I’m not a dangerous person. I don’t consider myself a ‘thrill seeker’ by the usual definition. But, that said, I have had a few times that I’ve almost died while trying to enjoy this crazy thing called “Life”. This is a post about two such near death experiences that happened in the Pacific ocean while I was living on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. I call them ‘Awesome Experiences’ but they were awesome only because I came through them OK… alive. I faced something during both of these experiences that was scary enough to be labeled “possibility of death”.
I swam all my life growing up – in swimming pools in Pennsylvania. I was a good swimmer and yet at eighteen years of age I still needed months of time in Oahu’s strong waves before I felt like I understood a bit of what waves were all about. It took months more to be confident in the water in all kinds of surf, and yet even so, I never paddled out in waves that were higher than ten or twelve feet Hawaiian scale (15-24’ for all other scales).
It was 1986 and was just turning winter in Hawaii. Winter consists of seventy to eighty degree days and a cooler breeze at night than during the summer. I had been bodyboarding for around two years at this point and I’d never really gone after the big waves. That summer I’d ridden six to eight foot waves (Hawaiian scale) in Waikiki at “Walls” and those were the biggest waves I’d ever faced. It was so much fun that I had to go in search of a little larger wave to see if it was even more fun!
I loaded up the MGB convertible and went solo up to the North Shore of Oahu where I heard there was a nice swell beginning. Kasey, my usual bodyboarding fanatic friend had to work that day, and thinking back on it now it was really stupid to go up there alone in big surf.
Now, the thing about swells when they are beginning is that they are in the process of growing all the time. They might grow over a couple days, or they might grow over the course of one day. Looked at on a macro scale, they may grow literally from one set of waves to the next… and that’s the usual pattern for waves. There are the regular sets that roll in for twenty minutes at a time, maybe fifty minutes at a time… and then, bam, a bigger set or two roll through and then back to the regular sized sets.
I had watched the waves for about twenty minutes prior to getting in the water. They were quite a ways out away from shore and it wasn’t that easy to read them from that distance. I was at “Sunset beach park” at a break called “Backyards” which breaks very far out – a couple hundred yards from the beach. There were plenty of people out there already and so I thought I’d go check it out and see what it was like. From what I saw the waves were eight to ten foot Hawaiian scale and breaking very cleanly and smooth… They were essentially perfect waves. There were only about twenty surfers out and two other bodyboarders. It was around 9:30 am.
I paddled out, and I was instantly amazed (and in fear of) the currents there. The rip current pulled me out of the way down the beach from where I wanted to be. It took quite an effort to get back to where the group was. By this time I was pretty tired, having been spoiled by Waikiki and the Windward shores close breaks – within 50-100 yards from shore. I caught my breath over the next ten minutes and watched some picture perfect waves roll in. Some waves went without riders, that’s how many great waves were coming… the pros could pick and choose the best of the best, and they did.
Me? I waited until I was fully rehabbed and breathing regularly again before I was ready. When I thought I was ready I looked in back of me as I heard whoops from the other surfers that spotted the set that was to be my undoing. I saw glare from the wave faces far in the distance. When a big set is coming you can see the bumps of it FAR off in the distance, beyond where you were seeing the waves form before. The big sets give you a clue by forming earlier and they grow as they come in, sometime popping off some mist at the top of the wave as it is caught by the wind. By the time a big set reaches the spot the regular waves were forming you’ll get an idea how big they’ll be. This set was way in the distance, and yet was coming fast. It was HUGE already. Far bigger than I’d ever been in front of in the water. Guys were paddling out to it so they could get a longer ride, as the big sets are rideable much further out than the regular breaking sets.
Me? I paddled out toward them too a bit, knowing that if I got caught in front of the set after it broke I was in a lot of trouble.
I decided on a safe strategy of taking the first wave in to shore and getting the hell out of the water just as the mammoth set erupted behind me.
Nobody but me was on the first wave of that big set, and that’s the good news because if I had to catch any of the others I’d have been on twenty+ foot Hawaiian scale waves which were twice as big as any wave I had caught in Hawaii.
The first wave of the set is nearly always smaller than the rest. As it turned out I found myself at the top of a solid 15 foot wave that was moving fast. It was so fast that I thought to myself as I came down the wave face, that’s amazing that the bottom of my board skimming the top of this wave is making so much noise… I knew I was on an epic ride because the speed I was moving was so far beyond what I had ever done before.
I rode the wave as long as I could, and still I was 80-100 meters from the shore. I looked in back of me to find wave after wave, lined up like the pulses of a 20-30 foot tsunami unleashed on me. I frantically dove as deep as my bodyboard leash would allow (six feet) and hoped that the wave wouldn’t grab me and pull me with it. I lucked out after that second wave of the set, but the next one HAMMERED me. Sitting here in my one room flat in southern Thailand thinking about that event that happened twenty-one years ago and I couldn’t possibly tell you in words what the fear was like.
It’s not that I don’t remember because I remember it quite vividly, and I can feel something in my stomach as I type this on the computer. The fear of dying if I stopped trying to fight these waves was all I had to keep me going. I had no strength left after about the fourth wave as strength wanes quickly when there isn’t enough air to fuel the muscles to fight the million gallons of water thrashing me around and holding me under in loose foam clouds that were churning like a washing machine on super-cycle.
The thing about loose foam, the white water that happens as a wave pummels a surfer and holds him under is that it’s impossible to swim in. You can try, but there’s more air bubbles than water and so when you are trying to move in swimming movements, it’s more like you’re trying to fly through air than swimming. We all know, humans can’t fly through air. Neither can you swim in air. Basically you need to hold your breath until you float to the top. If you can’t do that, you’re gonna pass out and probably die inhaling water.
