Story by Michael Shapiro
Photo by Erik Aeder
Some things you have to be taught not to do: Don’t run with scissors. Don’t stick a fork in a toaster. Don’t post naked pictures to your Facebook page. Other things you know innately not to do: Don’t slap an alligator. Don’t jump out of a plane without a parachute. And for the love of all things holy, don’t surf Jaws in the dark.
But that’s exactly what Mark Visser did on January 20, 2011.
For those who don’t know, Jaws is a mountainous wave off Maui’s north shore. During big winter swells, its crest towers sixty feet or more above its trough. It was there that Laird Hamilton and others pioneered tow-in surfing in the 1980s, and while that innovation has made it possible to surf the world’s other behemoth waves, Jaws has always held the distinction of being among the most dangerous and unpredictable.
For obvious reasons, no one had tried to surf it at night. But Visser, a 28-year-old Australian “extreme adventure athlete,” is cursed (or gifted) with the Jackass gene: a rare mutation that drives people to do what others call— charitably— impossible. “I really wanted to push my limits,” he explains, “and I thought, ‘Jeez, the biggest, scariest wave I know of is Jaws. It’s the ultimate challenge.’” Other big-wave surfers tried vainly to talk him out of it. “They said, ‘Look, I don’t think this is possible; it’s far too dangerous.’” Visser says. “But I had a vision and really just wanted to do it.”
Visser says he’s just an ordinary guy who’s trained himself to do extraordinary things. He spent two years preparing for the Jaws “project” by learning to hold his breath for six minutes, freedive to 100 feet and swim his way, blindfolded, out of submerged caves. He adapted new technology, like the NASAdeveloped infrared LED lights embedded in his surfboard, which he’d need to recover the board in the very likely event of a wipeout. And he had to find a jetski driver willing to pitch him into the black.
He found one in Yuri Soledade, a Maui big-wave surfer who knows Jaws inside out (though only, it hardly needs saying, by daylight). It was a last-minute thing, apparently; Visser had another driver lined up, but he bailed when common sense got the better of him. So at 8 p.m. on the eve of his attempt, Visser called Soledade. “He said, ‘You might think I’m crazy, but do you want to surf with me at night?’” says Soledade. “Mark’s a great surfer, and all he needed was somebody who had enough knowledge and was crazy enough to do it. That somebody was me.”
By 2 a.m., Visser, Soledade and a camera crew in a helicopter were in the lineup. Though there was a full moon, clouds obscured it. And because any bright artificial light would have affected Visser’s night vision, even the ignition lights on the jetski had been taped over. “We literally couldn’t see anything,” says Soledade. “It was all about feeling—trusting your instincts and going for it.” They waited about forty-five minutes for Visser’s vision to adjust while Soledade triangulated their position using lights on shore. And when a black beast reared against a slightly less black sky, they went.
“I’ll never forget that first wave,” Visser says. “It was really just all about surviving.” He survived that wave and several more, but it wasn’t all sweetness: When the helicopter turned its spots on to light up a wave “for fun,” says Visser, “I was totally blinded. That’s when I went down.” Soledade rushed in but couldn’t reach Visser before a second wave pounded him; unable to see the incoming waves, Soledade managed to speed off just seconds before getting eaten alive.
In all, Visser surfed eight waves between 2 and 5:30 a.m., when the swell peaked at forty-plus feet. While Soledade rapturously calls it “one of the most amazing feats anybody’s ever done in surfing,” Visser talks about it like he survived a train wreck. “I wasn’t jumping around with excitement,” he says. “It was just pure relief. I was happy to be alive.” But real relief will be a long time coming for the adrenaline junkie: The Jaws project was only the first in a series of nine feats of deathdefiance, all part of 9 Lives, a documentary film Visser hopes to survive making. While the remaining eight projects are topsecret, he says, “they’re things that in your rational mind you would think impossible,” and they all, like surfing Jaws at night, will make history … assuming they don’t make history of Visser first.
See video at www.markvisser.net.