The Near Death Experiences of Big Wave Hellmen

Chris Hunt

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Updated 1669d ago

The careers of big wave surfers are built around a life of boundary pushing amongst massive volumes of water. But every now and then Mother Nature serves a swift, hard reminder of who calls the shots and the consequences can be huge.

We tracked down the best of the best in the realms of big wave surfing to discuss being just moments away from meeting their maker.

Grant 'Twiggy' Baker

I've had a few scary moments over the years but a wipeout while towing at Jaws still stands out:

Someone shouted to me as I got up on the rope, saying “Merry Christmas Twig.” It was this big, big A-frame, but I could also see the West Bowl coming towards it, and I thought This is the one. This is the one I've been waiting for.

 I Let go of the rope real early, did a couple of S turns coming into it. Skipping down the face, I could feel the board was all wrong, something wasn't quite right there and I kind of edged off the bottom and the whole thing stood up behind me. I saw that the west bowl was moving away from me, so I pulled up to do kind of like a high line turn to get the speed to rush through the West Bowl and I almost had it under control, but not really.

As I came out of that check-top turn I knew oh shit, way too much speed, I can’t control the board, I could feel the tail cavitating, and I was thinking oh shit, you’re not gonna make it, but still give it your best shot. As I headed into the bowl, I could see these two wind chops and I knew I had to make them. I just got over the first one and boom, the board just stopped dead on the second wake, and from there I knew it was pretty much over. I’d fallen in the worst place, on the worst wave to fall and I was in big trouble.

It was so Violent. It took me straight to the bottom, as I hit the bottom I was on my hands and knees, like a cat.

I went over and landed on my chest and it knocked all the wind out of me, and at that moment I thought OK you’re dead, it’s over. Full panic, You're dead, it's finished
. I felt myself in slow motion as you do, in the lip, going up and the whole time thinking to myself, you’re dead, you've got no breath.

As I come up and go over, I feel my head pop up and I just took the biggest breath you can imagine. As I take that breath everything changes. I’m just like you’re gonna survive. From their I just enjoyed the ride. I went on an amazing roller-coaster ride over the falls, and I could see everyone out the back.
 It was an insane descent over the waterfall. Boom. It was so Violent. It took me straight to the bottom, as I hit the bottom I was on my hands and knees, like a cat. I kind of crawled across these huge boulders. I was down there a long time.

We’d been wearing double vests, a medium and then a xxxl on top. As soon as the turbulence subsided I could feel the vests engaging. I went from being on the bottom on all fours to almost like a cork on the surface. I looked up to see the next wave and the lip was like 5ft from impacting and I was another 10ft in front of it.

 It kept me down for a really long time and pulled me probably 100m.

Mark Mathews
I hit the reef at Shipsterns and got knocked unconscious years ago. I woke up and thought my neck was broken. That was easily the scariest experience. In the end I was fine but it took me a long time to get over it mentally. It was probably the most well documented wipeout I’ve had too [Fighting Fear is based around the injuries I sustained that day and my comeback].

As usual with injuries they happen when you least expect them, that moment when you drop your guard. It wasn't the biggest wave I caught that day, 10-12ft, and I’d thrown on a Gath Helmet with a camera mounted [pre GoPro days] to it to get some POV shots. It was my first wave with the helmet and as soon as I let go of the rope, I knew it was going to be a sketchy one because of the foam from the bigger wave before it.

I regained consciousness as the flotation device attached to the body of the camera pulled me to the surface

I was distracted by the bumps and foam on the face and slightly miss calculated the steps, before I knew it, the board nose-dived and threw me hard over the front of the board. It's at that point I don’t remember much. I was knocked out when my head impacted the reef, blowing a hole in the helmet. I regained consciousness as the flotation device attached to the body of the camera pulled me to the surface. Luckily the ski was right there to get me out of trouble.

What followed was the scariest 6 hours of my life. I was in a neck brace with searing pain and pins and needles down my arms and legs on the bumpy boat ride back to the dock. I was really lucky in the end that there was no critical damage to my neck. The most difficult part of my recovery was getting over the mental trauma and regaining my confidence in big waves.

James Hollmer Cross
Scariest experience to date was 5 months ago, at a wave called Pedra Branca. It's a big wave location 35 kilometres out to sea off the southern mainland of Tasmania. The conditions weren't perfect and there was the odd bomb. I broke my leg in a few spot and tore ligaments in my right knee, it also squeezed me so hard that it made me soil my wetsuit I'd already had a couple waves but wasn't content. After being too deep on a big set I lost my board so I was really keen to just sit and wait for a behemoth, one eventually came and I was in the perfect position. As I was coming down the face and fading for the bottom turn something didn't feel right with my board and it started to plane and bounce which it had never done out there before. As I nursed it and started to lean on my toe side my board felt like it hit thick mud and just stopped and I went over the handle bars.

I instantly got engulfed and went up and over the falls into the most savage wipeout my body has ever endured. I got pushed and shaken so hard I burst an ear drum. I broke my leg in a few spot and tore ligaments in my right knee, it also squeezed me so hard that it made me soil my wetsuit. Heavy but lucky also.

Mark Healey
There’s a lot of them, but a long time ago, the first time I went to Jaws. I surfed all day and was really tired. It was the first time I've ever towed there and it was still the biggest I've seen it so far. I barely stayed conscious and I took about four more really really really big waves on the head.I ended up getting absolutely smashed on a really, really big wave and it ripped my vest in half and pulled it off me. I was so spun out and really tired, it was the end of the day and my whole body was cramping up. I barely stayed conscious and I took about four more really really really big waves on the head, barely pulling it off the whole time. I lost like 15 minutes of time after that

. Yeah that was probably the worst. But you know it happens, it's part of the deal.

Andrew Cotton
I got caught inside at Nazaré on the big swell last October, the swell that Maya nearly drowned. It wasn't just the fact I was about get get the biggest wave I've ever seen on my head but also I was right in front of the light house which is probably the worst place you can be. It was possibly the scariest few seconds of my life facing that wave with millions of thoughts whizzing through my brain, but it ended up not being that bad. Of course I got smashed and held down for quite a while but as soon as I came up Hugo Vau was there on the back up rescue ski and pulled me to safety.

Shane Dorian
It happened on my first trip to Mavericks. I had a great first day and the next day I was confident and wanted to catch a huge one. That wave came to me and I ended up wiping out really bad and having a two-wave hold down. It was a super close call.

Garrett MacNamara
All my experiences have been amazing. Never had a near death experience but so many injuries. I remember the scariest was breaking an eardrum at Sunset and again at Lani's. They were both the scariest because you don't know which way is up and you seem to swim down instead of up I remember swimming into the reef and the only way I found the surface was climbing the leash. As you get to the surface it seems and feels like you are in the eye of a hurricane, it is so loud and you are spinning and then the next wave rolls over and your going through it all over again. So scary because you feel totally out of control, you have control of your bodily functions but everything is spinning so you can't figure out what is going on. If it is your first time especially because you really don't understand what's going on or what to do.

Cover shot by Callum Macaulay

Chris Hunt

Writer and Content Manager at MSW