In the world of surfing, tombstoning occurs when a surfer has been knocked off his board and dragged down so deep below the surface of the water that his leash –- the line attaching his ankle to the board, or stick –- becomes fully outstretched. The surfer’s weight pulling down from below makes the board stand upright, bobbing and rocking in the surf like a tombstone in the wind.
Although the exact origins of the expression are uncertain, the term is obviously of relatively recent vintage. Surfboard leashes did not appear until the early ‘70s, and were not commonplace until the mid ‘80s. In fact, most surfing commentators trace the roots of the term to lifeguards patrolling the big-wave sets on Hawaii’s North Shore in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, where wipeouts –- and their accompanying tombstones -- were commonplace.
Always a red alert that a surfer is down -- and potentially in trouble -- tombstoning occurs most often at heavy, deep-water spots like Maverick’s in California, or Waimea and Peahi in Hawaii. In places like that, a surfer’s leash can get snagged on the reef line deep below the water, effectively trapping him under the surface. In 1994, such a fate befell champion big-wave rider and longboarder Mark Foo, who went under after a spill at Maverick’s and never came back up again.
His body was found several hours later, floating up against one of Maverick’s gigantic rock formations. Abrasions on Foo’s leash made it pretty clear that he had gotten tied up on a reef below the water, and couldn’t manage to untangle or detach his leash before he drowned. According to other Maverick’s surfers, this isn’t uncommon. The strength of the current below the water presses hard against a trapped surfer, making it difficult, if not impossible, to reach “up” to one’s ankle and remove the strap. As one surfer put it, “When the waves are up, it’s like trying to do a sit-up with 200 pounds pressed against your chest.”
Foo’s death not only cast a pall on Maverick’s, which in 1994 was just being discovered by the big wave surfers from Hawaii, but it also highlighted a brewing controversy about the use of leashes themselves. Old school surfers, like Laird Hamilton, criticized the use of leashes, complaining that surfers using them “valued their boards more than their own lives.” Newer surfers, on the other hand –- particularly those surfing Maverick’s, ironically enough –- championed the use of leashes, pointing out that the leash is often the only sure way up when a surfer is down and disoriented below the water. Since Foo’s death, however, surfers have adopted “quick-release” leashes that allow a surfer to free himself much more easily, hopefully avoiding further fatalities.
Interestingly, the term tombstoning has recently been adopted by young Brits to describe the extreme sport of diving off rocks and cliff faces into the sea. It’s unclear exactly how the teens chose this particular word to describe this new craze, but it certainly is fitting. In the southwestern counties of Devon and Cornwall, for example, there are reports over the past year of numerous deaths and paralyzing spinal injuries resulting from the increasingly popular sport.