Excerpt: Banzai Smackdown - by Jack McCoy
What price do you put on taking a breath of fresh air, something you do every day without much thought?
Probably not much to be honest. If you live a long life to, let’s say, eighty years of age, you will suck in about 672,768,000 breaths without giving them a thought. That invisible elixir of life is considered rather worthless when you don’t even think about it, but it's priceless when in some precarious, unexpected moment, your access to that all important breath is denied.
Iconic surf cinematographer Jack McCoy experienced such a moment at the Pipeline in the ‘70s - his life and thoughts consumed by those moments of denied access - when he was pinned to the bottom grasping a 16mm movie camera with one hand, trying to survive. The camera was seriously protected by a cumbersome plexiglass water housing, but he wasn’t protected by anything but sheer luck and good providence. Isn’t it amazing how we protect our replaceable stuff as much as humanly possible, but not ourselves?
Up until a few seconds before the breath-denial moment, Jack was going for ‘the shot’. You know the one, that perfect shot that projects the photographer into the public eye and forever forges the reputation of the surfer. Unfortunately for this intrepid adventurer, an unfriendly set of circumstances saw Jack facing his demise. His exciting and turbulent life receding away, as his rapidly dwindling oxygen supply becomes a frightening reality.
Only a small percentage of the world’s population will ever experience an aquatic predicament of such life-threatening quality, so let’s explore what it’s really like to be there. Let's let’s find out how the hell this amazing guy handled the moment. Let’s hear about the real deal from the man who lived to tell about that death-defying moment.
Jack remembers it clearly: “They say before you die, your life flashes before your eyes and this was so true during my death-defying experience."
“It’s the action-packed winter of 1975/76 - the famous ‘Bustin’ Down the Door’ year on Hawaii’s North Shore. Previously my business partner Dick Hoole and myself were distributing surfing films in Australia and although we had been shooting a lot of still pictures as cub reporters for Tracks, I’d never shot a roll of 16mm film until early November 1975. However, while I was recovering from a skiing accident, Dick handed me a Bolex 16mm camera and said with conviction, "We know what our audiences want - let’s make our own films!" And that’s what we did.
“In preparation for our first big work trip overseas, we’d taken a crash course in how to run the camera correctly, and had bought some great lenses to make it happen the way it should. We planned to spend winter at the famous home of the biggest rideable waves in the world, and were amped to capture the incredible feats of the extremely brave men who rode them. We bought a water housing for the Bolex and Hawaii would be the first chance I’d have to use it. I was excited at the chance to make it work.
“I had already captured a lot of water shots with this plexiglass rig for the past month or so, then the day of my reckoning finally came. I’d shot still photos from the water in Australia and Indonesia before, however, 16mm filming in Hawaii is a completely different deal when it comes to water photography - especially with a funky and crude plexiglass housing to keep my beloved Bolex dry. The Banzai Pipeline’s second reef was capping and the inside was a solid, gurgling, growling 10 - 12 foot Hawaiian-size.
“Looking forward to capturing the late afternoon surf session, I sense the swell building and take stock of myself - mentally and physically - as it fast becomes obvious that I’m facing my biggest challenge so far this winter. Just getting off the beach and out through the rip to the lineup is an art form in itself, but I’ve done this many times, both surfing and body surfing, however, with this awkward lump of water housing onboard, the art form I’m used to is multiplied ten fold. The key is to sit on the water’s edge about 100 yards south of the main take-off spot and watch the rhythm of the ocean as waves come toward the reef in sets. All this water-force rolls relentlessly in, firstly toward the beach, then naturally channels itself back out next to the wave zone to come at you again.
“As a big set approaches, my aquatic studies indicate to me that this particular day will deliver four wave sets and as the swirling mass of saltwater rushes toward the channel, I run down with my swim fins ready and attached and jump into the current just as the fourth wave breaks out onto the reef. My aim is to time my swim perfectly, so all the water moving along the beach shoots me into the channel and out to the wave-zone beyond, with hopefully just the right lull - a stoppage in the action - to get me to my preferred destination before the next set hits and the whole violent aquatic cycle begins again.
"The plan is excellent and the conditions are friendly to carry it out, but as any seasoned surfer knows, the ocean doesn’t always love you back!
“My adrenaline accentuates according to my sense of the ocean’s aerated bubbles against my sweaty skin and my heart starts pumping like a steam train going uphill. I only have one free arm to swim with, the other arm is tightly gripping the buoyant water housing of the camera. Under no circumstances is that prized possession going to suffer a scratch if I can help it. Swimming under these restrictions with both legs kicking like crazy, the whole event feels like driving with the handbrake on. But that’s OK, I’ve done this before. I’m OK. I’ve timed it just right! I’ve got this!
“The usual four-to-five knot rip-current is moving at shopping-mall escalator speed and I’m motoring along, gripping the housed camera and the 25mm lens I’d chosen for my mission. My game plan to swim into what I think is a safe enough position, to put my right eye up to the back of the camera and peer through the reflex to site my shot is a good one and I choose the first of the set. It’s such a pretty wave and Rory Russell was launching into it just right. Rory is one of the absolute heroes of the time and Lightning Bolt Surfboards stablemate to Gerry Lopez, and here he is, right in my sights.
"As Rory flew by, confident I got my shot, I turn and notice the next wave, a couple of degrees larger than the first, swinging much wider off the reef and I immediately sense I’m in an extremely vulnerable position right now. I decide to swim as hard and as fast as I can and decide this is probably the key to my survival here, but with a floating water housing the size of a watermelon, life was, shall I say, becoming a little difficult at this particular moment. I’m witnessing the next giant wave rear up on the reef at me. A couple of the duelling surfers were jostling for position at the take-off area and I’ve been dragged into the impact zone by the first wave. A lot further into the problem than I realise and I have a shallow lava reef below and a huge wave feathering above, with only four feet of water to potentially cushion the oncoming concussion I was about to experience.
