A few hours after dawn on a late-February morning at Nazaré, Ross Clarke-Jones came very close to death. The 51-year-old Australian legend towed into a 25-foot peak, went right, and came off his board at the bottom. Although that’s nothing out of the ordinary for Clarke-Jones, what happened next was.
“I headed out this morning around 8 am with my tow partner Carlos Burle,” RCJ explained through an email sent to the press. “I caught my first wave on the second peak, which I went right. Bailing off the wave I was pulled under the water for about 30 seconds, using my Quiksilver Airlift to inflate me to the surface I came up looking directly at the cave and rocks.”
Those rocks are a very dangerous place to be, as they’re inaccessible to the jetskis. Once a surfer is in that area, he’s basically on his own. “It was now up to Ross to get himself out this situation,” said 24-year-old Alexander Triebel, who filmed the footage you see above. “It was Ross against Mother Nature. He used the waves to his advantage as when he first was pulled in he was smashed around. Ross then placed himself behind one of the rocks to use as a barrier.”
Once he was in the rocks, he was nearly invisible to anyone who was looking for him from the water. “At this stage, they said they couldn’t even see me,” Clarke-Jones continued. “I took another hit which washed me straight onto the rocks, hitting my side which rolled over the rocks. Completely out of breath, I put myself into a safer area and hid behind a rock. Another set came in which dragged me in and out, exactly like a washing machine. Launching back into rocks, I hit my head and side. Forcing myself to stay conscious, I had an instant flashback to when I was 12 when my brother and I used to hide behind the rocks at Terrigal’s tube rock.”
Now, Clarke-Jones found himself in a boulder field full of jagged of rocks at the base of a hundred foot cliff with only himself to rely on. If it weren’t for his years of experience there, it’s likely that Ross would have drowned. “I personally think that there aren’t many surfers that could have gotten themselves out of this situation,” said Axi Muniain, who was one of the five people trying to reach him on jetskis. “It was RCJ’s age and wave knowledge that saved him. He used the waves and water to his advantage.”
All in all, he came out relatively unscathed—a mild concussion and a possible broken leg—but those injuries are just a few more tallies on a long list. Fin cuts, spinal and neck injuries, broken ribs, torn biceps, multiple knee injuries, and a broken shoulder is just some of the damage he’s done to his body over the years.
For his part, RCJ doesn’t seem all that concerned. After a flogging that would send most into a blubbering panic, he reached the top of the cliff with a smile on his face. “You know what you sign up for when you surf Nazare,” he said. “I always have a hell of a time but this was a nice reminder that you never take it for granted. Especially on the smaller days like today where you can get complacent… it was a big mistake.”