We propose a hydro-mechanical numerical model that predicts the maximal tension to which stipes of the giant kelp Macrocystis pyrifera will be subjected when exposed to ocean waves. Predicted maximal tensions are close to those measured in the field. The strength of Macrocystis pyrifera stipes was measured, allowing our prediction of forces to be translated into a prediction of the fraction of stipes broken. Predicted breakage is low even for extreme storm waves, a testament to the mechanical design of individual kelp fronds. However, empirically measured rates of kelp mortality can be high, considerably higher than those predicted on the basis of hydrodynamic forces acting alone. This indicates that factors not taken into account in our model (such as holdfast dislodgment, entanglement of stipes, damage from herbivory and wave breaking) contribute substantially to mortality in Macrocystis pyrifera.