My 2 Near-Death Bodyboarding Experiences in Oahu Hawaii’s Big Surf

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I’m not a dangerous person. I don’t consider myself a ‘thrill seeker’ by the usual definition. But, that said, I have had a few times that I’ve almost died while trying to enjoy this crazy thing called “Life”. This is a post about two such near death experiences that happened in the Pacific ocean while I was living on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. I call them ‘Awesome Experiences’ but they were awesome only because I came through them OK… alive. I faced something during both of these experiences that was scary enough to be labeled “possibility of death”.

I swam all my life growing up – in swimming pools in Pennsylvania. I was a good swimmer and yet at eighteen years of age I still needed months of time in Oahu’s strong waves before I felt like I understood a bit of what waves were all about. It took months more to be confident in the water in all kinds of surf, and yet even so, I never paddled out in waves that were higher than ten or twelve feet Hawaiian scale (15-24’ for all other scales).

It was 1986 and was just turning winter in Hawaii. Winter consists of seventy to eighty degree days and a cooler breeze at night than during the summer. I had been bodyboarding for around two years at this point and I’d never really gone after the big waves. That summer I’d ridden six to eight foot waves (Hawaiian scale) in Waikiki at “Walls” and those were the biggest waves I’d ever faced. It was so much fun that I had to go in search of a little larger wave to see if it was even more fun!

I loaded up the MGB convertible and went solo up to the North Shore of Oahu where I heard there was a nice swell beginning. Kasey, my usual bodyboarding fanatic friend had to work that day, and thinking back on it now it was really stupid to go up there alone in big surf.

Now, the thing about swells when they are beginning is that they are in the process of growing all the time. They might grow over a couple days, or they might grow over the course of one day. Looked at on a macro scale, they may grow literally from one set of waves to the next… and that’s the usual pattern for waves. There are the regular sets that roll in for twenty minutes at a time, maybe fifty minutes at a time… and then, bam, a bigger set or two roll through and then back to the regular sized sets.

I had watched the waves for about twenty minutes prior to getting in the water. They were quite a ways out away from shore and it wasn’t that easy to read them from that distance. I was at “Sunset beach park” at a break called “Backyards” which breaks very far out – a couple hundred yards from the beach. There were plenty of people out there already and so I thought I’d go check it out and see what it was like. From what I saw the waves were eight to ten foot Hawaiian scale and breaking very cleanly and smooth… They were essentially perfect waves. There were only about twenty surfers out and two other bodyboarders. It was around 9:30 am.

I paddled out, and I was instantly amazed (and in fear of) the currents there. The rip current pulled me out of the way down the beach from where I wanted to be. It took quite an effort to get back to where the group was. By this time I was pretty tired, having been spoiled by Waikiki and the Windward shores close breaks – within 50-100 yards from shore. I caught my breath over the next ten minutes and watched some picture perfect waves roll in. Some waves went without riders, that’s how many great waves were coming… the pros could pick and choose the best of the best, and they did.

Me? I waited until I was fully rehabbed and breathing regularly again before I was ready. When I thought I was ready I looked in back of me as I heard whoops from the other surfers that spotted the set that was to be my undoing. I saw glare from the wave faces far in the distance. When a big set is coming you can see the bumps of it FAR off in the distance, beyond where you were seeing the waves form before. The big sets give you a clue by forming earlier and they grow as they come in, sometime popping off some mist at the top of the wave as it is caught by the wind. By the time a big set reaches the spot the regular waves were forming you’ll get an idea how big they’ll be. This set was way in the distance, and yet was coming fast. It was HUGE already. Far bigger than I’d ever been in front of in the water. Guys were paddling out to it so they could get a longer ride, as the big sets are rideable much further out than the regular breaking sets.

Me? I paddled out toward them too a bit, knowing that if I got caught in front of the set after it broke I was in a lot of trouble.

