During a recent journey to the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, I experienced an exceptionally bad wipeout after being caught inside on a gigantic set at the Banzai Pipeline. Since then I have found myself running over it in my mind again and again. I looked online and found numerous “how to” and “what not to do” pieces on wipeouts but noticed there was a shortage of texts on people’s actual experiences. We humans, however adaptable to our own environments, have never learnt to breathe underwater, making the few of us who call ourselves surfers a particularly unique, thrill seeking sort. Bad wipeouts, long hold downs and regrettable moments of panic are all things that come part and parcel with the sport. So, in the hope that I might help a seldom told narrative gain some traction, I thought I would take this opportunity to share with you the story of my worst yet beat down. Maybe you will be able to relate it to one of your own experiences. Maybe you will write of one yourself.
There are three reefs at Pipeline: First Reef, Second Reef and Third Reef. As the size of surf at First Reef increases, over 12 feet usually, Second Reef on the outside (further out into the deeper water) starts breaking, with longer walls and more size. At an extreme size Third Reef even further outside starts to break. Even on the most heavy days at Pipeline surfers are able to weigh risk to reward ratios and choose how hard they want to push their own limits. Where they sit in the lineup is key to this. The day of my beat down the swell was at an extreme size, Third Reef was breaking and I was in a small take off area between the First and Second Reef, waiting in the dangerous zone for the kind of Pipe wave that every professional surfer dreams of. For me, catching a giant wave at Pipeline and succeeding in riding it to safety would be like winning a Roman Gladiator battle. If unsuccessful? I could be spared, I could be hurt and I could even die. I don’t consider myself to be any kind of big wave hero, so I felt a certain sense of stupidity in the decision I had made to sit where I was sitting.
I spent most of my first two hours paddling to avoid sets that broke on the Second and Third Reefs. Each time I noticed a set outside I gunned it out of the impact zone and into safety. I caught a couple of relatively small waves in an attempt to build confidence for when, if ever I caught a huge wave. Alas, I was out there in the zone with everything on the line when I first caught glimpse of the doom I have dedicated this piece to. Ten gigantic waves rushed toward me… it was was a sight to behold.
The first wave of the set rolled through and I barely scraped myself over it. I had refrained from duck-diving in fear of being sucked back and over its falls and felt open air beneath my board as I launched over its back. I had to lock my arms and separate the board from my sternum as I slammed back onto the ocean’s surface. Once the rainsquall-like spray off the back of the wave cleared I was welcomed with the incredible sight of a fifteen-foot whitewater bearing down upon me. There were two other surfers in the same position. We looked at each other and exchanged knowing glances.
There was never a thought of duck-diving the monster. I stood on my 7’4, took a deep, controlled breath and dove as deep as I could with my eyes open and my arms outstretched, frantically pulling me under. As the wave swept over me the blue of the water flashed white before I was driven down and all colour was lost to darkness. I tumbled for what seemed like an eternity before I allowed myself a few hesitant strokes toward the surface. I had been told the key was to stay calm. At the surface was a turbulent mix of bubbled air and water and I made the mistake of gasping for breath a moment too soon. I inhaled a horrible mouthful of the mix, which caused a series of chokes and coughs during costly breathing time. I was no longer calm.
The next two waves rolled through much the same and the time between breaths became longer as the violence of each drive down increased. Under the fourth wave my anxious headspace and fear for lack of oxygen resulted in a futile attempt to rise to the surface earlier than possible, which did little other than expend priceless energy with no reward. By that stage I had taken four waves on the head and every moment from there on out remains vivid in my mind.
When I opened my eyes at the surface and gasped for breath, I could tell in an instant that I had been swept onto First Reef Pipeline. I no longer felt the pull of the surf dragging me toward shore, the surges had started to pull me back out to the sea. Having first broken on Second Reef, the walls of whitewater began doubling up on the water from waves previous, resulting in concentrated explosions on the First Reef, right where I had found myself.
It was in the short moments between wave four and five that I was struck with the sudden fear that the next few hold-downs would leave me teetering on the edge of survival. In hindsight, I don’t think I was too close to dying, but it was the first time I had ever truly thought of death as a possibility. A peculiar feeling of calm and clarity came over me when I realised there was no escape, it was like the instant before a motorcycle crash. Unlike a motorcycle crash however, I had time to appreciate the feeling.
After the fifth wave I glanced around, noting my position and that of the two others who had begun next to me. We were by then spread apart over the space of a football field and I knew they too were going through the same experience. I watched as another wave doubled up on the reef and came cascading toward me. Exhausted, I barely ducked my head under the surface before the wave exploded.
Bizarrely, at some point amidst the new and intensified violence of wave number six I ceased to care. I was too tired to fight and had lost any sense of fear. Hold down number six is the one I think back on with most interest. Everything that was happening seemed terribly novel, my leash had wrapped around my arms and chest and pulled tight as the board dragged and its density shot it back to the surface. I remember wondering abstractly, as though I’d become witness to my own experience, “Is this really happening?” My mind was in a peculiar state. After some period of seconds I twirled in such a way that released my body and arms from the leash. For a little while, I continued to tumble at whatever depth I had been pushed to. Completely out of air, I realised that to rise to the surface I would have to pull myself up by my leash. As I pulled arm for arm I mentally noted the leash’s strange elasticity in my hands. I realised I might have laughed at the absurdity of the situation had I been able to. I have always heard stories of people climbing their leashes to the surface but have never come close to doing so. As I pulled myself up by what felt like a rubber band, I imagined people on the shore watching my board like a tombstone on the surface, the nose in the air and tail pulled under by my struggle arm for arm. It was very strange. After an innumerable amount of pulls I was at the surface gulping down precious breaths. I was dizzy and relieved and exhausted and proud. I knew the worst of it was over. Two more lesser waves rolled past without my thinking much of them before I climbed onto my board and bounced along on a whitewater to shore.
My toes sunk into the coarse sand and I slowly put one foot in front of the other to move above the surges of water. Lactic acid rushed through my limbs and I laughed between deep gulps of air. Everything seemed surreal. I felt high. One of the other unfortunate surfers did the same walk ten meters down the beach and I watched him with interest. He looked over at me and his eyes told me everything I needed to know. We’d shared the experience together and it was more significant than we could yet comprehend. He nodded, I nodded, he shook his head, I shook my head.
I sat on the beach and thought back to the time I spent under the sixth wave. I wondered why had I stopped caring. I still wonder now. It was the worst beat down of my life and for reasons I’m yet to understand, I am happy that it happened to me. For reasons more easy to explain, I hope it will never happen to me again. I have had serious wipeouts that have caused serious injuries before, but it was this one, the one that I came away completely unscathed from, that has left the biggest mark.