Quick Take:

Since his death in 2001, Jay Moriarity’s legend has continued to grow as a rare talent taken too soon, and a soul of kindness. His iconic wipeout at Mavericks at age 16 remains one of the most memorable moments in surfing.

Jay Moriarity’s 23rd birthday dawned without him.

The day before — June 15, 2001 — the brilliant young surfer from Santa Cruz’s Eastside was on the east side of the world, free diving in the Indian Ocean. That’s the practice of diving to the ocean floor without an oxygen tank.

In Jay’s case, free diving was part of a regimen to make him a better surfer, that he might better prepare for those moments when the furious ocean would hold him down for dangerously long periods or rob him of the ability to know which way was up.

The Surfer magazine cover, and photo captured by Santa Cruz photographer Bob Barbour.
The Surfer magazine cover, and photo captured by Santa Cruz photographer Bob Barbour. Credit: Surfer magazine

Such scenarios were not merely theoretical for him. A few years before, when he was only 16, taking on a monstrous wave at Mavericks, he endured a wipeout that became part of California surfing lore, getting sucked over the falls and into the mouth of the wave like a krill into the mouth of whale.

Free diving allowed him to push himself to the very edge of his ability to hold his breath. Until that day in the Maldives, just hours before he was to turn 23, when he went beyond the edge.

Twenty years after his drowning death, there are several ways to approach the legend of Jay Moriarity. He is still remembered for his almost supernatural talent in the water and his soulful style of surfing. He is remarkable for what he accomplished in his short life, taking on California’s biggest wave at an age when most people are still struggling to master driving a car.

He is a seminal figure in the history of Mavericks, in that he emerged in the early years after the break was first discovered. The epic wipeout at Mavericks — “It was the worst thing any of us had ever seen,” said surfer/filmmaker Grant Washburn — turned Jay into an icon of resilience and fearlessness.

Ultimately, though, what so many who knew him return to in their memory banks is his personality: an amiable but knowing mellowness, a spirit of generosity and gratitude, a sense of in-the-moment presence, and a methodical commitment to push himself to the limits of experience and ability.

Jay in his happy place at Mavericks.
Jay in his happy place at Mavericks. Credit: Via Chasing Mavericks

He embodied a fully engaged attitude toward life that inspired the catchphrase that survived him: “Live Like Jay.”

His story is so irresistible that even Hollywood came calling with the 2012 film “Chasing Mavericks” to tell the story of Jay, his young wife, Kim, and his mentor, Frosty Hesson.

It’s all too easy for surf enthusiasts and screenwriters (not to mention journalists) to exaggerate each or all of these factors, and many in the surfing world will gripe that the legend of Jay has robbed him a bit of his humanity.

“You know, he wasn’t walking around handing out flowers all day to people,” said Westside surfer and friend Zach Wormhoudt, who had a small part in “Chasing Mavericks.” “He was a good guy, 100 percent, and a great friend, an endearing friend. But the mega story that’s been built around him with the movie and all that stuff goes a little too far sometimes.”

Along with riding big waves, Jay had a gift for longboard style.
Along with riding big waves, Jay had a gift for longboard style. Credit: Courtesy Boots McGhee

Veteran big-wave surfer Jeff Clark, known for pioneering the Mavericks break, has countless memories and anecdotes of towing in with Jay at Mavericks when few were watching, if anyone. “With Jay, it was never about reckless abandon,” said Clark. “He was always very thoughtful about everything he did out there.” Many of Clark’s stories have to do with Jay spending long hours in the water studying the wave, learning it, sometimes well past sunset.

Washburn remembers the moments when he and other surfers were preparing to face down Mavericks, and how different Jay’s approach was from anyone else’s. “He’d be saying, ‘Hey, look at that sunrise.’ And I’m thinking, what the heck? We’re about to go drown right now, we got to get our act together, and I got my game face on, and he’s like, ‘Check out those clouds.’”

Washburn said that Jay had little interest in the contests or the sponsorships or the other things that surfers talked about among themselves in the lineup or in the parking lot between sessions. His interests even went beyond surfing per se, into the wide variety of experiencing and interacting with the world.

“I think he was the first guy (in big-wave surfing) doing that Brazilian jiu-jitsu stuff, which they all do now. And he was the first guy I noticed doing the free diving, and the skydiving, and spearfishing,” Washburn said. “We’d be out there (in the water) waiting for the wind to shift or whatever, and he’s talking about spearfishing, and he was equally excited talking about that stuff as he was about the wave.”

The sentiment became a local mantra.
The sentiment became a local mantra. Credit: Via Chasing Mavericks

Filmmaker Curt Myers was a close-up witness to Jay’s mastery, having shot as much footage of him in the water as anyone. “If you watch someone surf enough, you can see their personality,” said Myers. “And it was like that with Jay. He just exuded happiness and joy and basically comfort. He was comfortable out there. I think it was (well-known surfer) Skindog (Collins) who said in one of our movies that Jay was going to be the best big-wave rider, period. That was just his destiny.”

In 2001, Myers and his filmmaking partner Eric W. Nelson had just finished the surf film “Whipped,” which featured footage of Jay at Mavericks. They learned of the accident that killed him just as the film was being released. They tacked on a touching tribute to the martyred surfer at the end of the film, then set up a series of sold-out screenings at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz, all to benefit Kim Moriarity.