"With my flippers profusely kicking beyond their capacity and my scrotum noticeably tightening, it’s obvious I’m in the wrong spot at the wrong time, about to be caught inside the wave’s lip and be severely dealt with by the first point of contact. I wasn’t loving the ocean right now and she could tell!
“The entire force of the wave’s energy detonates about a foot in front of me and with my water housing floating like a cork I'm afforded no underwater penetration. So with my old grand-pappy’s voice whispering loudly in my ear - 'It’s time to front up Jack and take it like a man!' - I bring the housing up to my belly, wrap both arms around it like we’re in love and pull my body into a foetal position to take the horrific pounding that’s got my name on it. The turbulence throws me around like I’m in a washing machine rinse cycle and my stress level is reaching max output in anticipation of hitting one of the anvil-shaped coral heads that are in abundance on the ocean floor.
“The pounding I’m experiencing is taking an unusually long time and it seems like forever before anything eases up. But now the wave’s starting to dissipate enough for me to open my eyes and look for some light shining through the action above me, while my lungs are well and truly starting to feel the pressure of the situation.
“I’m alright. I’m alive. I’m breaking the surface of the water for a well-earned breath of air, but I only receive a quarter of a tank before wham! The third wave of the set has me victimised and it gets me really good, impacting directly on my head. I instantly feel the important quarter-breath cruelly wrenched from my possession and I have the wind knocked out of me as I again absorb a gnarly pounding from a wave that is obviously a lot bigger and more powerful than the last one. I feel my body forced into one of the rock valleys in the reef - unbelievably, I’m pinned down but facing up - with the sensation of ten Samoans sitting on top of me. I can’t go up, can’t go down, can’t go sideways, can’t go anywhere, and I solemnly realise I’m here for the duration.
“Again, I think to myself: 'OK, I can do this! I’ve been training for this very situation since I was a kid, watching surf movies and reading surf magazines that never avoid the hard stuff, the death-defying stuff all surfers must face at some time in their lives. I know I must relax - yeah right! I must conserve whatever oxygen I have left in me - which is easier said than done - as every cell in my body is now demanding air immediately and there is none available and none in the offing.
"My first thought to relax and go with the flow quickly abates as reality kicks in and I forget relaxation and fight the hold-down, attempting to break out of the hole that’s not showing any signs of letting me up. What seems like tons of water from above is washing around me and has a hold on me like a giant’s handshake as it slowly squeezes the life out of me. I’m doing my best to reposition my feet underneath me, so I can push off the bottom, but have no luck with that. I’m being hit by another shockwave before I get used to the last one and...oh no, a surfer’s nightmare comes into reality as a two wave-hold down initiates my fear.
"I don’t know if I can take it as this one feels more powerful than those it followed and I’ve now been underwater far too long for my liking. I brace myself as best I can only to again cop another severe thrashing before I’m back to square one, conscious of being pinned to the bottom with no options.
“Even though I know it’s useless and I also know it’s the worst move to make, I start to panic. I’m now in desperate need of air and starting to see my life flash before my eyes - literally. My parents, my brother and sisters, there they are, as kids, me being big brother no longer to anyone. There’s my first ridden wave, my friends, and what are they going to think of me drowning of all things? I’m actually talking to God, seriously pleading for his divine intervention in whatever form that takes to get back my life.
"I suddenly realise I must be weaker now as a feeling of quiet peacefulness is wrapping itself around me and I’m OK with that. I really am. I’m experiencing a dream-like state of total surrender. Not like I thought dying would be, but euphoric. My struggles have passed as I’m calmly resigning myself to the fact that I’m being held within the whims of a force much greater than myself, and surprisingly, I’m OK with that as well. I’m expiring, the life is leaving me and I’m floating...but where to? The giant’s hand must have scooped me up with no assistance from myself whatsoever, gently lifting me toward the light of the ocean surface for a sweet, sweet breath of air. Maybe I’m getting a second chance at life! That’s cool. I’m OK with that too!
“Wow! I’m up out of the depths and seeing stars as I taste the sweet breath of life. I take another, and then another, and then another breath, and I’ve never felt so good! I notice I’ve been washed way inside the impact zone and I only have to go under some four or five feet of whitewater to be free of the fear, but hey, compared to what I’ve just been through, I know I can do it. I can live. Subconsciously not wanting to let go of my new baby, I notice my aching arm still hanging onto the camera that will hopefully have my shot of Rory that triggered this entire life-enhancing, life-saving experience. Exhausted, I let the current wash me up the beach in front of the lifeguard tower before attempting the crawl up the steep incline. Normally I wouldn’t let my camera near the sand, however, this is not normal and at that moment I’m not fazed as to what happens as the camera is now being dragged behind me by my spaghetti arm. I can’t believe I hung onto this baby the entire time. I’m finally up on the beach and once I realise the waves cannot wash me back down into the water, my body gives up and I collapse. I thank God I survived the frightening smackdown, my first life and death experience at the Banzai Pipeline!
“To say I was totally shook-up by this experience would be an extraordinary understatement. That night, before going to sleep, I replayed the afternoon’s events, the whole harrowing experience ran unabated through my mind as I took valuable time out to acknowledge the supreme fact that fresh air is everything: the elixir of my life and all its surroundings, never to be taken for granted again by me. I took a few more of those beautiful deep breaths before dropping into a deep, deep sleep.
"Oh yeah, and you know what? I never got the shot of Rory that day, but ten days later redemption was mine. The comeback became complete when brother Rory and I positioned ourselves to produce a gem!
// JACK MCCOY AND CHRIS GUDENSWAGER