Hits the bottom so hard his wetsuit is ripped and his ass, legs and feet are cut. He pulls his inflatable vest but the downward pressure is so great nothing happens.
Two weeks ago, Maui surfer Billy Kemper won his fourth Jaws contest, his second in a row, in thirty-foot-plus waves.
It was a very good event, and not just for the thrill of seeing large tubes ridden, but for the satisfaction of watching competitors brought down violently by the impossible-to-fight physics of giant moving hunks of water.
And, Australian surfer Jamie Mitchell, the man Kelly Slater calls “one of the greatest unknown sportsmen of all time” for his ten consecutive victories in the Molokai to Oahu paddle race, had a wipeout that really pushed his face through the window.
Jamie, who turns forty-three in a few weeks, was at home at Sunset Beach on the North Shore, where he live with his wife and two kids, when I called to discuss the event.
The last time we’d spoken was four years ago when I’d recorded an audio track of Jamie describing what it was like to be shoved underwater on a sixty-foot wave, in that case, Belharra, at Saint-Jean-de-Luz in France’s south-west.
“I’ve never felt so alone,” he said at the time.
This wipeout, during his round one heat of the contest, was worse.
Jamie’s one of the best in the game but whenever he has a heat in some big-wave event he tends to only catch one wave so he’s made it his goal to ride four waves in ever heat.
At Jaws, he was almost twenty minute in, half the heat gone, and he was waveless. Jamie told himself, “Whatever comes in, I’m taking it. It doesn’t matter how big it is or how late I am getting into it.’
Almost immediately after he made his vow, the biggest wave of the morning, perhaps the day, poked its nose over the fence.
Twiggy Baker was further out. He missed it.
Jamie was in a good spot to catch it. He turned, put down his head and used those formidable paddle arms to get him into the wave as fast as he could.
“I knew this was going to be the wave of my life or the wipeout of my life,” he says.
It was a decent entry.
The funny thing about Jaws is it can look glassy, but a fifty-foot wave, which is how big Jamie is calling this, generates its own offshore, adding to the east-south-east coming into the right.
“I thought I was in,” says Jamie. “The nose was actually pointed down. If you look closely you can see my left hand is trying to push the nose of my board down.”
Jamie knows that once a bit of wind gets under the nose of your board, you’re fucked.
“I knew I wasn’t going to make it so I jumped to try and penetrate. But the wave was so big when I was falling my leash and my board yanked me.”
He ended up hitting the wave on his left side, head and shoulder first.
How was the impact?
“Impact was bad. My left side, my left neck and shoulder went numb instantly. They call it a stinger. When the wave sucked back over I went over the falls and then I don’t know if I blacked out quickly but I just remember I was on the bottom, on the rocks, on my back.”
Jamie hits the bottom so hard his wetsuit is ripped and his ass, legs and feet are cut. He pulls his inflatable vest but the downward pressure is so great nothing happens.
“I couldn’t do anything. I was at the mercy of this thing,” he says.
Even his board was completely submerged.
“Normally, when you’re underwater half your board is tombstoning. My was underwater. And my leg was getting yanked to the surface but I was stuck on the bottom.”
Jamie remembers thinking, let it play out, save your oxygen.
“It’s hard because you’re fight or flight and your initial thought is get to the surface to avoid a two-wave holdout,” he says. “But then, if you don’t converse your oxygen and you do have a two-wave holdout, well…”
“You let yourself go and be calm.”
When he made it to the surface, almost on the rocks, Jamie swallowed a half-breath of air before a second wave hit him. Water safety patroller Abe Lerner got him on the rescue ski but Jamie couldn’t use his left arm. Dragged aboard, he was pulled off the back of the sled by his board hitting the water. Jamie enjoyed another wave on the head before getting out the back and into the final ten minutes of is heat.
“But it was all over. I got a mild concussion. I was seeing stars and feeling wobbly, drunk, what a boxer feels after getting hit. I just had to survive the rest of the heat.”
Afterwards, Jamie had people come up to him and say that it was lucky he took the wipeout as he had the tools, the training, the lungs to survive it.
“That’s the exact reason I train. To be able to be calm in that situation and be able to get back to my family.”
How did it compare to his Belharra wipeout?
“Belharra was bad but Jaws was a lot worse. A lot more violent. The one at Belharra rolled me underwater a long way. Jaws pinned me to the bottom and I went so deep so fast I didn’t equalise. All of a sudden I was on the bottom. It was crazy.”
I say that he must feel sorta immortal, capable of surviving anything, after the wipeout.
“Not really. There’s another big swell coming and I’m interested to see how I’m going to feel. It rattled me, to be honest. I’ve thought about a few different things, scenarios since. I don’t feel immortal. It shows how close you are to actually dying. It’s closer than you think.”