The Central California community of Cambria is in mourning after Liam Alexander Taylor, a surfer and lifeguard, passed away last Friday from severe head and neck injuries while surfing off of Moonstone Beach, according to The Tribune newspaper. Taylor was 19 years old.
Nicknamed “Skinny” by his close friends, Taylor reportedly went down with the lip on a set wave on Friday afternoon and was slammed against the seafloor, knocking him unconscious.
A friend surfing with him that evening recalled conditions that weren’t anything out of the norm, making the loss of the avid surfer and trained lifeguard all the more inexplicable.
“The wave looked like it was going to be good, and it ended up just closing out. He wasn’t able to get to his feet at all. It looks like he just went over with the lip and probably got drug into the sand,” friend John McElgunn said. “It’s scary, just the whole thing. I’ve never dealt with anything like this before.”
Another friend, Chase Tatham said:
He went for a wave, went down, and came up face down. Since he was such a tall guy, he has a more fragile bone structure. There were no lacerations to his head, but he went right into the sand. This time of year it’s so shallow. For five feet of wave, there’s only one foot of water. He was a very experienced surfer, it feels pretty surreal. It definitely hasn’t sunk in.
After the wipeout, Johnny McElgunn and another friend, Mason Smith – both lifeguards along with Taylor – paddled over to their friend, who was unconscious. They immediately began CPR. And when emergency crews arrived, they were able to restore a pulse, although he remained unconscious. Later, at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo, Taylor was pronounced dead.
As a talented and radiant member of the San Luis Obispo surfing and skateboarding community, the loss of Skinny has been felt far and wide. Central California native Nate Tyler had this to say in remembrance:
He was always the nicest kid in the world. Amazing skater. He only recently got really into surfing in the last five years or so. And I remember meeting him – he was pretty nervous. And then I saw him out in the water one day and he laid down the sickest turn. Really good style.
Statistically, surfing deaths are incredibly rare and there are a number of more deadly aquatic pursuits than surfing. The most deadly water sport, according to the United States Coast Guard, is angling, far and away, which accounts for nearly 200 deaths each year. And when you include landlocked sports, it seems that most of your high school athletics are more dangerous than surfing—including cheerleading, gymnastics, and pole vaulting. What’s interesting about the preponderance of fishing and pole-vaulting deaths is not that they happen, but that the preoccupation of death has not ingrained itself so much in these cultures the way it has with surfing. It’s hard to imagine a pole-vaulter staring at the high bar and saying, “You can try to vault, but you might not come back.”
This is not to say that people don’t die surfing. They frequently do. It’s just that they usually die semi-anonymously in pedestrian conditions. And while nobody keeps stats on wave-riding deaths, sift through accounts of recent surfing-related deaths and two things will jump out at you. First, mid-fifties types suffering on-board heart attacks that were going to occur anyway whether they had been surfing, jogging, or playing tennis. And two, in many cases, the surfer was caught in a situation they weren’t prepared for.
The biggest hazard to surfers is drowning, particularly due to rip currents. Australia, one of the most popular countries in the world for surfing, averages 21 deaths per year from rip currents. A more famous but less common hazard is shark attack. While over 100 shark attacks on humans are recorded every year, these are not surfing-specific statistics, and the majority of these attacks are not on surfers.
“Death is talked about in surfing a lot,” says Evan Slater, well-respected big wave surfer and the former editor of both Surfer and Surfing magazines. “But the reality is that it’s more dangerous to cross the street.”
There is also a sense among big-wave surfers that the sport isn’t any safer, just that surfers have found ways to mitigate the damage. A big-wave wipeout may still be out of one’s control, but with an army of jet skis roaming the lineup, help is almost always on offer. It’s this type of aggressive preparedness that might account for the minimal number of fatalities in today’s surf world, despite the fact that surfers are riding bigger, more dangerous waves in greater quantities.
A memorial paddle-out will be held at the Venice Beach pier, where Skinny surfed while attending Santa Monica Community College, this Saturday, August 26th at 10 am.