Big-wave surfer Kirk Passmore missing, presumed drowned after wiping out

Kirk Passmore (wearing the black trunks and no top) was last seen dropping into this massive wave Wednesday. He wiped out during this drop-in, and never made it back to the surface. He was the only surfer out there not wearing a floatation device. Photo by Daniel Russo/Surfer magazine

Surfer Kirk Passmore, 32, went missing while surfing massive 20- to 25-foot waves Wednesday morning on the North Shore of Oahu. He is presumed drowned. Passmore was surfing with an experienced crew of pro surfers at Alligator Rock, a wave that breaks about a half mile from shore over an outer reef south of Waimea Bay.

Passmore’s final ride (see video above) was one of the biggest waves of the day, witnesses said, but after he wiped out during the drop-in, he was spotted briefly before the next wave hit him and failed to get his head above the surface. Jamie Sterling, a former Big Wave World Tour champion, was one of the surfers who witnessed the incident. He told Surfing magazine, “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.”

Kirk Passmore; photo from Facebook
Kirk Passmore; photo from Facebook

Wednesday marked the arrival of the first big swell of winter season, and Passmore was surfing with a group that included notable pro surfers such as John John Florence, Nathan Fletcher, Jamie Mitchell, Patrick Gudauskas, and Damien Hobgood.

Immediately following Passmore’s wipeout, rescuers on personal watercraft began combing the area, but were unable to retrieve him. According to multiple reports, Passmore was the only surfer not wearing a floatation device that could have helped rescuers. “They (the rescuers) were trying to grab him but they had nothing to hold on to,” local big-wave surfer Chris Owens said to “What would have saved him is if he had a float vest on. Everybody wears float vests nowadays.” Rescue efforts are ongoing, but as of press time his body has not been found.

An experienced big-wave surfer, Passmore moved to the North Shore two years ago and was a bartender at Banzai Sushi as well as a partner in Third Stone surf shop in nearby Waialua. Alligator Rock is the same surf break where famed big-wave rider Todd Chesser passed away in 1997.

Safety has become a major issue for big-wave surfers in the time since Chesser’s passing, and has improved dramatically. Last year, former big-wave world champion Greg Long was resuscitated after being pulled from the water face down at Cortes Bank, 100 miles off the coast of California. And just two weeks ago Maya Gabeira was revived after losing consciousness while surfing a massive swell in Portugal. In both cases, floatation devices played life-saving roles.

Yet, whether those successful rescues may be giving big-wave surfers a false sense of security is a question worth pondering in the wake of this latest incident. That topic is likely to be raised by Brian Keaulana at the next big-wave safety meeting, which is being held on the North Shore of Oahu next week. Keaulana, a veteran Hawaiian lifeguard, water safety expert, and Hollywood stunt man, holds annual discussions on the topic each year when the big-wave surfing community gathers on the North Shore of Oahu. Undoubtedly, whatever can be learned and acted on after the incident at Alligator Rock will be the topic of discussion.

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