Witnessing Catastrophe

One of CCK’s instructors Matt Krizan made the news around the world recently when he was instrumental in saving the life of a surfer at Mavericks.

Here is Matt’s account of the incident:

Witnessing catastrophe

The lagoon east of the reef at Pillar Point is my favorite place to play under most circumstances, and the morning of January 22nd was no exception.  I paddled under blue morning sky.  A light, warm offshore breeze was blowing, and buoy reports showed a thirteen foot swell at seventeen seconds from the west.  The long-period swell piqued my interest because the observable effects inside the lagoon are immediate reminders of the power of Mother Nature.  Oh yeah, the big offshore wave (Mavericks) would be going off too: seeing that big green wall form-up, fold over, and explode in foam provides—for me—better entertainment than a big fireworks show on the fourth of July. 

Because I was out paddling alone I made the conscious decision not to play too hard:  While I usually do not need to be T-rescued, it is always a comfort to know that another paddler is aware of my presence and could help if something unusual happens.  It was easy to bypass surfing the break at mushroom rock, which usually seems to require a lot of effort for the thrill, but the wash coming over the reef was causing large zippers well into the kelp bed inside of the lagoon, and it was hard to stay out of that area.  I ventured in there a few times, but mostly found enjoyment in just sitting loose, warm, and comfortable closer to the break wall and beach, bobbing over the waves and soaking in the sights, smells, and sounds of Pillar Point that morning. 

Wave sets at Mavericks had been building and ebbing all morning—as usual.  What was exciting and scary about that Saturday morning, if not unusual, was that six waves would consistently break as the swell peaked; just wall after wall after wall of water turning into foam-pile after foam-pile after foam-pile moving in towards the reef, all spaced about seventeen seconds apart.  It looked treacherous out there during the big sets, like no place I’d ever want to be, and it made me all the more glad to be able to merely watch from a distance.  At no point that morning did any wave set develop which I would call a “rogue” set, or “rogue” wave: that description is used way too much by people who should know better, and seems to be a normal descriptor of large waves in the media.  Poppycock!  

Because Mavericks was going off there was a steady flow of surfers paddling out and paddling in to the beach.  I saw at least two jet-skis zipping around, ferrying surfers as well.  Lining the bluff and beach was the usual entourage of photographers and surfing fans.  Larger support boats hung on the shoulder of Mavericks, offshore.  At about 9:45 a.m. I happened to be facing west, watching over the reef as another series of big steep wave crests formed a-file.  

The first wave, smaller than the ones behind it, curled over and crashed, turning into a ten foot wall of foam moving at the reef.  Seventeen seconds later the next green wall buckled over, and this time I saw something I hadn’t seen before: surf boards shooting out of the foam as the wave folded in on itself.  I was concerned at this point, but I was certain the situation wasn’t going well for the surfers when, seventeen seconds later, the next wave exploded in foam and continued to push two surf boards towards the reef. 

I started paddling towards the reef, and continued to track the two surfboards getting pushed towards me in the oncoming foam.  I watched in horror as they got carried over the reef.  The two boards were separated by about 50 yards in the calmer water inside of the reef, and at some point as I paddled towards them I saw that a surfer had pulled himself onto one of the boards and was paddling away from the reef and towards the beach.  I paddled over to him and was relieved to find him completely unharmed and in good spirits.  He told me he wasn’t even on his board—had just grabbed the one he was on because it was close—so I made a quick turn and headed over to the other board.  It remained unclaimed by any surfer when I got to it, so I pushed it towards the beach and continued to paddle and focus my attention at the water around the reef, and at the foam continuing to wash through it.

It wasn’t long—perhaps a minute—before I saw a sight I hope never to see again: the body of a man, clad in a wetsuit, floating limp and face-down in the wash.  This was the surfer I later found out was Jacob Trette.  He was about 100 feet from the reef at that point, continuing to get hit by waves re-forming in the wash.  His body took the hits and he looked like a ragdoll. 

I remembered I had a radio, pulled it out, turned it on, switched to channel 16, and made a single call to the Pillar Point Harbor Master stating where I was and what I was seeing.  At that point I turned the radio off without knowing if my call was heard, paddled over to the surfer, grabbed him by the wetsuit at the nape of his neck, and turned him over and pulled his head out of the water.  His head bobbed over and water poured out of his mouth and nose.  Even though I logically didn’t believe it, I told him “you’re going to be alright buddy,” while waving my paddle to try to attract the attention of people on the beach 300 yards away. 

I got hit by a wave and managed to stay upright only by pushing off of Trette.  Instead of pushing him down again when the next wave hit I just let go, knowing it wouldn’t matter if he continued to float face-down because I couldn’t clear the water out of his lungs.  At that point my focus was to keep an eye on Trette and watch for the jet-skis I knew were around.  Perhaps a minute after finding Trette I saw a guy on a jet-ski drive into the lagoon from the outside of mushroom rock, he had seen the uninjured surfer and was maneuvering to pick him up.  When he saw me he headed over and I pointed my paddle at Trette.  The ski driver had more leverage and was able to pull Trette onto the rescue board affixed to the back, and I flopped Trette’s legs on.  So that he wouldn’t slip back into the water during the transit to the beach, the ski driver went over and picked up the other surfer, who climbed onto the board and pinned Trette down with his body.  They zipped off to the beach. 

The paddle back to the beach was long and hard thanks to adrenaline aftershock.  When I finally got to the beach I saw a group of people around Trette.  They weren’t doing chest compressions, and I feared the worst but hoped for the best.  I stayed out of the way, looked out over the lagoon.  I prayed.  After the rescue responders showed up I overheard that Trette was breathing, and that his pupils dilated when light was shined in his eyes.  A helicopter landed and took Trette to Stanford, where he was put into a medically-induced coma.  We all had to wait over two more days for the final word: Trette was conscious, talking and laughing with family.

Here is the New York Times Article.

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One Response to Witnessing Catastrophe

  1. Pingback: Mavericks Article « Lifeguarding

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