Laird Hamilton had guessed right. The farther offshore from Maui he and Lickle got, the clearer it became that the storms' big swells were setting up hills of water 50 feet high, hills that were crashing over the reef and offering rides three quarters of a mile long. "It was absolute perfection," Lickle says. "Not a drop of water out of place." As the waves grew, the pair found it nearly impossible to control their skittering boards, so they returned to shore to pick up Hamilton's favorite: a six-foot-seven wood missile shaped by Hawaiian Dick Brewer, thin as a water ski, heavy, and fast. By the time they returned, Outer Sprecks had gone mutant.
Helicopter pilot Don Shearer, who's flown film and rescue missions during Maui's hairiest swells, flew in under the low ceiling and was completely awestruck by waves 12 to 15 stories tall. "I've seen every big swell that's come in since 1986," he says. "This was far and away the biggest I've seen in my life."
"They were sucking the water off the reef, breaking top to bottom," Hamilton says. "We could barely get into them, even at full speed."
The aluminum fin on Lickle's board had bent, so Hamilton lent him his Brewer. The foot straps were too wide, but Lickle couldn't resist the opportunity to chase down "the two biggest waves of my life." But as he blasted down his third the entire wall reared up in front of him. With no chance to outrun it, Lickle swung to the top, narrowly flying over the back. He was done. Then the horizon went dark: It was a rogue wave, straight out of The Poseidon Adventure. Hamilton wanted it. Lickle pegged the throttle.
After letting go of the rope, Hamilton felt as if he were flying. Plunging down the wall, he had to make split-second adjustments to deal with the warbles and ripples in his path while also focusing far ahead in case the wave lurched up into a closeout. Then he realized that was exactly what was happening. Tearing along at 40 knots, Hamilton's only hope was to dive into the wall, kick like hell, and pray he didn't get sucked downward as the wave thundered shut.
Lickle, tracking behind, was horrified when the wave closed out. Then his buddy popped up unharmed, but waving frantically: The next one was even bigger. Hamilton grabbed the sled and Lickle nailed the throttle, shooting toward land at 50 mph. It wasn't fast enough.
"The wave hit us like we were going backward," Hamilton says.
Lungs near bursting, Hamilton and Lickle finally surfaced in choking foam a foot thick. "I could barely keep my chin above the surface," Lickle says. Another wave followed, then another, dragging the pair a third of a mile until they reached a calmer stretch. Then Hamilton heard Lickle say something like "tourniquet." Pulling his leg out of the water, Hamilton was shocked by the carnage. "It had to be taken care of right there," Hamilton says. Almost a mile of sea and shorebreak lay between them and safety. "Or he was going to bleed to death."
Shearer's helicopter flew over, but he couldn't see the pair in the foam. Hamilton ripped off his wetsuit and tied a sleeve tight around Lickle's leg. Then he spotted the jet ski a quarter of a mile away, floating perfectly upright. He gave Lickle his vest and said, "I've gotta go."
As Hamilton swam off, Lickle felt more alone than ever before. "I've got kids, 12 and seven," he says. "I had bled out to the point of weakness. I was just drifting, wondering if I'd ever see my family again."
Lickle's light-headed fog broke when the jet ski arrived with his butt-naked buddy at the helm. The ignition lanyard gone, Hamilton had used stashed headphone wires to MacGyver a replacement. When he punched the ignition, the waterlogged ski fired right up.
Hamilton screamed into the radio for EMTs as Lickle knelt on the sled, trying to keep his calf closed for the grueling 12-minute race to Baldwin Beach Park. By the time the ski ground into the sand, paramedics were waiting.