Kim Moriarity, surrounded by hundreds who paddled out for Jay, prepares to spread her husband's ashes off Pleasure Point.
Kim Moriarity, surrounded by hundreds who paddled out for Jay, prepares to spread her husband’s ashes off Pleasure Point. Credit: Courtesy Boots McGhee

“We were a week away from showing at the Rio when we got word that he’d passed away,” said Nelson, who had interviewed Jay several times. “Then, we were all, ‘What are we going to do now?’ So we were under the gun. I went down to Santa Cruz and interviewed all these people and did a tribute to him. Then, we just turned it into a fundraiser.”

One of the many ironies of Jay’s life is that he’s so well known for a mistake. His wipeout in the winter of 1994 occurred with many witnesses, including Santa Cruz photographer Bob Barbour, whose famous magazine-cover photo was instantly an iconic image of the wildness of Mavericks. It also happened days before another legendary surfer, Hawaiian Mark Foo, died in the water after a wipeout.

The moment, captured from the cliff above Pillar Point.
The moment, captured from the cliff above Pillar Point. Credit: Via Powerline Productions

“He hated to be known for that,” Nelson said of Jay, “because he hardly ever fell. He wiped out that Monday and then the big wipeout a couple of days later, and then he basically never fell again. That’s how I remember it. I know if you ever brought it up in conversation, he wasn’t too happy.”

“I had recurring nightmares,” said Washburn, “and it was exactly his wipeout, because you could feel that that’s exactly what could happen to you.”

What’s also remarkable about the wipeout is how Jay reacted. After surfacing, he paddled right back out to catch another wave.

“It was like a fastball to the inside,” said Washburn, “and if you’re not quick enough, you’ll just miss it by a whisker. But how he reacted, I mean, the Wipeout would have always been the Wipeout, but there would not have been this huge mystique (if he had not gone out again).

“If you just go out and eat it, well, lots of guys have done that. But Jay was building on it and learning from it. The Wipeout was a real blunder and he was a much better surfer than that. But he was just stubborn. He was that not-going-to-take-no-for-an-answer kid.”

Washburn, who named his second daughter in honor of Jay, said that the mystique of Jay stems from his ability to combine the best of youth and experience, both in the water and out. Plenty of young surfers show natural talent and plenty of older surfers learn the nuance and essence of the art of surfing. But only one person, in his experience, brought both together.

Jay on a solid one at Mavericks.
Jay on a solid one at Mavericks. Credit: Via Powerline Productions

“The 16-year-old who has the maturity of the 30-40-year-old, that kind of personality is rare,” he said. “Usually, you know the body is young and strong, but the mind is, like, hey, let’s get it together.”

Wormhoudt knew Jay mostly through their shared love of Mavericks. As a Westsider, Wormhoudt didn’t see much of the Eastside kids like Jay. But at Mavericks, he saw a superstar.

“There are guys who rack up a lot of glory for their major wipeouts, but then have kind of mediocre success,” said Wormhoudt. “But with Jay, it was the other way around. He had that spectacular wipeout, but he backed it up with some of the best surfing out there. And here we are 20 years later, and, just to think, what would he have become? Where was he going with all this?

“Maybe he would have suffered some other tragic fate later on, because he was so good that he just kept pushing until he ran up against a wall somewhere. Part of me wonders, he was always going so hard that maybe his life was not meant to be that long.”

The “Live Like Jay” movement has kept his memory, his example, and his legend in the minds of many in Santa Cruz and in the larger surfing world. But the annual Jay Race, a paddleboard race across the Monterey Bay, will not be formally held this year.

The buzz that consumed Pleasure Point during the shooting of and after the release of “Chasing Mavericks” has subsided. Whether Jay is known by young surfers not even around during his lifetime is a question with a different answer depending on whom you ask.

Chasing Mavericks

Wormhoudt said he doesn’t see too much evidence that Jay has survived as surfing’s Michael Jordan among young surfers. “People fade pretty quick,” he said. “I mean, you could be standing right next to (Westside surf legend) Richard Schmidt on West Cliff Drive and as a 14-year-old kid surfer, you might know his name, maybe. But even then, you wouldn’t know much about what he’s achieved in big-wave surfing.”

But “Chasing Mavericks” — which gets decidedly mixed reviews from those in the Santa Cruz surfing community — has had a reach. “Ironically,” said Wormhoudt, “there might be more kids in Iowa watching the movie who know more about Jay than the younger generation of kids surfing here.”

Beyond all the amazing surfing prowess, beyond the training and instinctual feel that so characterized Moriarity’s career as a waterman, everyone who knew him comes back to a kind of joy in living every day. Whether on a surfboard or not, he had an almost spiritual awareness that every day is a chance to push your experience deeper into the magic of living.

“People often go, ‘Was he really as nice as they say he was?’” said Eric Nelson. “And I say, ‘Better.’ You know, he was very humble and very easygoing. I don’t think he ever said no to anyone. He was just a guy who couldn’t believe his luck, that was he was paid to be a surfer.”

“Anyone can be a good waterman,” said Jeff Clark. “It takes a lot of work, but anybody can be the best at this craft or that. With Jay, it was about being a better human being, to live your life with love and openness all the time. That’s very hard to do.”

Wallace reports and writes not only across his familiar areas of deep interest — including arts, entertainment and culture — but also is chronicling for Lookout the challenges the people of Santa Cruz...