I decided on a safe strategy of taking the first wave in to shore and getting the hell out of the water just as the mammoth set erupted behind me.

Nobody but me was on the first wave of that big set, and that’s the good news because if I had to catch any of the others I’d have been on twenty+ foot Hawaiian scale waves which were twice as big as any wave I had caught in Hawaii.

The first wave of the set is nearly always smaller than the rest. As it turned out I found myself at the top of a solid 15 foot wave that was moving fast. It was so fast that I thought to myself as I came down the wave face, that’s amazing that the bottom of my board skimming the top of this wave is making so much noise… I knew I was on an epic ride because the speed I was moving was so far beyond what I had ever done before.

I rode the wave as long as I could, and still I was 80-100 meters from the shore. I looked in back of me to find wave after wave, lined up like the pulses of a 20-30 foot tsunami unleashed on me. I frantically dove as deep as my bodyboard leash would allow (six feet) and hoped that the wave wouldn’t grab me and pull me with it. I lucked out after that second wave of the set, but the next one HAMMERED me. Sitting here in my one room flat in southern Thailand thinking about that event that happened twenty-one years ago and I couldn’t possibly tell you in words what the fear was like.

It’s not that I don’t remember because I remember it quite vividly, and I can feel something in my stomach as I type this on the computer. The fear of dying if I stopped trying to fight these waves was all I had to keep me going. I had no strength left after about the fourth wave as strength wanes quickly when there isn’t enough air to fuel the muscles to fight the million gallons of water thrashing me around and holding me under in loose foam clouds that were churning like a washing machine on super-cycle.

The thing about loose foam, the white water that happens as a wave pummels a surfer and holds him under is that it’s impossible to swim in. You can try, but there’s more air bubbles than water and so when you are trying to move in swimming movements, it’s more like you’re trying to fly through air than swimming. We all know, humans can’t fly through air. Neither can you swim in air. Basically you need to hold your breath until you float to the top. If you can’t do that, you’re gonna pass out and probably die inhaling water.

There were a couple times as wave after wave came and I was able to eventually float to the top after twenty seconds or a minute, that I reached the top and didn’t really realize I was at the top. There wasn’t elation at reaching the top, but a vague stillness that I guess was me in an altered state of consciousness where I just wasn’t getting enough air to understand what was going on all the time. Once I breathed a breath or two and dove again I was aware for the next twenty or so seconds and then I sort of relaxed and let the natural buoyancy of my body and bodyboard take me to the surface and did it again.

I don’t know how many waves were in that set, but there were over fifteen and I was like a wet surf-rat by the time I floated lazily into shore, about three-hundred meters (yards) from where I entered the water… the current took me down shore but I could care less at that point. I had the worst time trying to remove my fins and the straps that kept them on my feet as there was some shore-break that was giving me the final insult to my ego as it played with me and made me look stupid like a grommet that overestimated his abilities to get in the North Shore surf during a nice swell.

When I stood up in the knee-high surf at the shore I stumbled and some people were there watching. Nobody bothered to say anything, they understood that I was OK since I made it to shore. Apparently they see a lot of people barely making it to shore there. Some don’t make it at all. I walked about fifteen steps up the steep incline of the sandy beach where I knew the tide wouldn’t get me and I flopped down in the sand next to my board. I spent the next couple hours laying in the sand right there, three-hundred meters from where my backpack was up the beach. I had no cares about someone stealing my things or even taking the car… I was ‘alive’ mostly and that’s what mattered right then… I drifted in and out of sleep and finally had the energy to walk to the car after a few hours of exhaustion and baking in the hot Hawaii sun.

After this ‘adventure’ I thought seriously about the possibility that I could have died there in the water. I think had it not been for the strength of my bodyboard and leash system (Turbo bodyboards) I think I probably would have died. I’m a slow learner though, and sixteen years later because of poor quality Morey equipment I almost died in the water in Waikiki!