There were a couple times as wave after wave came and I was able to eventually float to the top after twenty seconds or a minute, that I reached the top and didn’t really realize I was at the top. There wasn’t elation at reaching the top, but a vague stillness that I guess was me in an altered state of consciousness where I just wasn’t getting enough air to understand what was going on all the time. Once I breathed a breath or two and dove again I was aware for the next twenty or so seconds and then I sort of relaxed and let the natural buoyancy of my body and bodyboard take me to the surface and did it again.
I don’t know how many waves were in that set, but there were over fifteen and I was like a wet surf-rat by the time I floated lazily into shore, about three-hundred meters (yards) from where I entered the water… the current took me down shore but I could care less at that point. I had the worst time trying to remove my fins and the straps that kept them on my feet as there was some shore-break that was giving me the final insult to my ego as it played with me and made me look stupid like a grommet that overestimated his abilities to get in the North Shore surf during a nice swell.
When I stood up in the knee-high surf at the shore I stumbled and some people were there watching. Nobody bothered to say anything, they understood that I was OK since I made it to shore. Apparently they see a lot of people barely making it to shore there. Some don’t make it at all. I walked about fifteen steps up the steep incline of the sandy beach where I knew the tide wouldn’t get me and I flopped down in the sand next to my board. I spent the next couple hours laying in the sand right there, three-hundred meters from where my backpack was up the beach. I had no cares about someone stealing my things or even taking the car… I was ‘alive’ mostly and that’s what mattered right then… I drifted in and out of sleep and finally had the energy to walk to the car after a few hours of exhaustion and baking in the hot Hawaii sun.
After this ‘adventure’ I thought seriously about the possibility that I could have died there in the water. I think had it not been for the strength of my bodyboard and leash system (Turbo bodyboards) I think I probably would have died. I’m a slow learner though, and sixteen years later because of poor quality Morey equipment I almost died in the water in Waikiki!
Near-death bodyboarding experience #2 at “Magic Island” in Ala Moana Park on Oahu’s south shore: May 2002
It was May, and the south shore swells on Oahu were starting. This marked my favorite time of the year since I much prefer bodyboarding on the south of Oahu than in the northeast or at the North Shore. I heard that a swell was already in progress at one of my favorite places to bodyboard, Magic Island in Ala Moana park in Waikiki. Ala Moana is a large beach park across from the Ala Moana Mall. I’d guess it’s about a mile or so long. The part called “Magic Island” is a peninsula that goes out into the bay a bit and where there’s a pool of shallow water protected by man-made rocks and concrete to block the waves, even the big ones, from hitting the kiddie pool area.
Beyond those rocks is where I liked to bodyboard. There were consistent and easy-to-read waves that broke there on a south swell. When I arrived I was almost in tears of joy as I saw four to six feet Hawaiian scale waves and only five guys riding them.
I had a $90 Morey medium-hard foam bodyboard with a plastic tube leash that was anchored through the center front of the board – just under my chin as I rode the board. It had a straight strap with two layers of Velcro to attach firmly to my left wrist. This bodyboard was much cheaper in quality than the bodyboard I’d had sixteen years before on the North Shore when I had the near death experience. That “Turbo” board, built by Russ Brown I used was around $120 back in 1985 and was very solid and heavy and was able to take the stress of hundreds of pounds of pull on the leash without failing.
The waves at Magic Island on this day were not that big and I thought the Morey board was ‘good enough’. After all, it was a $90 board, not a $30 board. There must be some difference in strength. I thought this board could handle six foot surf. I was so very wrong.
I caught a couple of waves right off and they were phenomenal! They were coming fast and were almost curling into a partial pipe which was strange for this break. There were many people standing on the boardwalk watching us bodyboard and it was a beautiful sunny day and wave after wave of board riding bliss.
I duck-dived one wave (dove under it) that started to take me backwards with it so I let the board go and I went further underwater without the board. It was attached to my wrist and I’d never had a good leash break before. What happened was not that the leash broke… the board broke. The leash was attached with a plastic rod that held the leash down through the center of the board and that had a large hard plastic cap on the bottom of the board that was supposed to prevent the leash from popping out of the foam. This it did. To the board’s credit, the leash did NOT pop out of the foam.
What did happen was that the center plastic piece that went through the board ripped the board almost three feet long-ways, shredding the board and leaving me in a big ten foot set without a board to float on. I heard people at the beach scream when they saw the board, they thought a shark had grabbed it since the foam was ripped in a jagged serrated pattern, not unlike a shark might inflict.
I was able to swim for a while, trying to head back into the rocky shoreline but the current was much too swift against me. I spent twenty minutes swimming hard against the current, unable to find a clean path through the coral and around the current. I was scraping my legs and fingers as I tried to swim gently over top of the coral. The waves had other ideas and raked my body across the coral at will.
Finally I was on the verge of panic since I realized that I was nearly depleted of strength. Luckily I saw a Hawaiian guy paddling out on his long-board and I asked him if I could hold onto his board for a minute to recoup my strength. He let me, despite us being overrun by waves every couple seconds. I asked him where the best spot was to get back into shore and he showed me the one path through the coral where I wouldn’t get too cut up. I took that path, and still got cut up as the current took me right over the coral again but, at least I was back at the shore. I found my board, took pictures and sent them to Morey, complaining that they’re crummy board almost got me killed. They promptly sent me an upgraded board free of charge and next day air. That was nice, they didn’t have to… but, knowing Hawaii is such a small place and that everyone would have talked about it – they did the smart thing!
I did the smart thing too from that point on – I only bodyboarded large surf:
1. With a friend.
2. With a well built board that was built for big waves!