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In a dozen short years, from the first time he paddled a surfboard out at Santa Cruz until his untimely death from a free-diving accident in the Maldives, Jay Moriarty earned a reputation in the sport that will prevail indefinitely. His much-heralded big-wave exploits and longboard expertise only dabble the first few brushstrokes of a life lived as a masterpiece. In an earlier era, Moriarty would have been just one of the boys, but to contrast his waterman's spirit with that of other modern professional surfers, his clear vision offers a much-needed dose of fresh air. His infectious smile and sense of humility defined him, and in death they continue to spread out from his Northern California playground to each corner of the world.

Born in Georgia, James Michael Moriarty soon relocated to Santa Cruz. His father Doug, and Airborne Ranger, instilled in the young lad a sense for adventure and introduced him to surfing as an 11-year-old tike at Sewer Peak. According to Jay, "When I started I didn't have a wetsuit. I just had shorts and a t-shirt that I wore. And I had a 7'0" Haut, a little pintail, like a three-inch-thick '70s board. I was unequipped and clueless but I didn't give a shit. It was just so much fun."

The following year, Moriarty discovered his calling during, of all things, an NSSA shortboard contest at Pleasure Point. In double-overhead surf, the 12-year-old was the only kid to make it out, winning the event and realizing his affinity for big surf. Shortly thereafter, he chanced across a wizened elder local named Rick "Frosty" Hesson in the midst of a rant about the newly-ordained jewel of California surfing, Maverick's. After much prodding from the indomitable young Moriarty, the former lifeguard and collegiate swimmer agreed to prepare him for his future. Jay was determined to conquer Maverick's, but not before Hesson engaged him in a program of intense mental and physical training.

Meanwhile, Moriarty also gained a reputation as a solid longboard competitor despite ridicule from the local shortboard contingent. Inspired by traditionalists Robert "Wingnut" Weaver and Kevin Miske, he became not so much of a full-time longboarder, but an amazingly adaptable surfer, able to switch seamlessly between all manner of waveriding equipment. Nurtured in the surf clubs around Santa Cruz, he developed an appreciation for all forms of surfing, but mostly for the ocean itself. He became an accomplished swimmer, diver, paddler and fisherman. Eventually, his easygoing nature disarmed even the harshest of critics.

As winter approached each year his attention turned north to Maverick's. Still unknown outside of Santa Cruz as of December 19, 1994, the 16-year-old pizza parlor employee made his way to the burgeoning spot during the most consistent week in its history. Barely into the takeoff zone, he swung around and launched himself into what would be called the most spectacular wipeout ever caught on film, landing straight on the cover of Surfer magazine. Fortunately, his diligent training saw him through unscathed, and he continued on course as the most promising big-wave teen on earth.

The instant fame did nothing to derail the happy-go-lucky kid, instead providing opportunity for him to spread his good will to a wider audience. Suddenly, all the world knew about the humble young waterman. At the request of Moriarty's primary sponsor, O'Neill, he joined Wingnut and fellow big-wave maestro Richard Schmidt as instructors for the O'Neill Surf Academy, visiting eight European countries each summer and instructing some 50 surfers each week. He spent his down time riding motocross and jumping from airplanes, having successfully completed over 100 skydives. At Maverick's he continued to fall from the sky on a regular basis, demonstrating uncanny wave knowledge and control of the situation. Still in his early 20's, he had secured a prime spot in the heavy lineup, impressing local pioneer Jeff Clark enough to be chosen as his tow partner.

Moriarty planned on a future as a firefighter, having completed his EMT training at Cabrillo College, but he would get no closer toward his goal.

The day before his 23rd birthday, Jay drowned while free-diving alone off the Lohifushi Island resort in the Maldives, where he was visiting for a photo shoot. He had planned to meet his wife of less than one year, Kim, and begin his fourth season, this time as head instructor, for the O'Neill Academy through Europe. On June 26, a memorial service drew at Pleasure Point drew hundreds of well-wishers as Kim spread his ashes back into the ocean. Those in attendance contend that despite the tragic loss, it was not so much of a mourning as a celebration of his incomparable positive attitude towards life.

-- Jason Borte, November 2001


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