowds you have people putting themselves into more critical positions, going deeper and deeper, and other guys dropping in on you. The story goes on and on.... “

Hamilton said tow-surfers who ride the larger waves at outer reefs wear flotation vests because long hold-downs after wipeouts would otherwise drown surfers. He suggested that such a vest may have saved Joyeux’s life. Kelly said that had Joyeux’s leash not been torn off, his body would have remained attached to his board and easier to locate.

Joyeux’s death has put a damper on the Pipeline Masters, the season-ending third leg of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, which begins Thursday. But the premier surfing contest of the season, celebrating its 35th anniversary, will go on as planned.

Said Sunny Garcia, a World Championship Tour veteran known for his fearlessness at Pipeline: “I’ve been knocked out and scraped on that reef more times than I care to remember. But I just put some duct tape over my injuries and go back out.”

Thomas reported from Los Angeles.