Near-death bodyboarding experience #2 at “Magic Island” in Ala Moana Park on Oahu’s south shore: May 2002

It was May, and the south shore swells on Oahu were starting. This marked my favorite time of the year since I much prefer bodyboarding on the south of Oahu than in the northeast or at the North Shore. I heard that a swell was already in progress at one of my favorite places to bodyboard, Magic Island in Ala Moana park in Waikiki. Ala Moana is a large beach park across from the Ala Moana Mall. I’d guess it’s about a mile or so long. The part called “Magic Island” is a peninsula that goes out into the bay a bit and where there’s a pool of shallow water protected by man-made rocks and concrete to block the waves, even the big ones, from hitting the kiddie pool area.

Beyond those rocks is where I liked to bodyboard. There were consistent and easy-to-read waves that broke there on a south swell. When I arrived I was almost in tears of joy as I saw four to six feet Hawaiian scale waves and only five guys riding them.

I had a $90 Morey medium-hard foam bodyboard with a plastic tube leash that was anchored through the center front of the board – just under my chin as I rode the board. It had a straight strap with two layers of Velcro to attach firmly to my left wrist. This bodyboard was much cheaper in quality than the bodyboard I’d had sixteen years before on the North Shore when I had the near death experience. That “Turbo” board, built by Russ Brown I used was around $120 back in 1985 and was very solid and heavy and was able to take the stress of hundreds of pounds of pull on the leash without failing.

The waves at Magic Island on this day were not that big and I thought the Morey board was ‘good enough’. After all, it was a $90 board, not a $30 board. There must be some difference in strength. I thought this board could handle six foot surf. I was so very wrong.

I caught a couple of waves right off and they were phenomenal! They were coming fast and were almost curling into a partial pipe which was strange for this break. There were many people standing on the boardwalk watching us bodyboard and it was a beautiful sunny day and wave after wave of board riding bliss.

I duck-dived one wave (dove under it) that started to take me backwards with it so I let the board go and I went further underwater without the board. It was attached to my wrist and I’d never had a good leash break before. What happened was not that the leash broke… the board broke. The leash was attached with a plastic rod that held the leash down through the center of the board and that had a large hard plastic cap on the bottom of the board that was supposed to prevent the leash from popping out of the foam. This it did. To the board’s credit, the leash did NOT pop out of the foam.

What did happen was that the center plastic piece that went through the board ripped the board almost three feet long-ways, shredding the board and leaving me in a big ten foot set without a board to float on. I heard people at the beach scream when they saw the board, they thought a shark had grabbed it since the foam was ripped in a jagged serrated pattern, not unlike a shark might inflict.

I was able to swim for a while, trying to head back into the rocky shoreline but the current was much too swift against me. I spent twenty minutes swimming hard against the current, unable to find a clean path through the coral and around the current. I was scraping my legs and fingers as I tried to swim gently over top of the coral. The waves had other ideas and raked my body across the coral at will.

Finally I was on the verge of panic since I realized that I was nearly depleted of strength. Luckily I saw a Hawaiian guy paddling out on his long-board and I asked him if I could hold onto his board for a minute to recoup my strength. He let me, despite us being overrun by waves every couple seconds. I asked him where the best spot was to get back into shore and he showed me the one path through the coral where I wouldn’t get too cut up. I took that path, and still got cut up as the current took me right over the coral again but, at least I was back at the shore. I found my board, took pictures and sent them to Morey, complaining that they’re crummy board almost got me killed. They promptly sent me an upgraded board free of charge and next day air. That was nice, they didn’t have to… but, knowing Hawaii is such a small place and that everyone would have talked about it – they did the smart thing!

I did the smart thing too from that point on – I only bodyboarded large surf:

1. With a friend.
2. With a well built board that was built for big waves!

Aloha!

