5 of surfing’s scariest close calls

Massive Teahupo'o in Tahiti has precipitated many close calls among surfers over the years; photo courtesy ASP
Massive Teahupo’o in Tahiti, such as was seen at the recent Billabong Pro Tahiti, has precipitated many close calls among surfers over the years. Photo courtesy ASP

Throughout surfing’s history, some of the world’s best big-wave surfers have tragically lost their lives in the ocean while following their passion for huge surf. Others have been more fortunate, coming within seconds of drowning at some of surfing’s deadliest waves. We take a look at some of the close calls of professional surfers who looked death in the eye and lived to tell the tale.

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Maya Gabeira is brought back to life at Nazare
It was probably one of the most publicized wipeouts of this century. When Brazilian big-wave surfer Maya Gabeira wiped out at the base of a 70-foot wave at Portugal’s Nazare, her chances of survival looked slim. She had broken her ankle in the fall, her lifejacket came off, and although near shore, she was unable to get out of the treacherous waters. The first attempt to rescue her by her tow partner, Carlos Burle, failed, and she was unconscious and face down in the water by the time he made a successful second attempt. On shore, Burle gave her CPR, brought her back to life, and she was rushed to hospital and released 24 hours later. “I was throwing up. I mean, it took a long time in my brain to come back,” Gabeira told Stabmag.com. “I opened my eyes but as soon as I did I kinda knew where I was. I could tell I had just drowned.”

Shane Dorian’s close call at Mavericks (not pictured)
Mavericks is known as one of the most deadly waves in the world, having claimed the lives of legendary Hawaiian big-wave surfers Mark Foo in 1994 and Sion Milosky in 2011. In 2010, Shane Dorian was seconds away from also joining the afterworld, suffering a two-wave hold-down the very first time he surfed the Californian wave. “That wipeout is still the heaviest surf experience I have had,” Dorian told GrindTV. “I was already beginning to run out of air when the second wave hit me. That forced me down again, and I thought I was going to drown. I was sure that was it.” Eventually Dorian surfaced, but the legacy of his close call lives on. After that wipeout Dorian devised the inflatable life jacket, which has been responsible for improved safety and even bigger waves being ridden.

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Tamayo Perry’s axe wound at Pipeline
Since Hawaii’s Pipeline was first surfed in the 1960s, it has been universally known as one of the most dangerous waves in the world. Seven surfers have died at the break and many more have suffered serious injuries. Once such surfer was Tamayo Perry, a local Hawaiian who was known as one of the best surfers there. In 2005 he was struck by another surfer’s board, the fin lodging in his head. “I felt a searing pain as I was being rolled and bashed against the reef,” Perry told GrindTV. “I came to and put my hand to my head. I could just feel all soft matter and my hand could fit in the gash. I felt like an axe wound. I swear blood and brain was oozing out of my skull.” Perry somehow managed to drag himself to shore, where fortunately a trauma doctor happened to be on the beach; he stabilized the blood flow and saved Perry’s life.

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Ken “Skindog” Collins is done at Jaws
Jaws on the island of Maui has, without a doubt, the biggest rideable waves on the planet. As such, the consequences of falling here are enormous. On his first surf there in 2009, Ken “Skindog” Collins found this out the hard way. After coming off at the bottom of a 70-foot wave, he was thrown over the falls, suffered a huge hold down and then copped the next wave on the head. “I pulled my ACL, hyperextended my neck and hip, and tweaked my back,” said Skindog in the clip below. It wasn’t finished yet, though. As he was being rescued by a Jet Ski, a third wave broke, taking Skindog, the driver, and the Jet Ski, with the ski being deposited on the rocks. “At that stage I was like, ‘I’m done,'” said Collins. “I’m never surfing big waves again. Heck, I’m never going in the ocean again.”

Jordy Smith wasn't the only surfer to feel the wrath of Teahupoo in this year's Billabong Pro. Here Bede Durbidge comes unstuck. Photo ASP
Jordy Smith wasn’t the only surfer to feel the wrath of Teahupoo in this year’s Billabong Pro. Here, Bede Durbidge comes unstuck. Photo ASP

Jordy Smith’s recent near death experience at Teahupoo
Teahupoo is rightfully known as the scariest wave on the planet. It is perhaps surprising that it has only claimed one life, local surfer Briece Taerea, who died after being slammed in to the reef in 2000. This year in the trials event for the Billabong Pro Tahiti, Kevin Bourez, younger brother of world title hopeful Michel Bourez, suffered a fractured skull and multiple lacerations after a wipeout. Then in the event proper, South African Jordy Smith suffered an experience that he described as the worst of his life. Talking to the ASP after being hit by a 10-foot wave after a fall, Smith said, “I’m just happy to be alive. Nothing else matters right now, as for a moment I thought it was all over. It was easily the most scared I have ever been in the ocean.”

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