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How to Prepare for an Emergency in the Water

How to Prepare for an Emergency in the Water

Many of you might have heard about the shark attack at Kewalos in the past few weeks, in which a local surfer ended up losing his foot. Obviously, this was traumatic for the surfer who was attacked, but it was also traumatic for our entire Town surfing community, as events like this can often make us feel vulnerable and aware of the dangers we often unknowingly face each day as we pursue our passion for surfing.


The reality is that we face a lot of different risks when we play in the ocean—risks that we often are ignorant of or choose to put out of our mind so that we are able to surf without stress. These risks range from attacks by sea life (such as sharks, seals, and jellyfish) to impacts on the reef, injuries from waves and other people’s surfboards, and even simple drowning due to being held under by a wave or losing consciousness while in the water.

Of course, the goal of this blog is not to make everyone think about all of the dangers facing them while they surf and scare them out of the water. We love surfing as much as the rest of you and know how much joy and positivity it can bring into our lives. The risks that we face as surfers are worth it for the happiness that riding waves brings us, and the reality is that the risks are relatively low. For every person who gets injured in some way while surfing, thousands paddle out safely and enjoy a fun, incident-free session. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be prepared for emergencies in the water, because when they happen, our adrenaline tends to kick in and we often react incorrectly due to panic or lack of preparation.

Over the years, I have been in the water during a number of very serious emergencies. These have been quite frightening, but they have also given me a first-person perspective on emergency response and helped me to be better prepared in the future.

One of the first emergencies I can remember was when a friend and I were surfing alone at a secluded spot and he ended up getting attacked by a shark. As he kicked out of a wave and sat down on his board, the shark smashed into him and bit him on the chest. After the fact, we surmised that the shark must have been following him on the wave as he rode it. Fortunately, the bite on his chest was not super traumatic—but it was still enough of an emergency to be dealt with properly.

My friend and I knew the basic emergency signals that are used in the water, and he immediately threw his arm up to signal to me that he was in trouble. (The opposite signal, which means “I’m okay,” is to pat yourself on the head). I paddled over to him to check on his status, then paddled with him to the boat, keeping our boards close together in order to appear larger to the shark if it was still lurking in the channel, attracted by the scent of blood. Once on the boat, I used my first aid knowledge to staunch the bleeding, then got my friend home, where we were able to stitch him up.

Not all emergencies go so well, but they all have a better potential for a positive outcome if there is good communication. On a recent trip for Surfline’s Maps to Nowhere project, young Australian surfer Winter Vincent went neck-first into the reef at a super-shallow and super remote left-hander. He immediately called out to me and used arm signals to indicate that he was in trouble, and I ended up paddling him to shore, where we were able to better assess his injuries. Fortunately, we had brought a first aid kit with us—a mandatory essential for me whenever I am planning for a trip—and we were able to stabilize him, sterilize his wounds, and dress them appropriately. Looking back, we should also have had some sort of satellite communication technology with us to call for help if his injuries had been more life-threatening, because we were a long way from the nearest medical facility and would have required an air evacuation if things had gone bad.

Speaking of airvacs, I was once on a trip in the Philippines with pro surfer and PhD scientist Cliff Kapono, when he pulled into a large barrel and was driven head-first into the reef. He once again communicated properly to let those of us in the lineup know that he was in trouble, and we immediately paddled in through the waves to help him get to shore. Because he had hit his head (which was bleeding profusely), we knew that he was at risk of neck injury, so we immobilized his neck and back for the long and bumpy car ride to the nearest hospital. When we got there, the doctor misdiagnosed Cliff with a broken neck after misreading his x-rays. We didn’t know that his diagnosis was incorrect, so we thought that he had a broken neck and needed to be transported to Manila for stabilization. Fortunately, we had purchased travel insurance before the trip (as we always do), and it included coverage for emergency evacuation. A private plane flew in and picked us up to transport us to Manila, where we eventually had Cliff medically cleared after CT scan indicated that his neck was not, in fact, broken.

Another time when we weren’t so lucky was during a surf trip to P-Pass on Pohnpei. The waves were only 3-5 foot, but the tide was super low and an Australian kid who was surfing with us ended up going head-first into the reef. By the time we got to him, he was face-down in the water and unconscious. Fortunately, a number of us were trained in CPR, and we were able to resuscitate him on the boat. He still ended up in the hospital with a fractured skull and post-drowning complications and was eventually air evacuated back to Australia.

Not all emergencies in the water are the result of a traumatic accident or attack by a sea creature. While surfing Bowls a few summers back, my partner Kilty noticed an old uncle starting to act strangely in the water. As it turned out, he was having a stroke—a fact that Kilty and a couple of other surfers quickly recognized. Rather than freaking out, they stayed calm and delegated responsibilities. One surfer paddled in and called 911, while Kilty and another surfer helped the uncle paddle slowly to shore. By the time they got onto the sand, paramedics had already arrived and were able to administer blood thinners, which broke up the clot and ended saving the uncle’s life. We still see him in the water out at Bowls all the time!

One of the most frightening and serious emergencies I have been in the water for was when big wave legend Aaron Gold drowned during an XL swell at Cloudbreak. He was one of the first people in the water, just as the swell was filling in, and he ended up taking a large wave on the head and getting held down until he went unconscious. Aaron was only saved because local Fijian surfer and waterman Uri Kurop found his body from atop his jet ski and was able to pull him out of the water. They quickly transported Aaron’s body to a nearby boat, where Mark Healy performed CPR on him and revived him.