high surf warning signs

Being a surf-obsessed person makes it challenging to relate to an audience who most likely wouldn’t put themselves in a possibly lethal situation in order to maintain a sense of purpose and well-being. We come up with all kinds of excuses for why doing what we do makes sense versus the guy who straps a rocket engine to his Trans-Am and goes flying off to the great hall of Darwin Awards. Ok that was an urban legend, but YouTube is filled with the exploits of people seeking cheap thrills to fulfill some sort of unmet psychological need, and surfers have worked hard convincing ourselves that this obsession  ‘healthier’. Like organic cigarettes or something.

rip current
Rip current. Not the best place for smokers.

So do your best to stay with me and I’ll try to crank out some good advice than anybody can use- along with a huge disclaimer that says if you follow all the rules and die anyway that it’s not our fault because shit happens, and sometimes even the best surfers in the world go down hard and stop breathing permanently.

So how about some ground rules? People love listicles so let’s just do away with any pretense of originality and start there.

Rule Number One: Never Turn Your Back on The Ocean

Don’t try to cheat this one by saying “Oh it’s okay. It’s just a really huge lake.” Anytime you get a large enough body of water combined with a significant amount of wind it makes this thing called ‘turbulence’ which can range from wee ripples of joy to giant walls of death. In Hawaii it’s very common to have people roll up to the beach in between swells, jump in the water, and tragically find out that a storm thousands of miles away has sent a really big groups of waves that come in 15+ minute intervals. You didn’t see any waves at first so it must be safe, right? Any surfer who has been in the game long enough has seen the look in an inexperienced swimmer’s eye turn from elation to awe to pure terror as a large wet surprise rears up and sweeps them off their feet.

When witnessing a van piled with surfboards on top e-brake slide into a parking stall at the beach and unload like a clown car as the passengers furiously wax their boards and race to the water’s edge…you are probably missing the context. Unless these guys are total morons (which happens) chances are they have been studying satellite images and weather-crunching software for years and know exactly what kind of conditions to expect. This kind of behavior is usually accompanied by a certain warning from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration known as a “small craft advisory” which translates roughly to “Stay out of the ocean today unless you know what you are doing.” If you spend a lot of time around the ocean then the NOAA family of websites and weather radios are your friend. They basically own the whole system of buoys that track wave activity everywhere in ‘Murica. When they suggest you postpone your fishing trip, listen to them.

Rule Two: Never Trust Lifeguards

One of the most awesome benefits of living in Hawaii is that we have the best lifeguards in the word. I’m sure there are some amazing ones scattered about the planet as well, but with 8 million annual tourists and comfortable water temperatures delivering that famous Hawaiian Punch year-round, nobody gets practice like our guys. Plus they also happen to include among their ranks some of the premiere big-wave surfers on the planet, and pretty much invented rescuing people with jet-powered personal watercraft.

Why don’t I trust these guys? I can’t, because requiring their assistance means I really screwed the pooch big time and probably almost died before they even left the tower. It’s not their job to make sure I don’t go out in conditions that I haven’t trained for. Ok, maybe it is but that’s a judgement call on their part. Unlike many locales where they arbitrarily shut down the beach when the waves pick up, in the Aloha state Ocean Safety usually only pre-emptively intervenes in the most obvious cases, like the pasty-white tourist from Oklahoma duck-walking in his flippers and Wal-Mart bodyboard down to 10-foot pipeline.

big pipeline surf
Not the best day for beginners.

The point is I can’t trust the best in the world, so why the hell should you rely on little Johnny Sweetcheeks fresh out on summer vaycay? Maybe he’s a seasoned member of the high school swim team, or maybe he is cruising on a gig that his uncle got him and spends his shift stealth-toking honey oil out of his Rasta-colored vaporizer while checking the latest tasty array on the bikini bakery rack. Either way you are trusting someone who just got their drivers license to fish your paralyzed body out of the drink and hold your fractured c-spine straight until the paramedics arrive. If you can come up with a better argument for personal responsibility and preventative caution, let me know.