Vern

2017-05-18T20:52:43+00:00

About the Author:

Moving to Hawaii was one of the most amazing moves ever. I strongly encourage you to consider it if you're in the financial position to make it work. Living in Hawaii has a fair bit of both positive and negative experiences awaiting each of us who give it a try. Read some of the articles here and try to get a feel for whether you might thrive in the islands. I wrote an entire book on the subject and it's usually less than $5. It's up there on the right side column. Best of luck and life to you! Aloha! - Vern L.

19 Comments

  1. Samantha Brown 06/27/2016 at 4:52 am - Reply

    I hate to say your story made me feel better but it really did. I have been bodyboarding at Tybee Island, Ga since I was a child (I’m 34 now). One if my favorite spots is just down from the pier. Last week, the waves weren’t high but they were moving fast so I was excited. I ran out in the water and immediately went to catch a wave but it hit so hard my board snapped in two. The water is pretty shallow so I was ok, just angry as I walked to the trash can. I walked to my car and grabbed another board and went back out. I rode several waves in but it was really rough. The current was so so strong I had to send the kids to play on the shore. I started to think I’m getting used to this (the stronger current) when I caught a higher wave, but half way to shore I lean ever so slightly and barrell roll underwater at least 3 times before being thrown up in the air. I thankfully landed on my feet but I was so terrified it took me a while make my legs walk me to shore. Even though it happened so fast I remember the feeling of not knowing up from down, of squeezing on to the piece of board that was left with all I had and of knowing I could have drown or broke my neck on the ocean floor. I walked to my towel and just laid there for a few hours. I was so embarassed and angry!!! How could this happen to me?!? I wanted to set an example for my kids to not be afraid and get back on the horse so I went back out, instantly broke another board and decided it was time to go for lunch and a beer! Your story put a bandaid on my ego.

    • Peter Kay 06/27/2016 at 7:31 am - Reply

      Thanks for sharing. There’s nothing quite like the fear of knowing that you have no control over ocean power. Love The story

  2. Shawn Hunt 12/28/2015 at 8:24 pm - Reply

    Enjoyed reading your memories of Hawaii surf. And I can just say , I feel you bro ! If I was a good writer I’d have stories that you would relate to also. For now they are just happy and scary to death memories. Now in Waikiki, I’m gonna go make more happy memories. North Shore almost killed this armature (26 years) surfer. By the way , Magic Island break is called Bombura’s. That’s MY spot forever !

  3. will 08/31/2015 at 5:47 pm - Reply

    Gawd! Biggest I ever went out was 4-5 hawaiian at sandys, but im only an adolescent hapa, so…

    • Vern Lovic 09/19/2015 at 4:17 pm - Reply

      That’s plenny big brah! Sandy’s is a killer…

  4. ๋Jon Watanabe 06/06/2014 at 10:53 pm - Reply

    Woaw Brudda Vern! You bigger balls then me! The biggest I went out and I thought I barely survived was 3-5 feet! Great post. Keep up the great work.
    Aloha,
    “Kay, This ones fo Gabby”-Brudda Iz

    • Vern 06/07/2014 at 12:09 am - Reply

      haha! I was a strong swimmer before I moved to Hawaii, and being in the waves five times a week for years helped me know the water and waves pretty well. But, I knew small waves well. Big ones, not yet… so yeah, when I took the plunge, it damn near killed me. Twice. Lol. Good thing I can hold my breath a long time! I won’t be chasing waves over 6 feet on Hawaiian scale anymore when I get back there. Well, wait… not sure about that. Not over 10 for sure. Man every time I hear from you I think about the islands… thanks for your comment brah… stay cool up there!

  5. Dave M 08/29/2013 at 7:36 pm - Reply

    Great stories- I love bodyboarding but have never been to Hawaii. It’s reputation as being super crowded and aggressive in the water put me off. Always wondered what it would be like to get out in a big set and now I know- sounds scary!

