My first time surfing Waimea Bay took place in 1975 during a contest, the Smirnoff Pro. Waimea needs a giant swell to work, and oftentimes weeks (even months) can go by without a ripple at the Bay. So I had not expected to ride Waimea at all that winter. On this particular day an enormous swell had hit the North Shore; the Smirnoff started off at Sunset Beach, but the surf grew too big. The organizers moved the contest down the coast to Waimea, which holds a bigger swell. I did not even own a board big enough to ride the place, so I had to borrow one for the contest. It was a recipe for disaster: my first time out at the most challenging big-wave break in the world, and I was using a board I had never surfed.
I was conscious of the situation I was putting myself into. I certainly felt apprehensive, but I was fired up as well. Money, reputation, personal pride, professional stature, all of these were on the line. I was twenty years old: it never crossed my mind that I might meet a wave so terrifying that it would shake my confidence to the core.
The first set I paddled into was pushing twenty feet, definitely a solid-sized wave. I had wanted to pick off the very first wave that came through just to get one under my belt: shake off the nervous energy, get used to how the wave broke, and most importantly find out if the board I had borrowed actually worked for me. I had taken a calculated risk and paddled farther to the inside—closest to the breaking wave—than all the other competitors. It turned out my calculations were off. Way off. I had focused too much on getting that first wave and had paddled too far to the inside. Not knowing the break at all, I did not realize that I had placed myself into a very dangerous situation.
I remember catching the wave and standing up cleanly. As I dropped down the face I thought, “Well, this is pretty easy.” I was about a quarter way down, knees bent, arms straight out in perfect balance.
The wave hit the shallow part of the reef and jacked up. The face went absolutely vertical on me. The board came completely out of the water, and I began free-falling with my arms and legs windmilling out of control. The board hit the bottom first, then I landed on the board and bounced off with so much force that my body began skipping across the surface of the water. Normally water is a soft cushion; at high speeds it feels like asphalt.
The worst thing that can happen to a surfer who wipes out in big waves is staying on the surface. It is critical to try and penetrate, or else the wave can land directly on top of you. Even getting sucked up the face and going over the falls with the white water—as gut-wrenching as that experience can be—is preferable to having the entire wave hit you squarely. When this happens a surfer can easily be knocked senseless, or even unconscious, and then drowning becomes a real possibility. The lifeguards at Waimea are the best in the world, but even for them a rescue in the impact zone is a tricky, time-consuming proposition. Donnie Soloman, a twenty-five year-old surfer from California, died in 1996 after trying to paddle through a set wave at the Bay. There was simply not enough time to save him once he went under.
That wave did hit me squarely. I felt as if I had been walking along the highway and gotten hammered by a truck from behind. A terrifying impact. Never to this day have I been struck so hard by a wave. It was a feeling of absolute crushing violence, an unbelievable sensation of force and power. I could not have imagined any human body taking such a beating and surviving.
The wave hit and took me down deep, too deep to see anything. Sometimes surfers open their eyes underwater, searching for those shafts of water illuminated from above that offer havens from the turbulence of breaking waves. In this instance it was completely black. I have never been especially conscious of the sensation of noise underwater, but as I was being plunged into this blackness, I heard pounding, horrifying noises coming from below, as great rocks rolled around on the ocean floor.
When I finally surfaced, gasping and coughing, I thought the wave had broken my back. I could hardly move my legs. My head felt as murky as those silt-filled waters back home in Durban.
We used no leashes back then. We had no caddies like pro surfers do today—guys who sit in the channel during a contest and can paddle over a replacement board. So I began to swim toward the beach. Slowly at first, then more desperately, constantly looking over my shoulders and trying to stay out of the rip, which would have sucked me out beyond the break.
I found my board floating in a deep spot about twenty-five yards from shore. At Waimea the wave breaks a few hundred yards out, then backs off over deep water before reforming into ferocious shorepound. I hauled myself onto the board and looked first to the beach, then back to the lineup. I did not know it then, but this moment turned into a defining point of my career.
Twenty seconds of paddling and I could have been safe on the sand.
But the contest was still running—guys scrambling out of the way now as another set exploded off the reef.
I kept looking from the surf to the beach. I had just experienced the worst wipeout of my life, and I knew I could not survive another like it. The consequences of that moment have meant everything to my career; at the time, of course, I did not even have a career in surfing since the World Tour did not begin until the following year. And yet for all of its importance, the action itself was so simple: I swung my board around and paddled back out.
Australian Mark Richards went on to win the contest. I rode a couple more waves in my heat, smaller waves than the one I had wiped out on. Certainly nothing worth going into details about. Waimea taught me a critical lesson about positioning and perseverance. Never again will I make the mistakes I did that day. I had known after my wipeout that I was essentially done for the contest. I did not have to try to win after paddling back out, did not even have to surf my best during the rest of the heat. It was enough to know that I had turned my board around and faced those waves once again.