Rule Three: If You Are Touching Something Wet, You Are In Danger

Okay I haven’t gotten to the actual ‘Surviving Crashing Waves Part’ yet. It’s even annoying me at this point, but after performing so many rescues myself as a non-professional and actually seeing people drown and die it’s not something that I want to just skim over. Your best defense against the wave monster is to not be there, and this means not only paying attention to the ocean but also your surroundings.

high surf warning signs
If only there was some sort of warning system.

We have three of the deadliest spots on Oahu located conveniently nearby: China Walls, Spitting Caves, and Sandy Beach. Each has their own allure, kind of like how every electric fly zapper has some version of a blue light in the middle. For China Walls it’s a quick jump and a scramble up a sheer reef face. Looks easy, right? Not so much especially when people aren’t paying attention to those 15 minute swells I was talking about earlier. People do the scramble and think they are high enough only to get swept off the ledge by a rogue set and ground up on the wall, which is conveniently textured like a cheese grater. I think that’s where I’ve done most of my rescues. Every time it’s the same thing. We warn people. They do it anyway. We fish them out, and if nobody is there the Coast Guard fishes out what’s left of them the next morning. Sometimes it’s just little scraps of clothing.

tiger shark garbage truck
Cleanup aisle six.

I don’t have too much experience with Spitting Caves, mostly because it looks like a really bad idea and my idea of a good time has a more evenly distributed risk-to-reward ratio. Basically you jump off this cliff and land in a deep pool of water in front of a spitting cave. “What does it take to make a spitting cave?” you might ask. Lots of water pressure, which means lots of water being forced into a closed space and slamming all the air out. Which means people regularly getting sucked into the cave and slammed on the razor-sharp roof. A similar dynamic takes place on the West Side spot known as the Moi Hole where Brian Keaulana, one of the most famous Hawaiian lifeguards, attempted one of the most dangerous PWC rescues ever recorded on video.

If you ever visit Spitting Caves make sure to take a good look around at the jump spot and do a solid inventory of all the home-made memorials up there. Unlike the Moi Hole there are no lifeguards nearby, just some multi-million dollar mansions up on top of the cliff who’s owners have grown accustomed to the noise of ambulances, fire trucks, and hovering hellicopters.

Spitting caves oahu
Spitting Caves. It’s all fun and games until someone gets medevaced.

Sandy Beach is beautiful. It’s mesmerizing to watch the experts navigate the thumping crystal blue barrels as tanned and toned genetic perfection strolls up and down the shoreline in outfits that leave little to the imagination. Marijuana swirls through the air, and you can picture a teenaged Barrack Obama as one of the youngsters crowded around a fat joint nearby. You stroll down to the surf to get a better look. Just the ankles. That’s safe, right? Wrong-o bongo. This beach loves the crunch of bones, especially spinal columns of the unsuspecting.

My observation litmus test of the Sandy Beach-worthy is a quick check of neck thickness. If I see someone who’s neck is skinnier than the edges of their jaw-line I give them the standard boilerplate warning and make sure the can get back to dry land on their own. That’s because this is the most neck-wreckingest beach on the island. You don’t even have to try to swim to get caught in it, either. Once your feet are touching wet sand your odds of getting swept out go through the stratosphere. Maybe it’s rare, but just about every beach in the world has these kinds of days. While Sandy’s has these days pretty much all the time (I have the fracture x-rays to prove how much fun it is), that doesn’t mean whatever beach you are on is any less dangerous. First the water comes up, then it pulls out the sand underneath your feet, then you go down, then the next one drags you out a little further…

big wave daring photographer
In other words leave the Clark Little photos to Clark Little

Techniques For Surviving Breaking Waves

Ok here comes the good stuff, right? Well it highly depends on your situation, experience, and physical fitness to see if it’s even possible to come out at all,  never mind more or less unscathed. So if you get swept off the beach into what we affectionately refer to as the “impact zone” it’s going to become obvious fairly quickly that there are some serious forces at work. Water looks all nice and tame when it’s in a glass sparking conversations between optimists and pessimists, but put a whole bunch of it in a giant hole and get it all swishing around. Voila! You have one of the most powerful forces on the planet.

water glass
Wants to crush your skull. Also wants to keep you alive.

The nice thing about powerful forces is a lot of time they follow patterns (at least according to those godless heathen mathematicians and physics people). Your job is to figure out what patterns are at work and hope like hell you can figure out if there’s one that leads back to a nice patch of safe dry land that you can bend down and kiss repeatedly until the oxygen content of your blood returns to normal.