    • Vern 08/29/2013 at 9:11 pm - Reply

      There are so many places to go in Hawaii Dave, so many days when people won’t be there. Mornings can be paradise – by yourself or in a small group. With big waves, there just aren’t that many people paddling out! I remember the one day I was out there on the North Shore and the surf was cranking, I remember wondering, why aren’t there more people OUT HERE man. Then I found out… I was looking at small sets. The big ones came when I paddled out!

      Just be respectful in the water. Don’t grab a wave in front of someone that caught it behind you. I didn’t have many problems with territoriality or being rude. I just gave all the locals their rides first and waited patiently. Then your time comes. Then it comes again. You’ve gotta go to the islands if you love bodyboarding Dave. At least once.

  6. kelela 08/29/2012 at 11:14 am - Reply

    Awesome story! I could really imagine how you must have felt, and nearly teared. Much better than reading my art history book in front of me. :p

    • Vern 08/30/2012 at 3:45 pm - Reply

      Art history is the coolest! I loved the two classes I had. Almost dying on the ocean is also a pretty interesting topic I guess. Get back to work!

  7. Fat Man 11/03/2011 at 1:01 am - Reply

    Never been scared of the water until Sandy’s broke my lunch. Mad respect for the water here.

    • Vern 11/03/2011 at 1:32 am - Reply

      Sandy’s has a wicked shore break man… some would say – KILLER.

  8. Ellen 09/02/2011 at 1:38 pm - Reply

    Thanks for writing this, wow! Good to know! I found it when I googled “body boarding Oahu,” because my 9 year old son just got what we thought was a “nice” body board (not fabric covered, real leash, about $20, better than the $10 ones, right?). He had a blast a Bellows over the weekend and I took him to Waikiki Wed,with the big surf, just to the left of the wall at Kalakaua. He stayed in close (no farther out than the concrete pier), and I stayed in the water with him (I used to lifeguard, pool not beach…and I got cut pretty good by the coral, too). So I’m looking for some good places to take him to learn. How do you learn, anyway, just do it? I know he needs some fins. Any recommendations for good beginner spots? How advanced is Sandy’s…that’s his goal! Stay (relatively) safe…Mahalo :-)

  9. Piotr 05/16/2011 at 8:29 pm - Reply

    glad you are alive my friend!

    • Vern 05/16/2011 at 9:09 pm - Reply

      Me too – I think… the one at the north shore was the scariest moment of my life – ever.

  10. e.siles 02/17/2009 at 5:55 am - Reply

    20ft+ wave hawaiian scale is 50 feet no bodyboarders would ever try to catch a wave that big without towing in i bet it was only 12 ft. and there isnt fifteen waves in a set. Get a Bz hubb.

    • Vern 02/17/2009 at 11:19 am - Reply

      Hi Erik, thanks for writing in and sharing what is obviously your brilliance. I don’t know who taught you math, but 20 foot Hawaiian is about 35 feet. Multiply by 1.5, not 2.5. If you want to argue that, argue with these guys, not me. Some Hawaiians halve the actual size of the wave, others moderate it around 2/3’s the size of the actual wave face from crest to trough. I was used to south shore waves where they tend toward the 2/3’s call. Others upcountry – Northshore would call it at half.

      Secondly – the only reason I tried to catch that first wave was because I knew the set would kill me as the rest of the waves in the set were bigger than the first one – some of them MUCH bigger than 20 feet Hawaiian. It was a freakshow to look on the horizon and see about 6 waves lined up, in fact there were about 15 waves in that set, all of them way bigger than I had ever ridden or ever wanted to ride.

      Thirdly – you “bet” it was only 12 ft.? How can you bet on something you didn’t see? Again I’m guessing this is a function of your brilliantly executed comment. Welcome to the Aim for Awesome blog, we’re all doing our best. You’re not. Now go run along to your math lesson if you can remember where you go to school.

  11. Darren 04/08/2008 at 9:49 am - Reply

    Crazy stuff , glad your ok !

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