You are caught in a rip current and are currently in the process of drowning, but all you can think about is how it must look like dirty pictures from space.
You are caught in a rip current and are currently in the process of drowning, but all you can think about is how it must look like dirty pictures from space.

In the case of beaches that pattern is the push and pull of the waves and the flow of the near-shore currents. People often mistake the nice calm spot just beyond the surf as a ‘safe’ place to be, but that’s usually where the currents are the worst. Unless you are in some trully massive surf, chances are the beach breaks aren’t going to kill you. Broken bones, paralysis, and lots of sand in lots of crevices are all possibilities but it’s a better alternative to getting sucked out to sea and drinking brine until your lungs fill with bloody foam. That’s why it’s usually always best to let the wave action push you back up onto the shore. It all seems very counterintuitive when you are getting rag-dolled and slammed on the bottom, but using the “push” forces is what keeps you alive in this case.

Unless… Rocks!

Of course getting swept off a cliff or a jetty is an entirely different story. There you have the waves trying to smash you into something hard, and climbing back up out of that mess is like trying to juggle sledgehammers while someone blasts you with a firehose. Your best friend in this situation is called Timing. If the near-shore currents aren’t trying to pull you straight out to sea, then it’s best to wait until there is a break in the wave action to make a quick scramble for those rocks. Of course if the current is pushing you towards somewhere that has a protected cove or easier way to get in then by all means use that. The problem with a lot of coves is that the water is usually rushing out in between waves, meaning that you have to rely on the wave action to push you in just like on the beach. Also the word ‘cove’ suggests some kind of rocks or reef, so be prepared to get a little bit banged up on the way in. Hey, it’s better than drowning.

If You Are On The Road Through Hell, Keep Going.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen people make is that they usually get to a spot that they think is “safe enough” and prematurely start their survival celebration, just to get dragged back into the mess they were just in. You are not safe until you are touching something bone dry. Wet sand may feel like sweet victory, but not if it’s about to be covered in 3 feet of water from the next wave. Never stop until you are well out of the danger zone.

old timey rescue
Old school rescue using the controversial Emo/Caveman technique.

Don’t Panic

I should have probably started out with this one, but it’s kind of a useless recommendation. If you end up in a situation like this because you weren’t paying attention, then I’m just going to take a wild guess that you’ll react with at least a little bit of panic. It’s kind of like an embarrasing brown stain inside your drawers. Nobody can see it at first, but if you don’t pucker up and get where you need to go then soon enough the whole world will know your shame.

I’ve felt it myself a few times. A realization slowly builds about how serious things just got and how high the stakes are. The closest I came was paddling a shortboard through a wall of sharks after some evil drunken rednecks had thoughtlessly poured buckets of blood and guts into the water for their tough-guy fishing ritual. It’s an eerie feeling reaching down for a paddle stroke and touching sharks instead of water, but the only place to get in was straight through the middle of the swirling vortex of teeth and fins. Assessing the situation was key, and after stuffing down the desire to start freaking out I figured that being in deeper water was actually more dangerous than just going for it. Lucky for me I made it back to the beach with all my chunks intact and was able to launch a few not-so-friendly words at the Bubba squad. It would have been a lot worse if I’d let my fear run the show. Drunken rednecks make for lousy rescuers, especially if the victim doesn’t have a female anatomy.

carp swarm
This is how I remember it only with more teeth and less duck face.

Fear is hard to contain, but like other strong emotions it can be managed. It’s sort of like opening a plastic soda bottle that someone shook up. As soon as you see the foam shooting out the sides, your first reaction should be to re-tighten the cap and then open it slowly to gradually release the pressure. Sure there is some soda spilled, but you can deal with that. Letting your fear take over is like dropping the whole bottle and spraying it everywhere. No soda for you, and everyone nearby just got splattered in your carbonated melodrama. How you manage it makes all the difference between and exhilarating sip of life and a messy sticky end. So don’t drop that bottle, kids, and try not to drink too much soda. It rots your teeth and will give you the Diabeetus.

wilford brimley
If plain old water is good enough for Wilford it is good enough for you.


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